Horrifying suffering caused by treating pertussis “naturally”

Naturopathy is a cornucopia packed to the brim with virtually every quackery known to humankind, be it homeopathy, much of traditional Chinese medicine, vitamin C for cancer, or basically any other pseudoscientific or prescientific treatment for disease that you can imagine. I feel obligated to start most of my posts about naturopathy with a statement like this not just because it’s true but because I want to remind my readers that it’s true. I particularly want to remind my readers when I see naturopaths revealing their true quack selves when they think no one’s watching, but I want to remind them even more when I see a post like this by a naturopath named Heather Dexter entitled Natural Remedies for Whooping Cough: Getting Through It IS Possible.

If you want anecdotal evidence of the depths of quackery to which naturopaths can descend, read this post now. Because the link to the original post was removed once, I saved the text and will quote liberally, but, for whatever reason, the post appears to be up again at Like-Minded Mamas, which promises “easy, natural answers for every mama’s journey.” I also note that the version currently on the website has been significantly edited from the original, no doubt in response to the uproar the original caused. Fortunately, the Internet never forgets, and the text of the original version remains on Reddit. What Dexter sees as natural treatment of her children with whooping cough, I see as child abuse. Worse, Dexter is practicing in my own state in Grand Rapids, MI.
Dexter describes herself thusly:

Heather Dexter is a Board Certified Naturopathic Doctor, Certified Affiliated Bradley Method Instructor, Certified Holistic Doula, Certified Usui Reiki Master Practitioner.

Here’s an indication: If you believe in reiki enough to practice reiki, you are a quack.

More importantly, if you treat your children the way Dexter describes, you are a child-abusing quack, in my not-so-humble opinion. Why do I say this? Because in her post Dexter describes how she tortured her children by letting them “get through” pertussis. Let me repeat that again in a different way. She let her children suffer through the natural course of a pertussis infection in order to acquire “natural” immunity. She even brags about it near the end of her post:

We made it through using only natural remedies. My children developed REAL and TRUE immunity from being exposed to this bacteria and fighting it off naturally. It has been my biggest challenge to date as a mother.

Her biggest challenge? Notice how she says it was her biggest challenge to date. What about her children, who suffered needlessly because of her? I point that out because if there’s one thing I noticed reading this post it’s that it’s all about Heather Dexter’s struggle and not so much about her children. First of all, the horror her children endured was preventable. There is a vaccine against pertussis. There has been a vaccine against pertussis for decades. Yes, immunity due to the current vaccine against pertussis does wane, but the vaccine itself is effective and natural immunity wanes as well. If Dexter had vaccinated her children, she might have spared them the pain they endured, but she did not. She’s a naturopath, and, as a naturopath, she is antivaccine, as most naturopaths are. So she didn’t vaccinate her children, because she thought it would be better for them to acquire “natural immunity.”

So let’s see what that means:

It all started when my six year old, Madilyn, developed a cough. No big deal. Nothing that I would ever find concerning. Nothing that a few natural health remedies and some serious cuddling couldn’t wipe out in a few days. I mean shoot, we had been doing things naturally for almost six years with nothing but success each and every time.

14 DAYS
Madilyn’s cough had progressively gotten worse. I decided I was not doing enough. The regimen I had her on was not nearly what it could have been. So I intensified it.

Homeopathics; Aconite followed by Spongia and herbal tinctures Autumn Olive Berry, Black Walnut, Vitamin C, Minerals Zinc and Magnesium, and several herbal blends, along with loads of eucalyptus oil given or applied several times daily. And of course the obvious, chiropractic care, probiotics and optimum nutrition.

