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.

10 responses so far

10 thoughts on “Death by Iridology”

  1. HHC says:

    Mrs. Maine’s cancer was a cyst about 40 years ago. A doctor diagnosed it. But the average retired school teacher does not understand that the cells can change. A diagnosis is not like a static passage in the bible written by a scribe. Too late to teach this lesson to her. Another consideration is the cost of surgery. The patient could assume that catastrophic costs would be incurred with every medical doctor diagnosis. Not so with iridology, eh?

  2. SouthLander says:

    Sad, sad, sad. Thanks for covering this Steve, the more info there is out there for people in the position the late Mrs. Maine was in prior to her death to find the better. As always, the readers of this and other science/scepticism blogs are not the ones that need to be told that iridology and related practices are bullshizzle but hopefully any kiwis (or others) seeking treatment outside the realm of science based medicine will turn this up in a Google search and think twice. New Zealand thanks you sir!

  3. Stuartg says:

    In this case, there is no need to consider the cost of treatment.

    In New Zealand the hospital system is entirely public and free unless a person actively selects to see a private surgeon.

    I suspect the cost of the iridologist over many years was higher to Mrs. Maine than standard treatment would have been.

  4. ccbowers says:

    “A practitioner, in fact, should refuse to treat someone unless they were also seeking proper medical care.”

    The problem is that these are not real practitioners, but are people acting as such with no expertise. So they have only a layperson’s ability to determine if a person is receiving proper medical care, which is a threshold much lower than the expectation of an actual practitioner to evaluate a medical problem. The duty to advise is typically viewed in light of the ability and knowledge expected for that type of practitioner, so I think you’d have to show that even a reasonable layperson should have known better.

  5. Davdoodles says:

    I don’t care what this scam artist thought she was doing, or what blibber-blab she uses to describe it, or whether it was effective or unicorn farts.

    The fact is that she was purporting to treat someone’s life-threatening medical condition. In exchange for money.

    Or, to put it another way, she was practising ‘medicine’, without a license.

    She should be in jail.

  6. ccbowers says:

    “Or, to put it another way, she was practising ‘medicine’, without a license. She should be in jail.”

    Yeah, I think whether she was practicing medicine without a license is another question that could be asked, but what will happen is not based upon what you think “should” happen. It is based upon the laws in the place in which this occurred and the details of this particular case. On the surface it seems obvious that this iridologist has contributed to this person’s decision not to seek medical care (therefore her death), but we’ll have to see how this unfolds. The details of what took place and evidence for them are what’s important here, not our emotional reaction to the idea of what happened.

  7. Davdoodles says:

    “The details of what took place and evidence for them are what’s important here, not our emotional reaction to the idea of what happened.”

    Uh, that’s what I wrote.

  8. Aaron0112 says:

    It’s unfortunate to see this happen in my home country. Usually stories I hear come out of U.S.A. or even Australia. Hopefully, this will allow the beginning of some sort of regulation of pseudo scientific practices in New Zealand.

  9. ccbowers says:

    “Uh, that’s what I wrote”

    You also wrote “She should be in jail.” without acknowledging our lack of details regarding the evidence, nor the relevant laws that pertains to this case. Perhaps she should be in jail, but appropriate skepticism prevents me from making such a definitive statement.

  10. seanjoynt says:

    Blaming iridology…especially in this case is irrelevant and stupid…it’s the practitioner …and the patient …not the practice…this is just slating holistic practices in general and disregarding the fact that thousands of people are cured of numerous diseases and ailments by natural means…what about the seriously chronic malpractices and miss diagnosises not only by doctors but in hospitals…where literally thousands of people die like lambs to the slughter..where you’re all saying we are ‘safe’…wake up and move with the times….we are no longer slaves to medical system…there are many options…do some research…open your mind a little and you will realise there’s a place for everyone

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