January 12, 2002
One of the tactics of supporters of "alternative medicine" is to deflect criticism of quackery by pointing out that people sometimes die while under the care of real doctors. To rational people, this is not surprising as the people seeing doctors and being admitted to hospitals are sick. When a rare mistake by doctors is discovered, a feeding frenzy can sometimes break out and all discussion of "alternative medicine" is diverted by continual reference to the mistake. A recent example of this happened on the Usenet newsgroup misc.health.alternative in a discussion about how the despicable anti-vaccination liars had decided to use a convicted child murderer as part of their lying campaign to convince people that Shaken Baby Syndrome is really vaccine damage. The arguments from "alternative medicine" supporters fell into two classes – as it cannot be proved conclusively and without any doubt whatsoever that Alan Yurko murdered the baby then he probably didn't do because the vaccines did, and the bizarre non sequitur that by talking about this murderer I was avoiding the issue of Ben Kolb who had died as a result of a medical accident in 1995. I wrote the following piece to examine three tragic incidents and their relationship to "alternative medicine".
Let's look at three dead children and see what we can learn from their deaths.
Ben Kolb was killed by a tragic mistake when he was given an injection of adrenaline instead of an anaesthetic. The error occurred because things were not labelled correctly in the operating theatre. The injection that Ben was supposed to receive has been given tens of thousands of times before and it is because his reaction was so obviously atypical that the theatre staff knew immediately that something had gone wrong. Despite desperate efforts to save his life, Ben died. Ben's parents were notified as soon as the problem was identified and the surgeon, hospital and anaesthetist all admitted responsibility. A year later, the anaesthetist still breaks down and cries in public when reminded of Ben's death
Some proponents of "alternative medicine" have tried to make an issue out of Ben's death, apparently on the basis that a mistake made by real doctors somehow has something to do with children dying because pretend doctors treat them with snake oil. If the adrenaline had been deliberately administered to Ben as part of some mad, unproven treatment protocol invented by someone with no medical training, no knowledge of science and no justification other than their own idiosyncratic quackery then it would have been something to do with "alternative medicine".
When I first went to the web site of the lawyers who acted for Ben Kolb's parents in their negotiations with the hospital, I expected to find some ambulance chasers in full flight. Instead, when I looked there I was pleasantly surprised to find a balanced and sensitive approach to the incident and the doctors who were as much a part of the tragedy as the parents. The attitude of the parents' lawyers stands in stark contrast to the way "alternative medicine" supporters attempt to demonise the people who made a tragic mistake.
Candace died, suffocated in her own vomit and excrement, because some lunatics decided, without benefit of any science or even coherent theory, that she should undergo a pretend reenactment of her birth. Oblivious to the fact that in a real birth the baby receives an oxygen supply through the umbilical cord, the "therapists" wrapped Candace tightly in a blanket and asked her to free herself from this "womb". When she complained that she could not breathe, she was told to "stay in there with the poop and vomit". Twenty minutes after Candace died one of the "therapists" called her a "twerp". At their trial, the killers were still trying to blame Candace for being a loser and not trying hard enough.
When I commented on this travesty, I was told that this was not "alternative medicine". I was reminded that people die when under the care of real doctors (as if this somehow had anything to do with Candace's death). I was told that a place calling itself the Colorado Rebirthing Center was not doing "rebirthing". I was told everything except that this was a failure of "alternative medicine". Not a failure because someone made a mistake – a failure because a fraudulent, unproven and unprovable treatment killed the patient. Someone will now remind me that a doctor once cut off the wrong leg.
You can read a transcript of the last two hours of Candace Newmaker's life here.
"Baby Alan", as he is called, was the son of Francine Ream. The baby was murdered by Ream's boyfriend, Alan Yurko, when the baby was ten weeks old. Yurko, who had recently been released from a prison sentence resulting from four violent crimes, has been described as the boy's father but this is unlikely as he was in prison at the time the baby was conceived. The damage to the baby was horrifying and the autopsy report described obvious symptoms of severe shaking and violence plus evidence of previous attacks. Two days after he killed the child, Yurko committed a savage assault on a police officer. He is now serving a life sentence for the murder of baby Alan, plus five years for the assault on the police officer, plus time for the aggravated assault on baby Alan and for attempted escape. Francine Ream married her son's murderer after he was convicted of the murder.
You may wonder what any of this has to do with "alternative medicine". Nothing really, except that the vilest group of people opposed to medicine, the anti-vaccination liars, have adopted Yurko as a cause célèbre. While it might seem obvious that a group of people who devote their lives to the harming of children should want to show respect for someone who openly commits the ultimate harm, their motivations go beyond just hero worship (and, yes, some chiropractors have officially declared Yurko a "hero"). There has been a campaign for some time to try to convince people that shaken baby syndrome is actually damage caused by vaccines and that people imprisoned for shaking babies to death are innocent victims of a corrupt medical system.
As is usual for the anti-vaccination liars, this has little to do with any possible dangers of vaccines and everything to do with trying to get parents to avoid vaccinating their children. If the anti-vaccination liars were honest they would accept that vaccines could be made safer. The truth of their position is that all vaccines are evil and all must be opposed at any cost. The pretence that shaken baby syndrome is caused by vaccinations is just another example of trying to frighten parents by suggesting bad consequences for the parents if they vaccinate their children. The threat of going to prison, falsely accused of killing your children, has been added to the threat that you will be confined to your house forever by an autistic child or that you will go to hell because vaccines are made from aborted foetuses.
I am not surprised that the anti-vaccination liars should exploit a murdered child, because for them it is an absolute article of faith that the end justifies the means. It is strange, however, to see ordinary supporters of "alternative medicine" climbing down onto this bandwagon. The amazing thing is that they know in their hearts, they must know, that Yurko killed the baby, but they deny it because denying it is consistent with their total opposition to medicine.