So her daughter Madilyn had a cough that got progressively worse over two weeks. What did she do for it? She administered The One Quackery To Rule Them All, homeopathy. Did it do any good? Of course not. Nor did the enemas she later gave her children (yes, enemas). Not only did Madilyn not get better but but the disease spread:

1 DAYS
My 3 year old son, Lucien, began coughing. Yes…it happened to be the same exact cough that Madilyn had started with nearly three weeks ago. At this point, Madilyn’s cough was beginning to scare me. She would wake in the middle of the night, multiple times a night, coughing so hard that she would puke over the side of her loft bed. Her normally rosy cheeks would drain pale until she was able to gasp for air. It was at this point that I realized this was no ORDINARY cold. I was in need of a second opinion… some non-parental help.

“No ORDINARY cold”? Ya think?

So, first the six year old started coughing, a cough that got progressively worse, and then the three year old started exhibiting exactly the the same symptoms. So what did Dexter do? Did she take her two children to a doctor? Of course not! Instead, she took them to a “naturopathic doctor” (or, as I like to call it, not a doctor). What did this naturopath recommend? Olive Leaf Extract, Elderberry Syrup, Pau D’arco Extract, Light Therapy and Reflexology. I kid you not. That’s what was recommended. It was also recommended that Dexter stuff large blankets under the head of their beds, so they were sleeping on a 45 degree incline. Of everything recommended by naturopaths, that last bit was the only thing that might help. As for the rest? Reflexology? Is this a joke? Sadly not. Would that it were! Unfortunately, it was not.
Lucien, for instance, suffered horrifically:

During the night, Lucien would cough until he barfed up mucus, proceeded by crying and screaming fits. He was genuinely terrified each and every time he woke from sleep without breath. At this point in time my husband, and I were now waking every 30-90 minutes through the night to clean up after or console one of two coughing, puking, screaming children. Let’s be honest, most of this time period I simply fell asleep cuddling them in their beds, waiting for the next coughing fit. This on top of a co-sleeping, nursling who expected me to be near her at all times. She often woke up to the sounds of her siblings coughing, puking, screaming, and crying that was happening every night…continuously. And we knew it was just a matter of time before Millie developed this same “thing.” One thing was certain, the situation was going to get worse.

And it did:

Madilyn had been coughing for 60+ days. We hadn’t slept longer than 2 hours in months. UGGGGGH. Sleep, it’s for the select few parents who probably drug their kids or lock them in their rooms. That is not us. We read and cuddle to sleep every night. OH, how I just wanted to sleep for six hours straight for just one night, it would have been miraculous. The term “walking dead” described the new me. It was during this time, the first week in December that my husband sat me down, looked me in the eyes and said, “I trust you, but I am scared that one of our kids is going to die. You know it is just a matter of time before Millie develops whatever it is that Madilyn and Lucien have. It’s going to be bad, Heather. I think we need to go to the hospital. What are you thinking?”

It sounds to me as though Heather Dexter’s husband has more common sense than she does. He was right to be scared that one or more of their children might die. Pertussis can kill. Even when it doesn’t kill, the suffering it causes children is beyond what most of us can conceive. Why is it that most of us can’t conceive how horrible pertussis can be for children to suffer through? Vaccines, of course. Unfortunately her husband was too cowardly to step in and do what needed to be done to help his children. Instead, he let his wife continue to medically neglect their children.

Of course, it’s all about Heather Dexter, not her children. So what does she dwell on? Does she start to wonder if maybe—just maybe—she should take her children forthwith to a real doctor and get them some antibiotics and breathing treatments to kill the bug that is causing their suffering and ease their coughing paroxysms? As my good bud Mark Crislip likes to say about his specialty of infectious disease, “Me find bug, me kill bug. Me go home.” The answer, of course, is no. She is so deeply invested in her naturopathic belief system that such a thought, although briefly entertained, cannot stand for long against her arrogance and belief in “natural healing”:

Part of me felt blind-sided and hurt, unsupported and ready to blow…that was the exhausted me. I took a deep breath and looked away, thinking before I spoke. I knew he had always been and still is the logical one. I react emotionally, instinctively, often times before my mind has fully connected with my words. My truth just seems to spill easily from my mouth, a lot of times without the sweetness of being sugar-coated… just bluntness, pure honesty. However, I have learned that my truth does not belong to all of humanity. Each person is entitled to their beliefs and logic or training.

