Complementary and alternative medicine Medicine Quackery

When homeopaths kill by neglect

Busy, busy, busy.

Between work and getting ready to for the 100th Meeting of the Skeptics’ Circle on Thursday as I mentioned on Monday, I’m afraid I don’t have time for my usual sterling gems of skeptically insolent prose or an analysis of a scientific paper that a couple of my readers have sent me. If too many science or medical bloggers haven’t totally deconstructed it by then, maybe I’ll take it on either on Friday or Monday. Until then, if you haven’t gotten me an entry to the Skeptics’ Circle yet, you still have about 12 hours left until the deadline at 6 PM EST.

In the meantime, that doesn’t mean I don’t have time for a quickie blog entry or two today. For example, here’s a truly sad story. Actually, it’s a combination of sad and a candidate for a Darwin Award. Meet Russell Jenkins. Actually, you wouldn’t want to meet him now because he’s dead, and here’s how he got that way:

A healing therapist died after a minor injury went gangrenous because his ‘inner being’ told him not to see a doctor, an inquest has heard.

Russell Jenkins shunned conventional treatment for his foot injury after he trod on an electrical plug at home.

He instead tried the ancient remedy of putting honey on it but his toes later went black and began to stink.

Now, there’s evidence that honey can aid wound healing, true enough, at least certain kinds of honey. But here’s a hint: If you’re a diabetic and your toes turn black and start to stink, seek real medical attention, not attention from a homeopath. Your foot ulcer has likely passed beyond what mere honey and wound care can do for it, and certainly homeopathy won’t be able to do anything for it. To save your life, you need debridement and antibiotics, and if you’re lucky, maybe–just, maybe–you might avoid a below-the-knee amputation (BKA). You probably won’t avoid toe amputations, though. Black toes generally do one of two things. Either they turn into wet gangrene that spreads up the foot and leg to become limb- or even life-threataning, or they turn into dry gangrene, essentially mummifying, shriveling up, and fallling off. The latter outcome, of course, is far preferable to the former, but neither are particularly fun to have to deal with.

Here’s the rest of the story:

Mr Jenkins, who ran the Quiet Mind Centre from his home in Southsea, Hampshire, injured his foot in December 2006 and developed an 2cm-long ulcer.

In April 2007, Mr Jenkins, a diabetic, sought alternative advice from homeopath Susan Finn, who suggested he treat it with Manuka honey.

When Ms Finn visited him the next day, she saw blood on the bed sheets and detected a foul smell.

His foot had become swollen and one of his toes was discoloured. Two days later, his toes turned black.

He died on April 17 from gangrene caused by a mixed bacterial infection.

This is indeed an example of a true believer. He died for his beliefs, in fact, just as much as any Jehovah’s Witness refusing a life-saving blood transfusion or any fundamentalist Christian rejecting medicine for prayer. He believed in “alternative” medicine, although apparently even his homeopath didn’t believe in homeopathy to treat his infected foot. Unfortunately, Manuka honey just doesn’t cut it in the face of an infection like this.

I know of what I speak. My very first rotation as a general surgery intern, fresh out of medical school, was on the vascular surgery service at the VA hospital associated with the medical school where I did my residency. Once a week, we had clinic, and during clinic the intern’s job was to man the “foot room.” Yes, you guessed it: The foot room was where all the patients with diabetic foot ulcers, ulcers due to peripheral vascular disease resulting in poor blood flow to the lower extremities, and venous stasis ulcers came in to be seen. The intern’s job was to examine them, debride the wounds sharply with a scalpel as needed, and to put new dressings on them. In the case of venous stasis ulcers, we would remove their Unna boots, debride any wounds as necessary, and then place fresh Unna boots on. Inevitably, we’d end up admitting at least two or three patients each week because their foot ulcers were too infected to treat as outpatients. Let me tell you, the smell of diabetic feet and infected ulcers permeated everything, and by the time I was done with a clinic day, I couldn’t get the smell out of my nose or mouth, sickly sweet and not unlike an unholy mixture of sweat and rotting meat that, as much as I would like to, I can’t forget. In fact, I smelled like it too, and it would usually take days for the last hints of that odor to dissipate–just in time for the next clinic. Indeed, having to deal with diabetic and vascular foot ulcers was one reason I didn’t become a vascular surgeon–well, that, and the fact that I wasn’t fond of spending 12 hours doing a bypass all the way down to a small blood vessel in the foot, only to have the bypass clot off when the patient is in the recovery room.

In any case, this is what we would call a “clean kill” by “alternative medicine.” This homeopath was not medically trained, but even most lay people realize that gangrene is a Very Bad Thing, indeed, and life-threatening. Neither Mr. Russell nor Ms. Finn had clue one, and as a result Mr. Russell is dead, proving once again that “alternative medicine” that is not effective is not necessarily harmless.

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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