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By Chris Parker
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ROB WALDON SEEMED like a pretty run-of-the-mill case when he came to the Wellspring Clinic a year ago. He had been having back pain for some time, he told Helen Healy, the holistic practitioner he'd come to see; he had a dull ache on his right side and trouble urinating. He'd been lifting drywall some time ago, he volunteered, and that might have caused the problem. A physician's assistant he'd seen had told him to use over-the-counter painkillers.
That might help, Healy said, but it was only a temporary measure; instead of just treating symptoms, natural medicine would seek the root of his problem. She did some massage and placed a couple of acupuncture needles, but Waldon felt "extremely uncomfortable" and asked her to stop. Before he left she gave him three medications, told him to use hot and cold compresses, and collected $99.95.
Healy next heard from Waldon almost a year later, when she was served with court papers from the state Attorney General's office. Her patient, it turned out, had actually been an undercover agent from the state Board of Medical Practice and had visited Healy as part of an undercover investigation. Her actions constituted practicing medicine without a license, and the board was now filing for a court injunction to make her close up shop.
Because alternative medicine takes place mostly in the shadow of the law, no one knows for sure how many people hang out shingles promising to heal. But Healy is by any measure among the more credentialed: She's a former National Institutes of Health staffer who holds a four-year postgraduate "doctor of naturopathy" degree from an accredited school. She says she's been advised by her lawyer not to discuss the details of her practice, but notes that it generally relies on well-established methods like herbal medicine, nutrition, massage, and acupuncture.
According to an affidavit filed by the state Attorney General's office, which acts as the board's lawyer in the case, Healy not only practiced medicine without a license when she saw Waldon and another undercover agent, but in Waldon's case she also failed to diagnose "a potentially serious medical condition": The symptoms he'd complained about, according to an expert opinion solicited by the board, should have alerted Healy to a potential kidney stone. Healy counters that by law she isn't allowed to diagnose, and that she did refer Waldon to a licensed professional, a chiropractor.
Either way, Healy's case seems set to make waves. For years she's been one of the most visible members of the local natural healing crowd; she's advised the likes of Allina, Park Nicollet, and Blue Cross Blue Shield on alternative medicine, and has been among the leaders in an effort to get naturopaths licensed in Minnesota. Naturopathy is already legal in 12 other states, including Oregon, where Healy holds a license; in Minnesota, however, efforts to get it and other alternative practices legalized have largely foundered on skepticism from the medical establishment and lack of interest from the Legislature. (One notable exception is acupuncturists, who, after years of lobbying, won the right to become licensed through the Board of Medical Practice.)
Days after the AG's office filed for an injunction against her in Ramsey County District Court, a support organization formed behind Healy, vowing to make the case a cause célèbre. "If Helen Healy can be put under injunction not to practice," wrote herbalist Matthew Wood in one of the articles and fliers the group has been circulating, "anyone can... [A loss for her] would undoubtedly be followed by injunctions against many other practitioners."
Neither the AG's office nor the Board of Medical Practice would respond directly to those charges when contacted by City Pages; generally, those most closely associated with the case on all sides remain cagey. Board of Medical Practice investigator Pam Giefer does say that any board investigation starts with a complaint--which, she notes, may be filed by a patient, a fellow health professional, or anyone else with an interest. "We do not seek out practitioners," she says.
Either way, Healy's supporters consider the case a potential watershed. By going after a highly credentialed practitioner, they speculate, the state might just have created the perfect opportunity for a challenge to the 1927-vintage Medical Practice Act. Wellspring founder Thomas Stowell, who served as a mentor to Healy, died two years ago after years of lobbying for legal naturopathy; in his will he established a legal defense fund, and Healy has been urged to use that money for an all-out legal battle. Neither Healy nor her attorney will say whether they'll take the matter that far, noting that there are "ongoing discussions" with the AG's office, presumably to have the court case dropped. A hearing before Ramsey County District Court Judge Bertrand Poritsky is set for August 21.
News Intern Jon Segal contributed to this story.