Logical me responded with, “I still feel confident that we are about to turn a corner here anytime now. I would like to schedule an appointment with our Family Doctor and see what I’m missing. This has got to be an illness that needs to be remedied in layers because it has been quick to mutate. I am certainly not interested in an antibiotic, x-rays, a series of steroidal breathing treatments, or a vaccine which is all the hospital is going to recommend for us. I do believe their immune systems were built to handle this. I just need to find out what I am working with. Madilyn, is obviously getting better, you certainly cannot deny it. I know the other two can and will work through this, it is just a super slow process due to the lack of experience, or on the job training, done by their immune systems. Our Kids . . . They just haven’t been a whole lotta sick in their lives, babe! This is their time to gain immune stimulation, experience and true antibody production.”

What. The. Hell.

So let’s see. Antibiotics, steroids, and other breathing treatments could have eased Dexter’s children’s suffering, but she was opposed to them because they are to her “unnatural.” In her delusion that “natural” must be better, she is willing to let her children suffer in the service of that delusion, so much so that she is quite capable of letting her children suffer and possibly die in the service of her delusions.

As I read her account, I found myself becoming angrier and angrier, so angry, in fact, that I had to stop writing for a while. Really. I was so pissed off that I had to force myself to calm down. It was difficult, because, predictably, her story continued, and her youngest daughter, being unvaccinated as well, fell ill with pertussis too. So, in the end, all three of her children got pertussis and were allowed to suffer.

We’re talking about months of suffering, too. Take a look at this update. The first child fell ill in mid-October. As of January:

By mid-January, Madilyn was doing great. Lucien was turning the corner, for the better. He was now only coughing moderately throughout the day and waking only a couple times a night. But Emilia’s breathing had now reached the scary point. She was now coughing until she puked, making her normally rosy cheeks drain to pale. This was followed by crying, which would cause the process to repeat itself until often times she would just fall asleep due to pure exhaustion.

It took a good 120-150 days from the start of the coughing for each of them to eliminate the bronchial damage and lung weakness caused by the bacterial infection, Pertussis. We spent hundreds of dollars on natural health products and consultations with various Naturopathic Professionals. It was a living HELL. Every day. It had an intense effect on my marriage and relationship with my husband. It caused me to question everything I knew about Natural Health.

A living hell for whom? I assure Ms. Dexter, however much she suffered, her children suffered far more. We’re talking four to five months each of severe coughing, sometimes to the point of shortness of breath and throwing up, all due to pertussis. That’s what pertussis does. Worse, it’s quite preventable. The vaccine might be imperfect in that immunity due to it wanes, but it works, and “natural immunity” wanes as well. Even worse still, this deluded woman saw what pertussis did to her first child and knew that her other children would likely get it. Yet she let it happen. I might (sort of) understand her being too clueless to recognize pertussis at first when her oldest child got it, but once she knew what it was, there was no excuse other than ideology for not immediately getting her two younger children vaccinated. At least then they wouldn’t have had to suffer the same fate that her oldest did. She didn’t do it because to her vaccines are evil.

Then there are antibiotics. Antibiotics and breathing treatments are mainstays of treatment, although once a child reaches the paroxysmal stage antibiotics won’t shorten the duration of the illness. The main management is prevention, which Dexter had her chance to do. She didn’t. She didn’t even vaccinate her younger children after her older child became ill; in essence, she let them suffer in the search for “natural immunity.” Worse, she ignored pleas to do something different from her husband and from her father. You read the one from her husband, who, seeing his children suffer like that, really should have done something but didn’t. Now here’s the one from her father. Here’s a passage expunged from the current version of the story but still available on Reddit:

During this time, however, I received a very stern “talking to” from my father. He’s a veterinarian and has been for just shy of 40 years. While holding Emilia, he said to me, “Heather, there is a time and place for every thing and the time to go get an antibiotic is now. It may be that your pride has got you confused. I have watched you over the years heal ailments that I never imagined possible with natural remedies. I still wouldn’t believe the stories, if I had not witnessed you going through the process. However, I have also witnessed medicine save many lives over the years. I would hate to see you make a poor choice with your children at the expense.”

