During a recent trip, I met a woman whose father had just passed away. When she discovered that I was a physician, she decided to tell me the sad story of the events leading up to his death. She gave me permission to share the story on my blog so long as I did not identify her or her family by name. For the purposes of the story, I’ll refer to the woman as Sue, and her father as Frank.
Frank was a healthy, robust man, descended from a long line of nonagenerians. Everyone assumed that he would live well into his 90’s – at least 30 more good years. One day Frank began having some leg pain, which he ignored as long as he could. Sue noticed him limping around a week later and decided to take him to see a physician. As it turned out, Frank had a deep venous thrombosis (or blood clot) in his leg, caused by a previously undiagnosed, mild genetic clotting disorder. The physicians treated him with heparin to prevent the clot from expanding, and prescribed coumadin to protect him from having the clot travel to his lungs – a condition (pulmonary embolism) that carries with it a high risk of death.
While researching his new medicines, Frank came upon an alternative medicine website. The site warned people against taking coumadin (stating that it was “a form of rat poison”) and offering herbal supplements instead. Frank decided to stop taking his coumadin, and purchased the alternative medicine from the website. Two weeks later he suffered a massive pulmonary embolism and died instantly.
Sue was broken-hearted to learn of her father’s decision to stop taking his blood thinners. She was furious that Frank had been a victim of some online snake oil salesmen, and was at a loss as to what to do. When I told her that my blog community, Better Health, was founded for the primary purpose of correcting misinformation on the Internet, and to support science-based health decisions, she was glad to know that we existed. Sue and her siblings are all getting tested for the genetic clotting disorder, and are committed to preventing clots with medicine if they need it.
When I hear stories like these, I am deeply saddened. Preventable deaths are always tragic, but when they occur at the hands of alternative medicine hucksters who profit by selling fake medicines, there’s an additional cringe factor.
The sale of ineffective alternative medicines is a multi-billion dollar industry. The Internet allows snake oil to flourish, and health misinformation is rampant. I strongly encourage people to “consider the source” of their health information more carefully than ever before. It is my hope that the content created by Better Health’s contributors and partners will help to protect people like Frank from making deadly mistakes. At least I gain some comfort from the knowledge that Sue and her extended family will be taking steps to protect themselves from Frank’s fate.