When John Almost Died of Naturopathy

Recent discussion of Canadian Naturopathy caused this old memory of mine to surface, regarding a friend who nearly died because he had a treatable illness but was attended to only by a Naturopath. A stupid, badly dressed Naturopath who couldn’t drive for shit.

I won’t say his real name, because he’s reasonably well known, and I’m not sure how much he knows I know about this story. He was pretty private about it at the time, but when he was in the hospital still unconscious after the emergency surgery, his wife told me everything, much of which I already knew by observation, some I already knew by inference.

For years, John had the odd quirk of needing to eat alone most of the time. If he and Gwen were at my house or someone else’s house for dinner, he would eat, but not much. If we were at John and Gwen’s house, we would all eat together, but at some point John would disappear, like a character in The Indiscreet Charm of the Petit-Bourgeoisie, and come back later having fed in private. John was avant-guarde in some ways, but he was also very down to earth and I never thought of him as strange in his ways. True, he was a male hair dresser back when being a male hair dresser was culturally identified as ‘different’ but he had studied with some French guy named Vidal Sa-something-or-other (who would later gain significant fame) and he offset any sense of oddballness by being totally down to earth, clear in his thinking, and always charming.

I knew another guy at the time who’s name I’d happily mention if I remembered it. He was short, had long dark hair a full beard, wore a bowler type hat and a mumu-ish mexican print wardrobe. He was famous among those of us who knew him for having had the worst vacation ever in Mexico. He got a VW van, drove across the border down by Tubac, and immediately ran into some guy’s prize bull. The bull was killed, van was totaled, and bowler mumu guy spent several months in jail. Then, I think they were tired of him and they let him go. His motivation for going to Mexico to begin with was to commune with the Payote eating Indians of the region, as part of his studies in alternative ways of being. So it was not so surprising when he returned to New York and embarked on studies to become an alternative practitioner.

He became a Naturopath. And as it turns out, he was treating John for an intestinal disorder.

John could not eat more than a few morsels of food without eventually vomiting. He could eat anything as a very small quantity, then eat nothing for an hour or so, then eat again. But if he ate a stomach-full of food, within an hour or so he would experience intense discomfort and eventually throw 80% of it up.

It didn’t start out that bad. It got bad over the course of about a year or perhaps a bit less. The Naturopath treated John with various herbal and homeopathic medicines, and recommended other treatments such as massage. But during the last few months, John had become weaker and weaker, threw up more and more often, and despite a marked increase in the herbal treatments (which, unfortunately, were not particularly homeopathic, and thus not guaranteed to be as harmless as water) John started to lose weight at an alarming rate. This was before the AIDS epidemic and it was before any public awareness of eating disorders, so even though this was not an eating disorder or AIDS, the alarm signals that may have caused Gwen, or John, or any of us to urge a hospital or doctor visit were not overwhelming. I did not see John at all for the last few weeks of this decline in health, and neither did anyone else but Gwen. He was keeping himself hidden, and Gwen was simply not getting the fact that the Naturopath, who was now appearing daily and ‘treating’ John more and more ‘aggressively,’ needed to go away and John needed to be brought to a real doctor.

Then one afternoon John laid down for a nap but instead slipped into a coma.

I heard about that the next day, and went to the hospital to find Gwen waiting around for more news and clarification. During the night, a few hours before, John had gone under the knife. The surgery was fairly simple but very invasive, and he was still recovering, and tests were being done and consultants were being consulted. But a basic understanding of the situation had emerged.

John had a gut obstruction in his small intestines not far from his stomach. This was causing very little food to exit his stomach and head on down the digestive tract. He was absorbing only small amounts of nutrients, and the situation as worsening over time. Fixing this was not a very difficult thing (as surgery goes) and diagnosing it wasn’t that hard either. But Naturopathy wasn’t doing the trick. All Naturaopathy was doing was causing John and Gwen to delay doing anything useful.

