Naturopaths cynically use the murder of a quack to promote naturopathic licensure

Naturopathy is a frequent topic on this blog because it is a veritable cornucopia of quackery, in which not pseudoscience is too out there. Homeopathy, functional medicine, bogus diagnostic tests, traditional Chinese medicine, reflexology, naturopaths embrace it all, and more. More importantly, thanks to “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), known more recently as “integrative medicine,” naturopathy is becoming more and more “respectable.” Indeed, there are naturopaths at far too many academic medical centers. One even participated in the writing of the Society for Integrative Oncology’s breast cancer guidelines. Then there is the push for naturopathic licensure in various states, such as Massachusetts and my home state of Michigan, with supplement manufacturers paying the bill.

A couple of weeks ago, there was a murder in Bowling Green, KY. The tale of this murder that I’m about to relate will consist two parts. First, there will be the tale of the murder itself. Then, there will be the tale of how quacks use the murder to serve their nefarious ends. Let’s begin with the crime. The victim of the murder was a naturopath named Juan Gonzalez, who was shot to death in his Bowling Green office on the evening of March 3, allegedly by a man named Omer Ahmetovic, who was quickly arrested for the crime. But what was Ahmetovic’s motive for murder? His wife, Fikreta Ibrisevic, was a patient of Gonzalez’s who died Feb. 27, after having been diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, an rare form of connective tissue cancer, and chosen Gonzalez over conventional oncologists and surgeons:

Ibrisevic was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a soft-tissue cancer, in late 2015 to early 2016, according to the lawsuit. The couple were interested in natural therapies while Ibrisevic waited to be scheduled for the beginning of traditional cancer treatments.

On or near Jan. 11, 2016, Gonzalez told the couple that traditional cancer treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy were for “uneducated” people and he could “guarantee” Ibrisevic would be cancer free with his treatments within three months, according to the lawsuit. He is further accused of telling Ibrisevic that “chemotherapy is for losers.”

So basically, Ibrisevic and her husband were a bit woo-prone and wanted to investigate “natural” therapies for her newly diagnosed cancer. It’s an all too common situation, and it’s one that quacks frequently take advantage of. If the claims in Ahmetovic’s lawsuit are accurate, his wife was planning on undergoing conventional therapy for her cancer but changed her mind and decided to pursue naturopathic treatments in response to Gonzalez’s statement that “chemotherapy is for losers” and his other claims, particularly his claim that he could render her cancer-free within three months without the toxicity of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. It’s easy to see how someone, when faced with a life-threatening disease that can only be treated by a combination of potentially disfiguring surgery, toxic chemotherapy, and radiation therapy, which has its own potentially unpleasant side effects, would be tempted by a confident statement by a charlatan like Gonzalez that he could cure her within three months without her having to endure all that. One can imagine the temptation if the patient already had leanings toward wanting “natural therapy,” as Ibrisevic clearly did.

This is what happened next:

Ibrisevic began treatments which included buying herbs from Gonzalez, massages, foot soaks, dietary instructions and other treatments. From January through May 2016, Ibrisevic and Ahmetovic paid Gonzalez and Natural Health Center for Integrative Medicine more than $7,000 for the treatments and herbs, according to the lawsuit.

When Ibrisevic began treatment, she had one tumor. When she discontinued treatment with Gonzalez she had seven tumors, according to the lawsuit.

“The original tumor became so large to the extent that it was visible outside of her body,” according to the lawsuit. “Her eyes began to turn yellow and her legs began to swell. After she discontinued treatment with the defendants, after one round of traditional chemotherapy, the only tumor that remained was the original tumor.”

Basically, Ibrisevic died because she trusted a quack instead of conventional medicine. Yes, she had probably a 50% chance of dying anyway if she had accepted conventional treatment before it was too late, but that’s a 50% chance she didn’t have once she believed Gonzalez’s claims and acted upon them.

