Sorting the truth from the rubbish with alternative medicine
Things that can hurt you
I fell for a quack, but only for a little while
Having just finished reading the hub The Power of the Light by CJStone and laughing my proverbial off, I was prompted to finish and publish this hub that I started a while back. This one will be #20 for me if all goes well, and should bump me up one level in hubpages but it probably will not add to my overall enlightenment karma score.
It is not easy for me to admit that the story I am about to relate went as far as it did. I am not one to fall for charlanatry under normal circumstances. But I was feeling a tremendous sense of guilt and frustration with mainstream medicine, and I think most importantly, it had an actual real life endorsement of someone I knew and respected.
Here is how it came about:
When my daughter was eleven, she injured her left wrist playing goalie at a soccer camp. She whined and moaned a lot about it, but at that time, my daughter was into whining and moaning about every little thing, and I was trying to train her that whining and moaning should be reserved for serious situations, not bee stings, skinned knees, stubbed toes, or small patches of poison oak. I told her to ice it and rest it and not play goalie any more until it was better.
About a month later she came off her bicycle hard on concrete, whacked the same wrist, and again the whining and the moaning. Again the standard treatment, ice, ace bandage and rest. I examined the wrist at the time. It was swelling but there didn't seem to be anything out of place and nowhere that caused shrieks of unbearable pain when touched. So gradually she appeared to recover.
Here is the second piece of critical background: My daughter plays the violin. Six months later she started complaining vaguely that her wrist hurt. I was listening this time because she wasn't being a drama queen about it, only mentioning it in passing. One day her violin teacher looked closely at her left arm. There was something subtlely wrong with the angle of her hand/wrist. I immediately took her to the doctor where she got an X-ray. It showed that the radius had actually fractured near the wrist end without displacement and healed, but there was some medical jargon about banging a growth plate or something, and causing the new growth to be uneven, hence the slightly wonky looking hand, and about how, since my daughter was not yet..... um... a "woman" when it happened that it would eventually straighten itself out and that we'd X-ray her again in another six months and the angle of the bone would probably be correct. But what of the sore wrist? Well that would be irritated and inflamed tendons from sliding over this bone that was off at an angle and may have been a tad rough at the time of the injury. That's how the irritation started but now because it was inflamed it was a self perpetuating chronic irritation. Physical therapy and NSAID's were offered as the answer to that. First we went to the physical therapist associated with the doctors.
They put some kind of machine on her and put these latex things on her. Turns out my daughter is allergic to latex, so it made her skin red and irritated and didn't seem to help much at a deeper level either. Then I took her to my physical therapist, a miracle worker named Margaret who dwells right up there with God himself in my opinion. Margaret did one of her magic tweaks and gave my daughter some exercises to do and they seemed to help. Then my daughter started working on an extremely difficult violin piece with a lot of stretches. Her hand started bothering her a lot despite the exercises, yet she really really wanted to play the piece. If you are not a musician or an athlete you won't understand why she didn't just opt for a less physically challenging piece.
I was to the point of insisiting she drop the piece and go for an easier one, but her teacher told us of this special alternative doctor down in Eugene, whom some of the musicians in the Eugene Symphony swore by. Wow! Eugene. It's an hour away, so it's got to be good. Plus professional symphony musicians should know about perservering through music injuries, right? They sort of have to play whatever is handed to them, through snow and sleet and tendinitis and arthritis and all of it. So we made an appointment and both our hopes were high.
The amazing godlike wunderdoc
When we arrived at this doctor's office, I wasn't sure what to think. It had some of the trappings of legitimacy and some of the trappings of an establishment that totally took advantage of people's suffering. Then we met the good doctor himself.