John did not die. He almost died, but not quite. He got better, and eventually put aside cutting hair and became an artist. Well, he had always been an artist, and I had always been impressed with his work, and I always thought that John had one of the best senses of design of anyone I knew. He could have been an architect, a designer, a sculptor, whatever. He was, and in fact still is, incredibly talented in many ways.

And he’s alive, because of the surgeon’s knife.


  1. #1 Michael Hawkins
    November 15, 2009

    A Naturopathic ‘doctor’ recently wrote a letter to the editor talking about his ‘medicine’. The paper even gave a blurb describing what “naturopathic” meant (at least in this state). I wrote a rebuttal letter, calling out this charlatan. The paper seems keen on taking a stance against science as my letter has not been published in the 10 days since I submitted it. I’ve inquired as to the reason recently. I await a reply.

    At any rate, thank you for writing this. People don’t seem to realize the danger these quacks pose. John was lucky, but how many like him succumb to their lack of treatment by these phonies?

  2. #2 Michael Hawkins
    November 15, 2009

    Apologies for the botched HTML. Here is the link again.

    And just in case – http://forthesakeofscience.wordpress.com/2009/11/04/naturopathic-medicine/

  3. #3 Ace
    November 15, 2009

    Oh, Canadian naturopathy. That’s really terrible, I’m glad John got ok. The worst that happened to me with Canadian naturopathy was when my mom dragged little me to some quack who insisted I eat nothing but turkey, grapes, pears, and almonds for the rest of my life because I was “sensitive” to other foods. He determined this by having me hold the leads of a voltmeter.

    When even a 12 year old can tell you you’re full of shit, I think that’s a sign you should stop practicing “medicine”.

  4. #4 ST
    November 15, 2009

    I almost died from an intestinal obstruction because the medical doctor was convinced I was simply “emotional” and “looking for attention.” He refused to refer me to a gastroenterologist even when the radiologist said the x-ray showed an obstruction. It wasn’t until I was vomitting water and blood and ended up in the ER that I got appropriate treatment

    I really don’t think naturopathy can be blamed when general stupidity will suffice.

  5. #5 NowHealthy
    November 15, 2009

    I agree with ST. Medical mistakes don’t only happen in Naturopathic offices.

    An MD did unnecessary surgery on me when I was 15 that caused 6 years of failing health. Three more MD’s refused to do anything about it, telling me it was all in my head. They sent me to a psychotherapist and prescribed antidepressants.

    A Naturopathic Doctor (licensed) was the only doctor who took the time to perform a simple blood test (one that any MD could have ordered). It was way out of range even by “science-based” standards.

    One MD screwed me up, three others did nothing for me. One naturopathic doctor gave me back my life.

    As a trained biochemist, I am naturally skeptical, but I also have the ability and the understanding to research the actual science behind anything my Naturopath suggests. In the 10 years I have been seeing a Naturopath, I have yet to find a single suggestion of hers that made me uncomfortable due to lack of scientific data.

    I would never see an unlicensed Naturopath, but I would gladly see a licensed ND over an MD any day.

    That said, not all ND’s are made the same. Not all MD’s are made the same. Patients need to take control of their own health. No matter what kind of doctor they are seeing, if they are not satisfied, they should find another. If bad doctors lose all their patients, bad doctors will become less frequent. Unfortunately our health care system does not allow for this kind of accountability.

  6. #6 Albion Tourgee
    November 15, 2009

    Wow! Anecdotal evidence of an ND doing a bad job! Very scientific, this anecdotal evidence. Especially when it supports your own belief, that “scientific” medicine as practiced by MDs is the only real healing. You know, that same scientific approach MDs use when they prescribe off label use of drugs in ways that have not actually been tested, but… Or the same scientific approach the drug companies use in having very attractive detailers take the MDs out to lunch to promote sales.