A review of the timeline can’t help but sadden; so, to the best of my knowledge based on my reading on the case, I reconstructed it. The story began in late 2015, when Ibrisevic was diagnosed with this cancer. In January 2016, they sought out Gonzalez, who treated them for a period of time that isn’t clear from the news reports. By late 2016 or so, it was clear that Gonzalez’s quackery wasn’t working and that Ibrisevic’s tumor was progressing. During that time, she still consulted with other naturopaths, who reported that Gonzalez had administered so many herbs that Ibrisevic had a toxic reaction. At this point, she apparently returned to conventional care and underwent chemotherapy, but it was too late. Although some of her tumors responded to chemotherapy, she clearly by this time had metastatic disease and was doomed. So on January 27, 2017, she and her husband filed suit, which was answered on February 6. However, sadly, she died a month later, on February 27.

Then, on Friday, March 3, a mere four days after his wife’s death, Ahmetovic allegedly walked into Gonzalez’s office after hours and shot him dead. One can imagine him waiting until after his wife’s funeral, and then doing the deed.

As strong as my instinct not to speak ill of the dead, I can’t help but point out that Gonzalez was, without a doubt, a quack. The website for his clinic looks a lot like a lot of other websites I’ve examined for naturopaths. Its front page advertises a lot of obvious quackery, and his self-description reads thusly:

I am a Naturopathic Doctor, Iridologist, Master Herbalist and currently working towards my phD in integrative medicine. I offer an iridology evaluation prior to recommending a non-invasive method of treatment to establish a health protocol which may include medicinal herbs. The evaluation is a critical component whose aim is to remove the source of the disease and facilitate healing in a non-invasive, non-toxic manner. Evaluating a person’s condition requires in-depth knowledge of biochemistry, chemistry, biology, physiology, anatomy, psychology, and all other systems which comprise the totality of who we are.

Iridology, of course, is the rankest of quackery, akin to phrenology 150 years ago. Basically, like chiropractic, it’s a pseudomedical specialty invented out of whole cloth by a “brave maverick doctor.” It’s a lot like reflexology in that, as reflexology claims that various organs and body parts “map” to specific parts of the soles of the feet and hands, iridology “maps” body parts to parts of the iris. Basically, it’s the homunculus model. Like many alternative medicine practitioners, he claims to have “converted” after “Western medicine” failed him. In this case, Gonzalez was diagnosed with diabetes and “discovered that western medicine as a whole could not heal this condition.” He enlisted in the Army, went to college, received a degree in Business Management, after which he got his MBA. Then he attended the Trinity School of Natural Health.

This is a school we’ve met before, and it’s not even an “accredited” school of naturopathy. Basically, its graduates can’t be licensed in states that license naturopaths, which gives you an idea of how bad this school is. It’s ultimately more of a Bible school than anything else, being highly religious. As Harriet recounted a few years back, the only admission requirement for Trinity’s ND program is a high school diploma or GED, and the curriculum consists of 15 installments of a correspondence course, with a list of classes full of quackery: Bach flower remedies, reflexology, iridology, homeopathy, applied kinesiology, acupressure techniques, aromatherapy, dry blood analysis, assessing health by acid/alkaline balancing, and so on. So Gonzalez is not even what naturopaths would call a “real” naturopath in that he got his degrees through a correspondence course that’s not even recognized by naturopathic quacks as valid.

This brings us to the second part of the story. If there’s one thing that irritates the crap out of me, it’s the self-righteous denials of “real” naturopaths (the ones who have graduated from “accredited” naturopathy schools) that naturopaths are quacks, that they offer the sorts of treatments that “unaccredited” naturopaths like Gonzalez offered. I also find it highly disingenuous how naturopaths are pouncing on the death of Juan Gonzalez to push for—you guessed it!—naturopathic licensure:

Peter Swanz, a naturopathic doctor in Louisville referred to the deaths as a “double tragedy.”