Everything about this guy screamed "SCAM" from the get go. Without even looking at my daughter first he handed me a casette tape by Dr. Joel Wallach called "Dead Doctors Don't Lie" about colloidal minerals. He prescribed this stuff for my daughter. How did he know? Well apparently everybody needs this stuff. He painted this picture that whoever sucked down enough colloidal minerals would have perfect health -- it was the one-size-fits all cure-all panacea of all 20th century ailments. Of course it would be a lot cheaper if I would just sign up as part of his downline, then I could rake in obscene profits selling this stuff to my friends and even have my own little cash cow empire under me if I wanted to work hard at it. (Ever heard that one before?) My little inner voice was screaming "this seems like a great deal..... FOR YOU!!!" I told him I'd get back to him on that one.
By the way, you can click the link to see that Wallach has been pretty thoroughly discredited. It's a LONG rap sheet!!!
Anyway this wonderful guy glanced at my daughter's hand and asked for copies of any recent dental X-Rays she might have. Hmmmm... I didn't expect that. Of course I didn't have that. I guess I'll have to at the next appointment for $70 a pop 13 years ago, NOT covered by insurance. Maybe this guy is for real. Maybe. But why her dental X-Rays? This is her hand we're talking about. Oh just to see how her bones look on the inside.... in general. Well gee. Symphony musicians swear by this guy. His staff (all women in their 50's) seem to worship him. They all guzzle colloidal minerals and sell it to their friends as well. Absolutely. I quizzed them. I wonder how much they sell.
What is it about this guy? It couldn't be sex appeal: he's not that great looking -- a little oily fellow in alligator loafers who is starting to get a paunch around the middle and his eyes have a way of darting back and forth that I don't like. We leave with a bottle of colloidal minerals and instructions for my daughter to stay away from wheat.
I actually listened to the tape. Wallach is a pretty good orator. There is a huge market for his wares. A lot of people are just as frustrated as I was with US health care and its patchy, symptom driven approach and its "Here's a pill for you to make your symptom better, now go away...... oh side effects? pshaw they only affect a very small percentage of whiners." It appeals to the rebel in everyone to flip the bird to mainstream medicine and all those god damn doctors with their golf clubs and their Ferraris who act like they're God almighty. One would like to believe there's something better. But think about it -- how is pushing flavored mud from a swamp in Utah any different? They can't even make any specific claims!
We made another trek back to Eugene the following week. My daughter (age 13 by this time) told me in no uncertain terms that she thought this guy was a quack. My gut agreed but we had pretty much tried everything else. I decided to tell him we're going to sign up for the program, even though I had no real intention of doing so, hoping to get the royal treatment out of him. He was delighted to hear this (of course!), and assures me that I'll soon be just as rich as.... well, you get the picture. What was he going to say, as rich as him? Isn't there some kind of law that doctors aren't supposed to profit from selling pills, isn't that why we have to get prescriptions at pharmacies? Oh, but right, these aren't really remedies, don't fall under the same legislation.
For our second appointment he looks at the dental X-rays and shakes his head. He tells my daughter she has osteoporosis of the jaw and that all her teeth will fall out, and that it's such a shame our food supply is so deficient but the minerals will have her ship shape within six months but for me it would take longer since I've been wrecking my body with our deficient food supply for much longer. Since when am I the patient? Woohoo, get the whole family guzzling the minerals, that'd be six times the money. And (Ding ding ding) is our dentist really that ignorant that she wouldn't have told us about this?
The doc is so pleased my decision to join his downline that he brings on the big gun, the "laser." It looks like a dog brush with many tiny red and blue lights in it. He shined it on my daughters arm for about 15 seconds while she was grasping a crystal. I asked him to shine it on the wall across the room. There is a big unfocused blob of red and blue light on the wall. If it were a true laser, there would be little pinpoints of light. I unwisely say, "umm..... isn't the definition of laser coherent light?" I watched his face carefully. For a split second he looked just like a two-year-old with his hands in the cookie jar. Then his professional demeanor kicked in. He barked for Madge his assistant. Then he insulted me by saying something like "well of course laymen who know just a little science think of an ordinary laser with just the one beam, but this is a therapeutic laser and there are many beams and they are precisely angled to deliver the good laser karma mojo or whatever it is at every possible angle." Then Madge handed me a photocopy of a magazine article about how great these lasers are. Right. It's in a magazine. It must be true.
