An as yet unidentified “holistic” practitioner negligently kills a young woman with IV turmeric (yes, intravenous)

It was only just yesterday that I recounted the story of a naturopathic quack in Bowling Green, KY who told a cancer patient that “chemo is for losers,” promising her that he eliminate her tumor within three months. She listened to him, and as a result she died, as she and her husband were suing the quack. Not long after, her distraught widower walked into the quack’s office on a Friday evening earlier this month and, if the police charges are accurate, shot him dead. Basically, because this quack convinced the woman to forego chemotherapy, whatever chance of survival she had was eliminated. The woman’s name was Fikreta Ibrisevic; the quack’s name was Juan Gonzalez; and the name of the widower allegedly turned killer is Omer Ahmetovic.

Ibrisevic died a slow, lingering death from what was in essence untreated cancer, at least until near the end, when, having realized that the treatment wasn’t working, she turned to the conventional treatment that she had rejected. Unfortunately, by that time, it was too late. Some victims of “holistic” or “natural healers,” however, die from the actual treatment. For instance, yesterday I learned of what we in the biz, when we’re in the mood for dark humor, would call a “clean kill.” The victim was a 30 year old woman, and intravenous turmeric killed her:

From the accompanying story:

ENCINITAS, Calif. (KGTV) – Friends say Jade Erick was a “free spirit” who was as beautiful on the inside as she was outside. She was also interested in holistic health, but that interest may have contributed to her death at the age of 30.

Erick died after a bad reaction to turmeric, a spice used in Indian food and in dietary supplements, that was dripped directly into her veins through an I-V.

According to the San Diego County Medical Examiner the cause of her death was “: anoxic encephalopathy due to prolonged resuscitated cardiopulmonary arrest due to adverse reaction to infused turmeric solution”. A spokesperson confirmed the turmeric was delivered through an IV.

What a horrible outcome! I had never heard of such a reaction before. Sure, I was familiar with turmeric. Indeed, one of its components, curcumin is isolated from turmeric, and curcumin is a natural product that’s being investigated for various medicinal properties, including anticancer properties. There’s been a lot of in vitro research in cell culture performed, and quite a few small, preliminary clinical trials, as search of PubMed will reveal, showing results with varying degrees of promise against certain diseases. Basically, depending on the study, curcumin might have anti-inflammatory properties. It can also induce apoptosis (programmed cell death) in cancer cells and may inhibit angiogenesis (one of my favorite properties). Antithrombotic effects have also been attributed to it, and it appears to be able to decrease the amyloid plaque associated with Alzheimer’s.

Curcumin is not exactly an ideal anticancer drug (or drug for anything, to be honest) because it’s lipophilic (fatty) in nature and has low solubility and stability in aqueous solution. That means it has low bioavailability, and, indeed, that is the single greatest problem with using curcumin as a drug; it’s not absorbed very well when taken orally. On the other hand, animal studies show low toxicity, as would be expected for what is basically a spice, although turmeric fed to mice at high enough doses could cause liver toxicity, and curcumin can cause nausea and diarrhea. Let’s just put it this way, even the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine (NCCIH) can’t say definitively that it’s that good for anything. Even for inflammation, the indication for which it’s most commonly used, the evidence is not that great.

Despite the mostly preliminary evidence and the relative unsuitability of turmeric extracts or the more purified curcumin as a drug, in the world of “natural health,” turmeric is advertised as a near wonder-drug. Just out of curiosity, I did some searches on turmeric, and it’s not at all hard to find articles and ads touting curcumin or turmeric as powerful anti-inflammatory drugs, claiming that they can boost brain function, prevent Alzheimer’s disease, treat depression, improve arthritis, lower the risk of heart disease, treat or prevent cancer, and prevent aging. For example, this article claims that turmeric can function as well or better than:

  • Anti-inflammatory drugs
  • Anti-depressants (Prozac)
  • Chemotherapy
  • Anti-coagulants (Aspirin)
  • Pain killers
  • Diabetes drugs (Metformin)
  • Arthritis medications
  • Inflammatory bowel disease drugs
  • Cholesterol drugs (Lipitor)
  • Steroids

You get the idea. If you believe the “holistic health” clinics, turmeric or curcumin is the wonder drug that works wonders—for practically everything. Jade Erick was using it to treat her eczema.

Now here’s what irritates the crap out of me about this news story is the choice of medical “expert” that the reporter interviewed. Now, if you or I were doing a news story about this very unfortunate young woman who, through a combination of trusting a quack and bad luck, is now in the cold, cold ground, we’d get a real medical expert, like a real physician or a scientist who studies curcumin as a treatment for something or other. Whom does Alison Ashe choose? Another naturopathic quack, who is given far too much screen time:

“It’s a natural, safe way to help people with pain and inflammation,” said Mark Stengler, a naturopathic doctor who offers turmeric to his patients but only in oral form.

Stengler didn’t treat Erick, but said he does know a few Encinitas holistic health practitioners who deliver turmeric intravenously.

“There are some doctors who use Turmeric extract in IV form to try and heighten the physiological effects, so the anti-inflammatory effects of the turmeric,” Stengler explained. “It hasn’t been well studied. It’s more theoretical, so it’s more investigational.”