“This double tragedy happened because Kentucky is an unlicensed state for naturopathic medicine, meaning Kentucky does not yet have a naturopathic medical board to license naturopathic physicians that have attended four-year naturopathic medical school and passed the Naturopathic Medical Examination test,” he said. “The first step to passing these exams is going to medical school for four years.”

“Medical school”? How disingenuous. No matter how much naturopaths try to promote this message equating naturopathy school with medical school, naturopathy school is not medical school. In terms of scientific rigor, there is no discernable difference between naturopaths trained at “acceptable,” “accredited” naturopathy schools like the ones that Peter Swanz is trying to represent as “going to medical school for four years.” Naturopathy school is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the equivalent of legitimate medical school. Its clinical training is far inferior, and its “accreditation” is a sham. Worse, it’s expensive, and sucks the unwary into the naturopathy maw with promises of being the equivalent of real doctors.

The mouthpiece of organized naturopathy, the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANPs) released a predictable statement:

“This tragic scenario underscores the need for vigorous public awareness on the education, training and scope of practice of licensed naturopathic doctors as well as the essential need for state regulation of licensed naturopathic doctors,” the association said in its statement. “It is important the public understand the vast distinction in the education and training of a licensed naturopathic doctor and Juan Gonzalez, a self-proclaimed practitioner.

“We support the practice and science of naturopathic medicine administered by a licensed ND. Each AANP member has graduated from a four-year, postgraduate education program at naturopathic medical schools accredited by agencies recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. The AANP strongly advocates for greater patient access to licensed NDs in all 50 states and U.S. territories.”

This is the line of propaganda that naturopaths relate each and every time its specialty is criticized. Indeed, that last paragraph is tacked on to just about every statement made by the AANP, seemingly no matter what it is about, as a Google search of a chunk of text from the paragraph will show and has been seen in posts on familiar blogs. Indeed, the full statement itself is downright nauseating. It goes on about how it’s going on about how the AANP advocates for greater patient access to licensed naturopaths in all 50 states, implying that the tragic death of Fikreta Ibrisevic and murder of Juan Gonzalez were a direct result of the lack of licensure of naturopaths in Kentucky allowing quacks like Gonzalez to practice unfettered.

Then we have other apologists for quacks, pulling the “no true Scotsman” fallacy. Oh, no, they say, we’d never, ever do what Gonzalez does. Can’t we all just get along? Can’t we just “integrate” the quackery of naturopathy into conventional medicine and work together? Here, we have Rafael F. Cruz, a medical doctor at Kentuckiana Integrative Medicine in Jeffersonville, IN providing this line:

“The bottom line is that both sides of medicine can be helpful to the patient,” said Cruz, who is familiar with naturopaths educated in four-year graduate schools and online schools.

Graduates of the four-year schools learn many of the same things as traditional medical school students, Cruz said, “and you can’t get that kind of clinical exposure from correspondence courses,” Cruz said. Four-year graduates are generally better prepared.

“Having said that, I know naturopaths who have gone the correspondence route and are well prepared and have successful practices. What happened, which I know second hand from Dr. Swanz, is a tragedy.

And:

“There’s tension between the conventional world and the natural medicine world, but the reality is they both complement each other and can work effectively together, and the patient can benefit from that. I think a lot of patients want the support of natural or integrative medicine. More and more patients are seeking out the support available to them from integrative medicine and natural medicine. The big mistake from my standpoint is to exclude one from the other,” he said.

No, the tension is not between “the natural medicine world” and the “conventional medicine world.” The tension is between science and pseudoscience, quackery and science- and evidence-based medicine. Naturopathy falls on the quackery side, and the reason the AANP is so defensive is that the case of Juan Gonzalez demonstrates that in no uncertain terms. “Licensed” naturopaths, at their heart, believe the same pseudoscience and practice the same sort of quackery. They’re just better at hiding its craziness and making it seem “respectable” and don’t like being reminded by cases like this that it is not.