If it sounds like a quack .. A journey to the fringes of American medicine

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

Book - 2023

"A bizarre, rollicking trip through the world of fringe medicine, filled with leeches, baking soda IVs, and, according to at least one person, zombies. It's no secret that American health care has become too costly and politicized to help everyone. So where do you turn if you can't afford doctors, or don't trust them? In this book, Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling examines the growing universe of non-traditional treatments -- including some that are really non-traditional. With costs skyrocketing and anti-science sentiment spreading, the so-called "medical freedom" movement has grown. Now it faces its greatest challenge: going mainstream. In these pages you'll meet medical freedom advocates including an internatio...nal leech smuggler, a gold miner-turned health drink salesman who may or may not be from the Andromeda galaxy, and a man who says he can turn people into zombies with aerosol spray. One by one, these alternative healers find customers, then expand and influence, always seeking the one thing that would take their businesses to the next level--the support and approval of the government"--

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  • Cast of Characters
  • Introduction
  • Part 1. Incubation
  • 1. Larry Lyre, 1972
  • 2. Toby Mcadam, 1976
  • 3. Robert O. Young, 1970
  • 4. Alicja Kolyszko, 1956
  • 5. Dale And Leilani Neumann, 1987
  • 6. The Alien, 1996
  • 7. America
  • Part 2. Prodromal Politics
  • 1. Larry Lyre's Laser Light
  • 2. Toby Mcadam's Supplements
  • 3. Robert O. Young's Ph Miracle
  • 4. Alicja Kolyszko's Leeches
  • 5. The Neumanns' Prayers
  • 6. The Alien's Drink
  • 7. American Health Care
  • Part 3. Acute Pangs
  • 1. Larry Lyre's Laser Light Leads to Life
  • 2. Toby McAdam's Supplements Sanctioned
  • 3. Robert O. Young's Ph Miracle Helps
  • 4. Alicia Kolyszko's Leeches Suck
  • 5. The Neumanns' Prayers Raised
  • 6. The Alien's Drink Bleaches
  • 7. American Health Care a Refuge
  • Part 4. Convalescence (Or Death)
  • 1. Larry Lytle's Laser Light Leads to Life Sentence
  • 2. Toby Mcadam's Supplements Sanctioned by FDA
  • 3. Robert O. Young's Ph Miracle Helps Cancer
  • 4. Alicia Kolyszko's Leeches' Suck-Cess
  • 5. The Neumanns' Prayers Raised Hell
  • 6. The Alien's Drink Bleaches the President
  • 7. American Health Care a Refuge for Zombies
  • Epilogue
  • Acknowledgments
  • Bibliography
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

In this blistering survey, journalist Hongoltz-Hetling (A Libertarian Walks into a Bear) explores the "world of science-lite health care, its origins, and how, between 2000 and 2020, it changed the face of America." In novelistic detail, Hongoltz-Hetling chronicles the lives and careers of nine alternative medicine purveyors, including a failed Montana gubernatorial candidate who tangled with the FDA over supplements he had developed to cure his mother's cancer and a South Dakota dentist who claimed to have invented a laser capable of harnessing "universal healing light" to remedy any ailment. The profiles highlight the individuals' predictable eccentricities (Alicja Kolyszko, a proponent of leeches, goes by "Dr. A-Leech-A"), but the author also excels at teasing out the sometimes tragic undertones: Leilani and Dale Neumann--founders of a Pentecostal ministry and "confident that prayer, not medical science, was the One True Cure"--suffered the death of their 11-year-old daughter from untreated diabetes after prayer failed to save her, leading to the couple's conviction for reckless homicide. By turns humorous, enraging, and heartbreaking, the vivid stories drive home the stakes and consequences of hawking unproven treatments, though it feels like a missed opportunity that Hongoltz-Hetling doesn't address the larger social forces behind the rise of quack medicine. Still, this proves a powerful antidote to medical disinformation. (Apr.)

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Review by Library Journal Review

Award-winning journalist Hongoltz-Hetling (A Libertarian Walks into a Bear) has written a sardonic indictment of some of the most non-traditional health care treatments in the United States. The author finds the comedy and horror in the earnest curative use of lasers, supplements, and bleach, while shedding serious light on the dangers of these quack treatments. The book also describes the uneven attempts of the FDA to monitor and control poorly tested and potentially dangerous approaches. The desperation in the face of advancing and irreversible illness lends a pathos lens to the tale of this sub-rosa curative industry. Underneath the book's broad comedy of "healers" convinced of their marvelous wares lies the more tragic story of the desperate customers misled into trusting quackery, possibly to their deaths. The book's humor is best taken with a dose of compassion and hope for the swindled. VERDICT A witty and informative examination of several alternative health-care practices in the United States that indicts both pseudo-healers and unsuccessful efforts to regulate them.--Dorian Gossy

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

A wry, wide-ranging investigation into the "alternative medicine" business and the dangers it poses. In bygone days, fast-talking charlatans sold snake oil from carnival stages. These days, quirky treatments pop up in the wilder corners of the internet, but the message--this stuff will cure anything, from baldness to cancer--is essentially the same. Hongoltz-Hetling, a George Polk Award--winning journalist and author of A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear, has a rollicking good time delving into strange treatments for which there seems to be no shortage of customers. He follows the careers of several "alternative" therapists and finds a recurring pattern. They claim that all diseases and ailments have a single cause; therefore, there is a single treatment. The author calls this the One True Cure method, and it has the advantage of making everything simple and clear. Often, patients just want certainty, and the therapists are effective at citing spurious studies and cases. They also spin a convincing tale of how big pharma is actively working to keep other treatments off the market to protect their profits. These range from leeches to remove infected blood to lasers that can cure cancer (apparently, by killing the little bugs that cause tumors). Hongoltz-Hetling is not sure whether the therapists believe what they are saying or are just money-hungry hucksters. He sympathizes with the Food and Drug Administration, often overwhelmed by the flood of dubious products, although he notes that several of the therapists he interviewed ended up in jail. This is entertaining stuff, but there is a dark side. "Silliness crosses a line into toxicity if it harms the public health by convincing people to forgo medical care," Hongoltz-Hetling writes, and he provides a list of people he encountered in his research who died by opting for a fringe treatment. It is a sobering conclusion but a necessary one. A walk on the weird side with an author who knows when to be funny and when to be serious. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.