Complementary and alternative medicine Medicine Quackery

Another clean kill by chelation

Somehow this one passed under my radar four years ago. However, the there’s a reason for this. First, I wasn’t blogging then and thus wasn’t paying as close attention to alternative medicine. Also, apparently, the State of Oregon didn’t know about it until 16 months after the fact, which was still before I started blogging. In any case, behold the sad case of Sandy Boylan:

Sandy Boylan was a contagiously cheerful woman whose hobby was handing out bouquets of homegrown flowers. But in the summer of 2003, she was scared.

The 53-year-old B&B owner from Dallas, Ore., had been told by her naturopathic physician that she had dangerously high levels of mercury, lead, cadmium and nickel. She believed those metals caused the aches and pains she’d long suffered–the ones that had confounded traditional doctors for years.

On Aug. 13, 2003, Boylan visited the naturopath who had made the diagnosis–Donald McBride of the Salem Naturopathic Clinic. McBride was giving Boylan a controversial course of treatment in his office called chelation therapy (see “Curing Jamie Handley,” WW, Oct. 12, 2005), where amino acids are administered intravenously to suck metals out of the blood.

This is how alternative medicine often sucks in the unwary, by promising cures to vague complaints that conventional medicine often doesn’t do too well managing. Sometimes it’s nothing more than what we sometimes call the “diseases of living,” where some people suffer more aches an pains getting older than most. Sometimes it is pain whose cause is not readily traceable. Whatever the reason, such complaints often drive patients to alternative practitioners. As long as the alternative remedies involve things like massage, relaxation, or other therapies that may or may not be effective but that at least do not cause harm, this may not be such a horrible thing. However, that’s not what happened in this case. In this case, the therapy recommended was chelation therapy, and chelation therapy has the potential for serious risks:

But chelation also withdraws metals the body needs, including calcium, which can lead to heart failure. Hooked up to the IV, Boylan collapsed and blacked out. She was taken to Salem Memorial Hospital, where she died that day of cardiac arrhythmia due to low calcium resulting from chelation therapy, according to a report by the state Medical Examiner.

This is, of course, as good a time as any to reiterate that there is only one real indication for chelation therapy, and that is to treat cases of heavy metal poisoning documented by appropriate laboratory work and clinical symptomatology. Using to treat autism, coronary artery disease, cancer, or vague pains such as Mrs. Boylan had, is not evidence-based and can be quackery, depending on the circumstances. Of course, I have to wonder how on earth such an obvious clean kill due to quackery escaped the attention of the Oregon Board of Naturopathic Medicine for 16 months. Conventional practitioners have to report deaths immediately. Perhaps it’s because she died in the hospital, but if I were the physician taking care of her when she died, I would have called the coroner to report it as a suspicious death.

But here’s the kicker. Because Dr. McBride is a naturopath, he is not required to carry malpractice insurance, as physicians are. Consequently, when he was sued by Sandy Boylan’s husband, there was less for him to settle for:

On May 4, 2007, Sandy Boylan’s husband, Clint, signed an out-of-court settlement ending a malpractice and wrongful-death suit against McBride. Family members declined to say how much McBride agreed to pay, except to note it was far less than the $1 million they sought in the lawsuit filed Feb. 28, 2005, at Marion County Circuit Court. Naturopaths aren’t required to carry malpractice insurance. And McBride, who signed the settlement April 27, declined to comment.

Even worse the Oregon State Naturopathic Board of Examiners did not strip McBride of his license to practice:

The board determined it was McBride’s negligence that killed Boylan but let him keep his license with some limits on his Salem practice. Citing state confidentiality laws, Walsh declined to comment on the decision.

But the fact that McBride could again do chelation therapy astonishes and angers Boylan’s family.

“My mom is no longer here because of negligence,” says Eli Boylan, one of Sandy Boylan’s four adult sons. Knowing McBride is still practicing, he says, makes the loss “more difficult to swallow.”

Absolutely astonishing. Of course, I guess I can’t be too hard on a “naturopathic” state medical board. Apparently, Oregon’s Board has learned from their fellow “allopathic” state boards. For example, nearly two years later, Dr. Roy Kerry, the DAN! doctor who killed a five-year-old autistic boy with chelation therapy in Pennsylvania, is apparently still practicing. His state medical board is “investigating.” Apparently, the Oregon State Naturopathic Board of Examiners has also learned how to do slaps on the wrist for doctors who should be stripped of their license as well. For killing Mrs. Boylan and for prescribing medicines that naturopaths aren’t allowed to prescribe, as well as “dangerously excessive” doses of narcotics, this is all the penalty that Dr. McBride will suffer from the board:

  • An $8,250 fine
  • No IV chelation therapy for three years
  • Complete education on chelation therapy
  • No IV treatment for three years
  • No prescribing opiates for one year
  • Continuing education on approved substances
  • Keep prescription pads in triplicate
  • Allow board staff access to his office

As rare as it is for this to happen, words fail me. However, they apparently do not fail supporters of such non-evidence-based medicine. They’ve shown up in the comments of the news story in abundance, trumpeting the same old canards.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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