WEST COLUMBIA, S.C. - When Katherine Bibeau's body arrived at the morgue, she was covered in large, purplish-black bruises, almost as if she had been beaten to death.
But this was no beating. Coroner Gary Watts attributed Ms. Bibeau's massive internal bleeding to the unconventional treatment she sought for her multiple sclerosis: an intravenous infusion of hydrogen peroxide.
Mr. Watts concluded that the hydrogen peroxide administered by James Shortt produced bubbles in Ms. Bibeau's bloodstream that started her down a fatal spiral into multiple organ failure and cardiac arrest.
On the line of his report asking for "manner of death," Mr. Watts wrote one word: "homicide."
That launched a criminal investigation into Ms. Bibeau's death and that of at least one other patient who received Dr. Shortt's hydrogen peroxide infusions. It also sent shock waves through the world of alternative medicine, a world of herbs and elixirs where Dr. Shortt is seen as a hero, a role model - anything but a killer.
Dr. Shortt's defenders say tens of thousands of patients in this country safely receive and benefit from hydrogen peroxide infusions each year.
Fellow practitioners say Ms. Bibeau was taking at least two government-approved drugs whose known side effects could just as easily have explained the circumstances of her death. They say authorities rushed to blame Dr. Shortt's treatment because it was something foreign, outside the realm of "big Pharma."
"I might be the world's greatest lunatic," Dr. Shortt says, but "I'm not going to do anything to my patients that I think might hurt them."
A CLASSICALLY TRAINED physician who practiced family medicine for years in Wisconsin, Dr. Shortt was as skeptical as anyone until 1992, when he says Charles Farr helped him save a lupus patient's blackened toes from amputation with an infusion of hydrogen peroxide.
"It's nothing like patient success to make a believer out of you," says Dr. Shortt, who moved to South Carolina in 1996.
He says he has administered as many as 1,800 hydrogen peroxide treatments and has seen people in the midst of severe asthma attacks "go from gray to pink" during an infusion.
Proponents of oxidative or hyperoxygenation therapy believe many diseases - including cancer and HIV - can be linked to oxygen deficiency. They say infusion or even ingestion of substances such as hydrogen peroxide, ozone and germanium sesquioxide deliver an "oxidative burst" that can kill cancer cells and viruses and boost the immune system.
Robert Rowen, the president of the International Oxidative Medicine Association, estimates that as many as 200 physicians nationwide administer more than 100,000 hydrogen peroxide infusions annually
Dr. Shortt says many of his patients come to him when conventional medicine has run its course.
"We go to work from this point where you're hopeless," the 58-year-old said in a recent telephone interview. "And we have to use methods that aren't in standard usage."
But critics argue that these treatments are not only ineffective, but also can be dangerous.
Health experts say injecting hydrogen peroxide directly into the bloodstream can cause convulsions, acute anemia and deadly gas emboli. A 1991 article in the Journal of Emergency Nursing blamed the death of a 39-year-old cancer patient on such "cancer quackery."
The American Cancer Society concedes that the use of hydrogen peroxide on certain tumors "remains an area for responsible research." But the organization also says there is "no scientific basis for the regimens utilized by the oxymedicine promoters."
MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS is believed to be an autoimmune disorder. Dr. Shortt claims the hydrogen peroxide treatment has had some success in such cases, and he thought Katherine Bibeau, a 53-year-old medical lab technician, was a good candidate.
The mother of two from Cottage Grove, Minn., was diagnosed with the neuromuscular disease in 2001 and already was having trouble walking.
A breast cancer survivor, she had long believed that diet and supplements could enhance the benefits of mainstream medications. So when confronted with a degenerative and incurable disease, she embarked on an intensive search for ways to combat it.
That search led her to Dr. Shortt.
On March 9, she sat in his West Columbia clinic as a 0.03 percent solution of hydrogen peroxide coursed through her veins.