My daughter and I exchanged glances. The thing is clearly a fricking flashlight.
We thanked him and left.
How the schtick works...
In the car I got to thinking about his schtick. The colloidal minerals probably won't hurt you. People who want attention (and they are legion) will benefit from the attention and the placebo effect. People who do not see the benefit will just fall away. Dr. Wonderful will be left with his little cadre of faithful attention seekers and true believers faithfully guzzling down the colloidal minerals because they know it pleases him. Well of course it pleases him. He rakes in an effortless $3 per bottle. What's not to like about that?
Why the dental X-rays? It's to guarantee at least two visits. It would not occur to anyone to bring their dental X-rays to a doctor who is going to treat them for hand pain or back pain. So of course they have to go back. We fell for it. It seemed so professional -- it's like chiropractors relating everything bad to subluxation of the axial joint. The good doc scored a double whammy by saying, "Oh this is bad. Horrible things are going to happen to your child if you don't accept my treatment." But the shit detector was working. Come on! Osteoporosis in a 13-year old! Don't you think our family dentist, who is also a family friend, would have spotted something so unusual as osteoporosis in a 13 year old child? I'm sure the vast majority of Dr. Wonderful's patients are older folks, mainly women, who could actually have osteoporosis or osteopenia, and odds are, a goodly number of them probably do. Diagnosing it in a 13-year old is pushing the limits of credibility. Besides, something I learned several years later, normal X-rays don't even show osteoporosis until its advanced stages and fractures have already occurred! Impending doom from osteo is only knowable from DEXA bone density scans. But that's his schtick and he's "schtickin" to it. This boy plays by the numbers.
And why wheat? Because it's a safe bet. Staying away from wheat entails giving up bread, and if you can successfully do that you might drop a few pounds. There are a HUGE number of people would love it if they lost weight, even if they have no gluten intolerance whatsoever. And a lot of white people actually do have gluten intolerance to some degree, so giving up wheat might help them to the extent that they have gluten intolerance. Again, just playing safe odds. Finally and most importantly, it's very difficult to totally give up wheat in the USA. So if the patient complains that their symptoms aren't getting any better, Dr. Wonderful will just point out that trace amounts of wheat gluten are in your normal commercial peanut butter and even in your cosmetics, (this is documentable, but what is less clear is just what the tolerance threshhold actually IS, or how many people really need absolute zero gluten.) Well guess what! Dr. Wonderful just happens to carry a whole line of expensive wheat free bath products and cosmetics as well as the colloidal minerals. It does, of course, take at least a year for the evil gluten toxin to clear from your system. (A year of profits for him.) And if the patient slips up and horks down a bagel, then Dr. Wonderful will say well you are not following my orders and you are on the road to ruin until you do and now it will be another twelve months before you can expect any results. Either way, he's covered.
As for the laser, I did a lot of research on them. I know lasers are used in lasik surgery in generally acceptable ways, and have a lot of uses in cosmetic treatments. But... It's amazing how much the term "sham" comes up when you google for "cold laser pain treatment." For one thing, everyone in the room is supposed to wear filtering goggles whenever lasers are used. Dr. Wonderful didn't have time for that rubbish. If he, in fact, had a real laser and he had it on SHAM setting (yes if you read the websites selling these things a LOT of them have a SHAM setting) why didn't he put it on "REAL" when he shined it on the wall. Surely he must have known why I asked him to do that!
After the whole episode was over my daughter gave me the "I told you so" treatment. She said, "Mom I didn't believe in him for a minute, I can't believe you did." The fact was that I never believed in him either, but I'm a mother bear with my kids and I hate it when they are in pain. I WANTED to believe someone could wave a crystal wand and make her pain go away. But ultimately my brain won. Things just don't work that way.
The epilogue was that the wrist bothered my daughter off and on all through high school and her first year at university. She kept it controlled with NSAIDs occasionally, ice and heat, the exercises Margaret had given her, and by learning to practice less but practice smarter. Eventually the thing stopped hurting, and I have heard no complaints about it recently.
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