HOLY SHIT… What? Did he honestly believe I was sitting there doing nothing?

Couldn’t he see I was taking all the care in the world trying to make this work and heal them naturally? My heart broke. Tears streamed down my face. I grabbed my baby, turned my back to him and walked away. Did I know what I was doing? Had I gone too far? I headed to the bedroom to nurse her and myself to sleep.

I called my mentor and the founder of my Naturopathy school to gain yet another naturopathic perspective. She had nothing but good things to say. She once again boosted my morale. It was all I needed to hold strong over the holiday season.

Why did she need to hold strong? Her father nailed it. Dexter’s pride was what drove her decisions, her pride and her unwavering belief in “natural” remedies, even though clearly they weren’t working and her children were suffering. And, yes, her father was correct. For all her administering of herbs and enemas to three severely ill children, functionally she was doing the equivalent of nothing, even though to her it didn’t feel that way.

And what, pray tell, was Dexter’s rationale for subjecting her child to this ? This:

I just want you to ask yourself… How did people make it through for thousands of years? How did they get through the Spanish Influenza, the Black Plague, fevers and other ailments?

People, your ancestors have used natural remedies since the dawn of time to heal all things. Pharmaceutical creations have only been around for about 150 years. Most prescriptions have spent somewhere around 10 years from start to finish, including testing phases, before being allowed on the market to be used in experimentation on your family. We have no idea what the long term effects are going to be for all of these quick fix medications on our kids.

The stupid, it burns. Worse it burned her children, forcing them to suffer months of painful coughing, retching, and shortness of breath.

That’s just the point. People often didn’t make it through the Spanish influenza. It killed millions right after World War I, perhaps as much as 3-6% of the world’s population, and it was more deadly to young, healthy adults with a “great immune systems”! The Black Plague? Seriously? She brought up the Black Plague? The Black Plague is estimated to have killed 30-60% of Europe’s total population in the years between 1346–53! That’s a death toll. We know that untreated bubonic plague is associated with a mortality between 40-60%, a mortality that was probably higher in the Middle Ages. The body doesn’t do a particularly good job of recovering from it, because without treatment the disease kills at least half of those infected, and if the disease affects the lungs (pneumonic plague) mortality in untreated patients is 90-95%.

That’s the thing. The reason we vaccinate is because there are a lot of diseases out there that “natural healing” doesn’t do a particularly good job with. Pertussis is one of them. Even though the mortality rate from whooping cough is relatively low now, the suffering caused by pertussis is great. Even relatively uncomplicated cases, like the ones suffered by Dexter’s children, take months of coughing to clear, which is why it’s so important to try to prevent them in the first place. Yes, there have been outbreaks of pertussis in western Michigan. Yes, vaccinated children have been victims. However, contrary to Dexter’s claims in her post, the outbreaks weren’t primarily due to vaccinated children. She’s arguing the same fallacy that antivaccinationists frequently use when they note that in such outbreaks the epidemic frequently involves more vaccinated children than unvaccinated children, ignoring the fact that this is because (fortunately) there are few unvaccinated children relative to vaccinated children. If you look at the “attack rate,” the risk of getting pertussis in an outbreak, the unvaccinated have a 23-fold higher risk of developing the disease.

Having read Dexter’s post, what strikes me the most is not just that she let her three children suffer unnecessarily and exposed them unnecessarily to months of suffering and a not insignificant risk of death. It’s that she’s proud of it. It validates her as a mother and a naturopathic “healer.” She successfully resisted temptation to use “allopathic medicine,” even when her husband and father were terrified that one or more of her children might die. She didn’t listen (and felt betrayed). She got through it. It’s just fortunate that her children did too, but that seems to have been a secondary consideration.

Quackery can kill. It’s just fortunate that in this case it didn’t.