    You won’t see an anecdote of how a ND helped someone in these blogs, ’cause it’s all about science here. Or an anecdote about how an MD screwed up with very bad consequences. ‘Cause it’s not quite everything about “scientific” medicine here. Anyone with common sense knows that MDs have alot to offer, but anyone with much experience knows, you better be very, very careful in the American health care system these days, whether you’re seeing an MD or an ND or whoever. Like some of the other people who’ve commented above, I’ve had some pretty horrifying experiences with MDs as well as many good ones. My ND is more serious about looking for underlying causes of things while my MD tends to match my symptoms to a medication. Yes, changing ones diet can be more effective and safer than taking pills to deal with the after effects of a bad diet, but you won’t hear many MDs talking about that.

  7. #7 Paul
    November 15, 2009

    “As a trained biochemist, I am naturally skeptical … I would never see an unlicensed Naturopath, but I would gladly see a licensed ND over an MD any day.” –NowHealthy

    What you’ve exhibited there is a natural cynicism and a natural human susceptibility to fallacious reasoning, not skepticism. Given your own peculiar experiences, your statement of a general preference for NDs over MDs is perfectly understandable but it is not rational.

  8. #8 Leo Martins
    November 15, 2009

    “In the 10 years I have been seeing a Naturopath, I have yet to find a single suggestion of hers that made me uncomfortable due to lack of scientific data.” — NowHealthy

    “I really don’t think naturopathy can be blamed when general stupidity will suffice.” — ST


  9. #9 Irene
    November 15, 2009

    ST and NowHealthy: Medical mistakes can happen, true, but not in a naturopthy office. In a naturopathy office that would be “magic mistakes.”

  10. #10 D. C. Sessions
    November 15, 2009

    Medical mistakes don’t only happen in Naturopathic offices.

    Of course not, but while others dabble the NDs specialize.

  11. #11 Greg Laden
    November 15, 2009

    It is true that this is an anecdote and should be read that way. But, to be clear, I am not repeating something I’ve heard, I’m describing something I witnessed, and something that mattered to me personally.

    And this is not a discussion of the scientific value or lack thereof of naturopathy or homeopathy. My understanding is that homeopathy is woo naturopathy is vague woo. I’m not making the point here, but I don’t think I really need to. If someone thinks I’m wrong about that, the comments are open and you may demonstrate it here.

    Also, you will find that I’m not exactly all gaga about standard medicine either. I go to the doctor’s office (or any other medical facility) armed with knowledge to the extent that I can. This was especially true back when I was working in the tropics and actually carrying out medical work there, and then needed the US medical system to help me with my own illnesses. Of the 20 or so scientists who worked in my project area that i know of, two have died of disease acquired there, and in both cases, it is utterly obvious that English/American medicine failed due to lack of experience and understanding of what was going on.

    However, in neither case was the problem that homeopathy was not brought into the equation. The problem was that “Western” medicine (as in US and much of Europe) has insufficient interface with African medicine, the latter being “Western” medicine deployed on the ground with real pragmatic experience with the combinations of disease and living conditions that happen there. For that I’d take an African doctor over a NY City Doctor any day, and a Belgian or French doctor with experience in West Africa or Congo but a European Education might be the best. Or at least, that has been my personal experience.

    But these are choices among scientific practices and practitioners. And I would always want to have my own understanding and knowledge.

    I do find it laughable, … ‘cept it ain’t funny … that there is the implication that one must have knowledge to overcome the evils of western medicine, and that the more knowledge one has the more Naturopathic one gets.

  12. #12 Lisa A
    November 15, 2009

    Albion: “Wow! Anecdotal evidence of an ND doing a bad job!”

    And Wow!, a retort of no substance at all. What does a naturopath do to diagnose a gut obstruction, or to treat it?

  13. #13 Roxanne
    November 15, 2009

    Well, it sounds like that story is from a very long time ago. I’m sure the Nature-O-Paths have advanced significantly since then. And would probably have killed the patient much more quickly.