One wonders if, whoever this “holistic healer” is, he or she was a competitor of Mark Stengler. As I always do, I perused Stengler’s website. It’s a typical naturopath website, complete with lots of dubious BS on health. It also turns out that he’s a bit of a media figure, bragging about his appearances on medical expert on FOX, CBS, and NBC. He also hosts his own weekly TV show Natural Healing with Mark Stengler, which apparently runs on PBS and cable stations. Conflict of interest, much? Naaah. ABC 10 in San Diego would never, ever, ignore such an obvious COI, would it?

I think you already know the answer to that question.

It also burns me that Ash didn’t name the practitioner. I’m guessing that the reason she didn’t is that her station is afraid of a potential lawsuit. She did show a building with an address of 5570. I couldn’t find who it was, and I gave up trying for a while because apparently there are a lot of quacks in southern California with “5570” somewhere on their website, either in the ZIP code or phone number or wherever. Perhaps I am incompetent at this Google thing. Either that, or I just wasn’t willing to invest the amount of time that would be required to find out who treated Ms. Erick. There are a lot of naturopaths and “holistic health” practitioners in Encinitas and southern California. [D’oh! It turns out that that’s the San Diego County Medical Examiner’s Office. No more need to search and speculate in the comments.]

Having been stymied in identifying the specific quack who killed Erick, I looked into intravenous turmeric. Unfortunately there are quacks who are true believers:

Functional Medicine Doctor Brian Davies from Westcoast Integrative Health in North Vancouver, Canada uses intravenous curcumin in combination with intravenous vitamin C (of course with IV vitamin C, because why not?) for patients with chronic health conditions, and in combination with intravenous antioxidant called glutathione (the “master hormone” produced by the human body) for hepatitis C, and liver fibrosis.

Leigh Erin Connealy of Cancer Center for Healing, in Irvine, California, has also claimed to successfully use intravenous curcumin on patients with both rectal cancer and oral cancer:

At Cancer Center for Hope, the cancer clinic where I am medical director, I have used intravenous (IV) curcumin on several patients with very encouraging results. In one instance, for example, I used IV curcumin with a patient I’ll call Debra, who had suffered from a rectal tumor for five years. The tumor extended into her colon, causing a great deal of pain and uncomfortable bowel movements. After just six treatments with intravenous curcumin, her pain dramatically diminished and her bowel movements became more normal. In another case, Richard, a patient with tongue cancer experienced tremendous decrease in the swelling after only one treatment.

Advanced Rejuvenation Institute in Atlanta, Georgia has also been using intravenous turmeric for liver health, inflammation, cancer prevention, and in combination with other cancer treatments.

Ah, yes. Cherry picked anecdotes that don’t really demonstrate anything, the sine qua non of quacks everywhere. Combine that with “make it up as you go along” mixing and matching of intravenous nutrients (like vitamin C) and antioxidants (like glutathione), along with the “natural medicine” du jour, turmeric or the more highly purified curcumin, and you, too, can be at risk for a tragedy such as what happened to Jade Erick. Amusingly “Dr.” Connealy brags that she is the “only doctor in the U.S. currently offering curcumin intravenously” where “the curcumin bypasses the stomach, so 100% of it is absorbed, and it works better and more quickly” and IV dosing “also allows me to give higher doses than could be taken orally.” Of course, the article above shows that Connealy is not the only quack using IV turmeric, but her claim did lead me to wonder if she was the naturopath or “holistic” health practitioner who killed Erick, given that her office is located in southern California. A quick refreshing of my memory of southern California geography told me that it was very unlikely to be Connealy. After all, her Center for New Medicine is located in Irvine, which Google Maps tells me is roughly 60 miles north of Encinitas. Another southern California quack must have stolen her idea. The competition is quite intense there, as I noted above. Either that, or IV turmeric is a new fad that is spreading and we can expect to see more deaths due to what sounds like a hypersensitivity reaction to something in the turmeric solution.

Be that as it may, this case shows three things. First, even something as benign-sounding as turmeric can kill. Indeed, when you administer something intravenously, the risks are magnified because of the very reason Connealy gave, that the dose can be higher. Second, as is usually the case, there are lots of people defending the use of IV turmeric. A perusal of comments after the Facebook entry for this story and this blog post about Erick’s death depressed me enormously.

The third conclusion is the most depressing. Consumer protections, even against complete and utter quacks (which whoever killed Jade Erick is) are depressingly close to nonexistent. Go back to the beginning of this story. The coroner is investigating, and he is concluding that the IV turmeric killed Jade Erick. Yet, as of now, he is calling the death an “accident.” No, it wasn’t. It was negligence. If you administer a treatment that has no good evidence to support it (Not-a-Dr. Stengler says so, which should tell you a lot) for an indication for which it isn’t validated, and your patient is unfortunate enough to have what appears to have been a severe hypersensitivity reaction to your intravenous treatment and dies, you killed her through negligence. My prediction, though, is that nothing will happen to this quack unless the family decides to sue (which they really, really should do), and even then probably nothing will happen to him or her.

These quacks ought to add “007” after their names, because they have a license to kill.