Thursday, April 16, 2009

First do no harm...unless you haven't gone to medical school

Albert was on the phone with his sister on a sunny afternoon last week, telling her about the trip they had gone on over the weekend and his wife's bingo winnings at the local senior's centre that week, when suddenly she interrupted. "Albert, don't be silly."

"What are you talking about?" he replied.

"Albert, I can't understand you, what's going on?" He was confused - he was speaking perfectly fine, as far as he could tell.

His wife walked into the room, and noticed that he was indeed slurring all his words, and rushed him to their naturopath. The naturopath saw his mouth drooping on one side, and told him he knew exactly what was going on. He promptly gave him a glass of water, into which she had mixed several spoonfuls of salt, and told him to drink up, and encouraged him to do this over the next several days. Why?

Because, as the wife explained to me, "Well, when the left side of the mouth droops, he has a deficiency of sodium. And when the right side droops, he is low in potassium, you see. When both droop, then he needs more calcium."

Sure enough, in about half an hour, his droop had resolved, and his speech returned to normal. So the naturopath was right, right?

Unfortunately, in this case, his naturopath was wrong. Because he'd had a heart attack in the past, and his heart muscle didn't contract the way it should anymore, giving salt to this patient was a bad decision. In fact, research shows that patients with heart failure have worsening of their symptoms when they have salt in their diet, and the most recent heart association guidelines recommend low-salt diets for these patients.

And why did he get better? It had nothing to do with chugging brine. He'd had a TIA, or a transient ischemic attack, exactly like a stroke except it's just that - transient. The brain is starved of oxygen for a short time because of low flow or a small clot blocking an artery, but then the flow is restored before brain tissue dies. Had this lasted long enough to kill the brain tissue, it would have been called a stroke; in his case, the symptoms - temporary paralysis of his facial nerve innervating the orbicularis oris muscle, causing a mouth droop on one side - went away about half an hour after he drank the salt water. Though it looked like the natural treatment worked, it in fact had nothing to do with his symptoms resolving.

But, because of this advice, his wife faithfully gave him several spoonfuls of salt every day, causing more and more water to build up in his blood vessels. And it wasn't long before his failing heart couldn't cope with this excess salt. He soon could walk shorter and shorter distances without having to stop for air, and would wake up gasping for breath in the middle of the night. His heart muscle's ability to pump blood, which had been measured right after his heart attack as still being still quite reasonable, couldn't cope with the extra water in his blood vessels and took a drastic turn for the worse.

I saw him when he came into the hospital with his wife, unable to breathe, but it was too late. Despite receiving massive amounts of diuretics, vasodilators, and being placed on a breathing machine, it was too little too late. A few weeks later his heart gave out completely, he died with his lungs full of water instead of air, with a look of panic on his face, gasping for oxygen, because of the misinformation the wife had been told naturopath.

It doesn't worry me that naturopaths provide a whole-person approach, and attempt to treat the cause of patients' ailments rather than the symptoms.

It does worry me when they cause harm to patients, and make their health worse.

Any doctor that prescribed salt to a patient with heart failure... not to mention miss the diagnosis of a stroke... could be sued, successfully, for malpractice.

It also worries me that out on the western coast of this country, in British Columbia, naturopaths have been given the right to prescribe medications,which not only seems to go against their entire profession's objective of treating things naturally, but is possibly dangerous given that they are quite simply not trained in this area.

But going back to the know what the worst part is? Had he seen a physician earlier, this could have been avoided... but the wife didn't see it that way. She left the hospital, without her husband, thinking that traditional medical treatment had failed to save her husband, when in fact the damage had been done long before he got to the hospital. Hopefully, her stronger belief in natural therapy doesn't kill her too.


Anonymous said...

If this story is true, surely the person who she told the salt story to would have told her what was actually going on?? Anyway who ever has a sodium deficiency these days (unless you drink 20 cups of water and don't eat)?

Anonymous said...

That has got to be one of THE most frustrating things... people's willingness to believe something, the first thing that they are told, and assume everything else is wrong.

Ken said...

Please, oh please tell me this isn't a true story.

Anonymous said...

This is a very sad story. My mother ran into a similar situation, although it did not prove fatal. She was told that extensive "biological terrain" testing was necessary for diagnosing her- the test consisted of taking the pH of several fluids (sweat, urine, you get the idea)with a strip. The "practitioner" wanted $320 for this diagnostic procedure that has gone "undiscovered" by physicians today. Luckily I convinced her not to waste money but it is so much worse to hear about a life being wasted.

EBMFTW said...

With regards to BC naturopaths prescribing, there are many posts by med students/residents/physicians in the following forum:

Matthew said...

That someone would take a man who has very obviously had a stroke to a NATUROPATH is sickening.