Afterward, Ms. Bibeau complained of abdominal pain and nausea, according to a federal lawsuit the family filed against Dr. Shortt. Two days later, the suit contends, she returned to his clinic extremely weak, with bruising at the infusion site and severe vaginal bleeding.
The lawsuit alleges that Dr. Shortt ignored these clear signs of "acute hemolytic crisis" and did not order a blood work-up for her or refer her to another physician. Dr. Shortt denies those allegations.
By the time she arrived at the emergency room March 12, Ms. Bibeau was in multiple-organ failure. Two days later, she was dead.
IN JULY, A SECOND PATIENT of Dr. Shortt - Michael Bate, a 66-year-old retired engineer with advanced prostate cancer - died. Mr. Bate also had been receiving hydrogen peroxide infusions.
In September, armed state and federal officers raided Dr. Shortt's office and confiscated his files. Later that month, the South Carolina Board of Medical Examiners asked an administrative law judge for an emergency suspension of his license.
Seeking support, Dr. Shortt traveled to the October conference of the International Oxidative Medicine Association in Atlanta to present the Bibeau case.
The group found that Dr. Shortt had followed its "well-established" protocols.
In the group's position paper, Dr. Rowen instead zeroed in on two FDA-approved drugs that Ms. Bibeau had been prescribed: the MS drug Copaxone and Tegretol, which is used to treat seizure disorders.
Dr. Rowen noted that among Copaxone's listed side effects are "metorrhagia (profuse uterine bleeding), thrombosis, bruising, clotting problems and infections."
An Internet site dedicated to Tegretol warns of "easy bruising, or reddish or purplish spots on the skin" as possible "signs of a blood disorder brought on by the drug."
Dr. Rowen says it is "more than reasonable to conclude" that the interaction of these two drugs was "the proximate cause of this death."
Richland County forensic pathologist Clay Nichols says Ms. Bibeau had been on both drugs for more than a year "with no adverse effects."
IN LATE NOVEMBER, the administrative law judge found that the medical board had violated its own procedures and refused to suspend Dr. Shortt's license. She noted that he had stopped the infusions.
The board has scheduled a Jan. 21 hearing to revisit Dr. Shortt's case. Prosecutors would not whether he would be criminally charged, but Dr. Nichols says other deaths are being investigated.
The South Carolina Board of Medical Examiners has scheduled a Jan. 21 hearing to revisit James Shortt's case. Prosecutors won't say whether he will be criminally charged.
Doctors disciplined over hydrogen peroxide treatments
As many as 200 physicians nationwide administer more than 100,000 hydrogen peroxide infusions annually, according to Dr. Robert Rowen, the president of the International Oxidative Medicine Association.
Although federal health officials have not approved hydrogen peroxide for intravenous use, enforcement against practitioners who use the therapy varies widely. Nonetheless, physicians in several states have been disciplined for the practice:
MISSOURI: The State Board of Registration for the Healing Arts revoked Lawrence Dorman's license in 1999 for giving a 54-year-old heart patient a hydrogen peroxide infusion after agreeing in writing to cease the practice. The board said Dr. Dorman's failure to properly treat the man led to a fatal heart attack, and the revocation was upheld on appeal.
NORTH CAROLINA: In 2002, John Carl Pittman received a 60-day suspension for treating a patient's immune dysfunction with ozone and diluted hydrogen peroxide. The North Carolina Medical Board said Dr. Pittman did not do proper blood work on the patient, a Jehovah's Witness who was against blood transfusions, even though a "well-known though uncommon risk" of the treatment was a "potentially life-threatening anemia." He agreed not to use IV ozone or hydrogen peroxide therapy "until the Board explicitly orders otherwise."
TENNESSEE: In March 2003, an appeals court upheld the state Board of Medical Examiners decision revoking the license of James E. Johnson. The board found the Nashville physician's use of intravenous hydrogen peroxide and other "unorthodox treatment methods" on a patient with a skin condition "constituted gross malpractice, a pattern of continued or repeated malpractice, and incompetence and ignorance in the course of medical practice."
- Associated Press
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