  14. #14 D. C. Sessions
    November 15, 2009

    Well, it sounds like that story is from a very long time ago. I’m sure the Nature-O-Paths have advanced significantly since then. And would probably have killed the patient much more quickly.

    $HERSELF tracked down a century-old book by a homeopath bragging about how, with the aid of homeopathy, he could cure whooping cough in six months to a year.

    Your comments leads me to wonder if modern homeopathy has reduced that to maybe five months.

  15. #15 omar
    November 15, 2009

    As a trained biochemist, I am naturally skeptical

    Parse that sentence. Wow level stupid.

  16. #16 Christie O.
    November 15, 2009

    It helps to follow the money.
    My son broke his collar bone and the orthopedist wanted to do surgery, I was told this is rarely done but this was one of those rare cases. The orthopedist acted sheepishly after my son was accepted as a patient by the Shiners’. And of course, we learned the recommendation was bogus.
    The incident was incredibly annoying. Traveling a considerable distance to Minneapolis threw a crimp in everything, and so did wasting time dealing with the original hospital’s incompetent administrative workers. If memory serves correct, there were plenty of them to deal with.
    Conventional medicine can be opportunist at times, but once a person receives a little training in the scientific method, alternative medicine’s opportunism becomes so much more transparent.

  17. #17 Nico
    November 15, 2009

    My mom fell for the naturopaths who used that same voltmeter deal that Ace ( #3)did. By his comments it sounds like we might have seen the same one, they had the same dietary restrictions after “testing.”

    By having me hold two metal rods connected to a voltmeter and putting a homeopathic dilution of the possible allergen in a glass bottle on the metal plate of the gizmo and observing the little meter reading.

    Even then I was credulous, the whole idea now is absurd that it would diagnose an allergy. I spent years on a severely restricted diet due to this quackery.

    Not that I haven’t been on the recieving end of conventional medical error, but this was just beyond ridiculous.

  18. #18 Dave
    November 15, 2009

    ST: if what you say happened the way you say it happened, then get a lawyer and sue because you’ve just described malpractice.

    A 3rd year medical student in July would know that the history described here is a partial small bowel obstruction until proven otherwise. When 80 to 90% of peoples’ medical complaints are self limiting, then naturopathy does a great job. So would staying home and not paying someone to prescribe “supplements.” It is the 10 to 20% of complaints where you really need to do something. I admitted a woman earlier in the year with her — at least — third case of diverticulitis. The difference this time was she was septic when she presented to the ED. But don’t worry, her PCP — a DO who only completed internship and never a residency, but is somehow a member of multiple medical woo boards — did chiropractic manipulation for her sepsis. I resuscitated her with IV fluids and prescribed antibiotics. I then referred her to a surgeon. Spinal manipulation for someone going into septic shock, awsome! You know what they say, can’t fix stupid.

  19. #19 Alex
    November 15, 2009

    Supporters of naturopathy – come back when you’ve refuted the naturalistic fallacy.

  20. #20 Kamel
    November 15, 2009

    Greg said: “My understanding is that homeopathy is woo naturopathy is vague woo.”

    According to the Association of Accredited Natural Medicine Colleges (and member-school websites), naturopathic medicine includes homeopathy, so your licensed ND could be a homeopath. Though I don’t mean to be pedantic about definitions.

    The reason I mention it is in the context of your previous post about Canadian naturopathy practitioners being granted prescription privileges, this means that your homeopath or acupuncturist could have the same powers.

  21. #21 Greg Laden
    November 15, 2009

    Kame, the situation I talked about here happened thirty years ago. The regulation of, and to a lesser extent definitions, were different, and in fact, the naturopath in question was practicing illegally (a small detail I was not sure if I should mention or not).

  22. #22 DrLaw
    December 2, 2009


    A DO doesn’t use “chiropractic manipulation”, a DO uses “osteopathic manipulative medicine.”