Peroxide therapy leads to a patient's death in South Carolina
WEST COLUMBIA, S.C. — When Katherine Bibeau's body arrived at the morgue, she was covered in large, deep purplish-black bruises.
But the woman had not been beaten, Coroner Gary Watts discovered. Rather, she had bled internally, and massively, after receiving an unconventional treatment for her multiple sclerosis.
Intravenous infusions of hydrogen peroxide, administered by a physician named James Shortt, had produced bubbles in Bibeau's bloodstream that started her down a fatal spiral into multiple organ failure and cardiac arrest, Watts concluded.
The death, he ruled, was a homicide.
This case and the death of another of his infusion patients have put Shortt at the center of a controversy over a treatment that its opponents say has no proven benefits — and serious risks.
Some 100,000 infusions of the chemical — a refined form of the first-aid kit standby — are given each year across the nation as a treatment for a variety of diseases, according to proponents.
Shortt, who is fighting to keep his medical license, denies harming anyone. "I might be the world's greatest lunatic," he says, but "I'm not going to do anything to my patients that I think might hurt them."
At the root of hydrogen peroxide's purported power is the same action that makes it foam when placed on a cut. Proponents of oxidative or "hyperoxygenation" therapy believe that many diseases — including cancer and HIV — can be linked to oxygen deficiency. They say that 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.
Shortt says he has been a believer since infusion guru Dr. Charles Farr helped him save a lupus patient's blackened toes from amputation.
Shortt says he has administered as many as 1,800 hydrogen peroxide treatments to patients from as far away as Europe, and has seen people in the midst of severe asthma attacks "go from gray to pink" during an infusion.
On a recent day at his clinic, Health Dimensions, patients occupied two of the dozen black leather chaises arranged in a spacious lounge off the waiting room. They watched videos as IV bags of yellowish and clear liquid emptied slowly into veins in their left hands.
Many of his patients, Shortt says, 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.
But 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 says treating certain tumors directly with hydrogen peroxide "remains an area for responsible research." But as for infusion of the chemical into the bloodstream, there is "no scientific basis for the regimens utilized by the oxymedicine promoters."
In September, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society's Web site posted a "Medical Alert," saying: "Hydrogen peroxide, administered either orally or by intravenous infusion, is not a recommended or approved treatment for multiple sclerosis. ... Dr. Aaron Miller, the National MS Society's Chief Medical Officer, strongly urges people with MS to avoid this unproven and potentially unsafe treatment."
Physicians in Missouri, North Carolina and Tennessee have had their licenses suspended or revoked for giving patients intravenous hydrogen peroxide. In the Tennessee case, the medical board said the physician exhibited "gross malpractice ... and incompetence and ignorance in the course of medical practice."
Katherine Bibeau, a 53-year-old mother of two from Cottage Grove, Minn., was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2001.
The avid knitter, gardener and baker — whom husband, David, has described as "June Cleaver with an attitude" — was a breast cancer survivor. So when confronted with a degenerative and incurable disease, she embarked on an open-minded search for ways to combat it.
That search led her to Shortt.
"Hydrogen peroxide would be very good to kill whatever's in there," Shortt told her in a February phone call, according to a transcript of the taped consultation. "Because, right now, we don't know what it is."
March 9, 2004, she sat in one of those leather chairs in West Columbia as a 0.03 percent solution of hydrogen peroxide coursed through her veins. That first treatment lasted 90 minutes.
Afterward, Bibeau complained of abdominal pain and nausea, according to a federal lawsuit the family filed against Shortt. Two days later, the suit contends, she returned to Shortt's clinic extremely weak, with bruising at the infusion site and severe vaginal bleeding.
The lawsuit alleges that Shortt ignored these signs of "acute hemolytic crisis" and failed to order a blood work-up for Bibeau, or to refer her to another physician. Shortt, while acknowledging that hydrogen peroxide therapy can destroy red blood cells after repeated treatments, denies those allegations.
By the time she arrived at the emergency room on March 12, Bibeau was in multiple-organ failure. Two days later, she was dead.
In July, a second patient of Shortt's died. Michael Bate, a 66-year-old retired engineer, had advanced prostate cancer.
Bate's wife, Janet, said he received eight hydrogen peroxide infusions, along with other treatments. (Bate also obtained the banned, discredited drug laetrile. Shortt acknowledges showing Bate how to use it after Bate made it clear he intended to do so against Shortt's advice.) In this case, too, the physician has denied doing anything to harm his patient.
In September, armed state and federal officers raided Shortt's office and confiscated his files.
Later that month, the South Carolina Board of Medical Examiners asked a judge for an emergency suspension of Shortt's license.
Seeking support, Shortt traveled to the October conference, in Atlanta, of the International Oxidative Medicine Association, which developed the regimens he used. The group found that Shortt had followed its "well-established" protocols.
In its position paper, the group's president, Dr. Robert Rowen, instead zeroed in on two FDA-approved drugs that Bibeau had previously been prescribed: the MS drug Copaxone and Tegretol, which is used to treat seizure disorders.
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."
Rowen says it is "more than reasonable to conclude" that the interaction of these two drugs was "the proximate cause of this death."
Shortt says he knew of no reason his treatment would react negatively with the drugs Bibeau was taking. He did not suggest she drop those medications.
Israeli drug company Teva Pharmaceuticals, maker of Copaxone, told The Associated Press that its drug had been "extensively studied and tested clinically ... and has proven safe and effective." Novartis Pharmaceuticals, Tegretol's Swiss-based manufacturer, declined to comment.
Richland County forensic pathologist Clay Nichols says Bibeau had been on both drugs for more than a year "with no adverse effects."
As the investigations go forward, Shortt has voluntarily ceased performing hydrogen peroxide infusions. The South Carolina medical board has scheduled a Jan. 21 hearing to revisit his case.
Coroner Watts stands by his conclusions.
"I don't think he meant to kill her," Watts says. "I'm just saying ... she died as a result of his infusing her with something he shouldn't have infused her with."MORE IN News
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