Aug 27 2013

Death by Iridology

It’s always troubling to hear tragic stories such as this one – a New Zealand woman, Yvonne Maine, died of a tumor on her head because she refused to be treated by mainstream doctors. The lesion started as a small cyst, and if treated early, according to testimony, could have been cured. However Maine delayed treatment until the cyst had grown into a large cancer eating through her skull. By the time her daughters were finally able to drag her to a doctor only palliative treatment was possible and she died in 2010.

People are complex, and I’m sure there were multiple factors leading to Maine’s avoidance of treatment until it was too late. However, she was seeking treatment for her lesion by an iridologist, Ruth Nelson, and this appears to have been a major factor in Maine’s decision not to seek care.

The case is now before the Human Rights Review Tribunal. According to testimony by Maine’s daughters, she was afraid to go to the hospital because of the possible treatments they would recommend for her lesion – surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Instead she sought the services of a “natural” healer, Nelson, who practices iridology.

Iridology is the absurd practice of diagnosing problems and prescribing treatments based upon the flecks of color in the iris. I discuss iridology thoroughly here, but briefly it is a completely fabricated notion without the slightest bit of biological plausibility or evidence that it is based in reality. According to Maine’s daughter:

Taylor yesterday recounted treatments for the lesion used by Nelson including scraping and picking at the wound, using herbal poultices, colloidal silver and tapping on her forehead while reciting positive affirmations.

Any critic of unscientific medical practices is often asked, “What’s the harm?” The hidden assumption in this question is that the only type of harm is direct harm as a result of a treatment itself. If the treatment is harmless, then why care?

Direct harm is always easier to detect and understand, and has a greater emotional impact. Of the interventions above, the herbal poultice and positive affirmations were probably benign. Colloidal silver, if taken internally, can cause argyria – a graying of the skin. Scraping and picking at a cancerous tumor is generally not a good idea, and can lead to infections.

The greatest harm brought to Maine, however, according to the report is instilling in her a distrust of doctors and delaying proper treatment. Here there is a range of possibilities.

In my opinion, anyone putting themselves forward as a “healer” or any kind of health care provider has a duty to advise their clients/patients to seek proper medical intervention for any serious problem. This advice needs to escalate to strong advice, then insistence, as necessary. A practitioner, in fact, should refuse to treat someone unless they were also seeking proper medical care.

Otherwise the practitioner is enabling avoidance of proper care. In the case of Maine this avoidance was motivated by a fear of treatment and a distrust of doctors.

According to her daughters, this distrust was fostered by Nelson. This is probably the most common manner in which so-called alternative practitioners delay treatment in their clients, by fostering opinions about health, illness, and treatment that lead people away from science-based medicine. Even when they have a disclaimer – you should be seeing a real doctor for treatment also – the entire alternative philosophy instills unscientific ideas, often bizarre notions of health and disease, and a distrust of mainstream medicine.

According to reports Nelson took this even further. Maine’s daughters report that Nelson told their mother not to see a doctor, and they she would no longer treat Maine if she received genuine medical care. Nelson, apparently, denies these charges.

Even if these charges are not true, that should not let Nelson off the hook. That should not be the threshold for culpability – directly telling patients not to seek medical care. Not actively and strongly telling patients with possible cancer to seek proper medical care  is sufficient to be guilty of neglect.

Further, again according to Maine’s daughters, she treated Nelson with reverence.

“Mum had a lot of faith in Ruth, she treated her a bit like a priest.”

This is the guru effect, the belief that a particular “healer” has special abilities, knowledge, or insight. I know mainstream doctors have a reputation for having a “god complex,” but honestly this rap is decades out of date. That is certainly not my experience today. In any case – no practitioner should be treated that way, mainstream or otherwise.

It’s OK to respect genuine expertise, but that also has to be combined with humility concerning our current state of knowledge and the complexity of practicing medicine. Gurus, on the other hand, want to be treated as  if they were magical, that’s part of the schtick.

I hope Maine receives some justice, especially since this will likely protect the next victim of at least this one iridologist. I also hope this shines a light onto iridology in general (a complete scam) and serves as a cautionary tale for anyone thinking that magic is a proper alternative to science.

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