Sandy Boylan was a contagiously cheerful woman whose hobby was handing out bouquets of homegrown flowers. But in the summer of 2003, she was scared.
The 53-year-old B&B owner from Dallas, Ore., had been told by her naturopathic physician that she had dangerously high levels of mercury, lead, cadmium and nickel. She believed those metals caused the aches and pains she'd long suffered—the ones that had confounded traditional doctors for years.
On Aug. 13, 2003, Boylan visited the naturopath who had made the diagnosis—Donald McBride of the Salem Naturopathic Clinic. McBride was giving Boylan a controversial course of treatment in his office called chelation therapy (see "Curing Jamie Handley," WW, Oct. 12, 2005), where amino acids are administered intravenously to suck metals out of the blood.
But chelation also withdraws metals the body needs, including calcium, which can lead to heart failure. Hooked up to the IV, Boylan collapsed and blacked out. She was taken to Salem Memorial Hospital, where she died that day of cardiac arrhythmia due to low calcium resulting from chelation therapy, according to a report by the state Medical Examiner.
On May 4, 2007, Sandy Boylan's husband, Clint, signed an out-of-court settlement ending a malpractice and wrongful-death suit against McBride. Family members declined to say how much McBride agreed to pay, except to note it was far less than the $1 million they sought in the lawsuit filed Feb. 28, 2005, at Marion County Circuit Court. Naturopaths aren't required to carry malpractice insurance. And McBride, who signed the settlement April 27, declined to comment.
The state Naturopathic Board of Examiners conducted a separate investigation, and Boylan's death is believed to be the first directly caused by a naturopath, says board director Anne Walsh.
The board licenses and polices naturopaths, but learned of the death only by chance 16 months after the fact. Boylan's sister, Cindy Bethell—sustainability manager at the Portland Development Commission—told a professional associate at the Centers for Disease Control about her sister's death. He contacted a colleague in Oregon, and in December 2005, word finally got to the state naturopathic board.
The board determined it was McBride's negligence that killed Boylan but let him keep his license with some limits on his Salem practice. Citing state confidentiality laws, Walsh declined to comment on the decision.
But the fact that McBride could again do chelation therapy astonishes and angers Boylan's family.
"My mom is no longer here because of negligence," says Eli Boylan, one of Sandy Boylan's four adult sons. Knowing McBride is still practicing, he says, makes the loss "more difficult to swallow."
In addition to negligence in Boylan's death, the board found that McBride had prescribed medicine that naturopaths aren't allowed to use, as well as "dangerously excessive" amounts of acetaminophen with hydrocodone. Bethell and other family members urged the board to revoke McBride's license. Instead, his penalty, handed down by the board on June 16, 2006, was:
- An $8,250 fine
- No IV chelation therapy for three years
- Complete education on chelation therapy
- No IV treatment for three years
- No prescribing opiates for one year
- Continuing education on approved substances
- Keep prescription pads in triplicate
- Allow board staff access to his office
Oregon was one of the first states to license naturopaths in 1927. And it allows them more leeway than elsewhere, according to a WW review of state laws. Oregon's 725 licensed naturopaths can prescribe about 300 substances, including opiates, and do minor surgery. Portland also is home to the National College of Naturopathic Medicine.
Boylan's death isn't the only recent fatality from non-invasive treatment. Two Portlanders and a Yakima, Wash., woman treated with an improperly mixed batch of the drug colchicine died this year. And there have been other recent deaths from chelation, which some believe can treat autism and clogged arteries. A 2-year-old girl in Texas treated for lead died in 2005, and a 5-year-old autistic boy died in Pennsylvania the same year.
"The last thing people think is it's going to harm somebody," says Boylan family attorney Stephen Ensor. "It's a big surprise for everyone, including naturopaths, that they have the ability to harm someone in this nature."