A PAIN IN THE NECK

That out of the way, though, she ruled that there was no evidence Dr. Stjernholm had violated his suspension except for a single instance--he signed a letter to an insurance company "Dr. Stjernholm" when, technically, because of the suspension, he was not a doctor. The judge ordered his suspension lifted. The board took the case to the state court of appeals, but lost.

Since then Dr. Stjernholm has filed three separate lawsuits against the Board of Chiropractic Examiners contending it ruined his reputation. (But he hasn't been uncharitable. "Any efforts you may wish to expend in order to resolve your pending litigation against the Board must be addressed to the attorney," Brenda Handy, the board's administrator at the time, advised Dr. Stjernholm in a 1991 letter, adding, "My staff and I wish to express our gratitude for the lovely poinsettia plant you sent to the board office.")

Dr. Stjernholm eventually found someone to monitor his records, a doctor of chiropractic named Susan Levy. After several months of keeping an eye on Dr. Stjernholm's practice, Levy left as a fan. "He's a brilliant mind," she says. "The response he's had from patients is something that all doctors should aspire to."

Levy, who practices in Lakewood, continues: "I think he's been harassed by the board very unfairly. If anyone wants to know the quality of his care, they should just sit in his waiting room and talk to his patients. They come in vans and RVs from Michigan and Washington and all over. They stay in hotels and come and get intensive therapy. Then they drive back home and plan their next trip."

Dr. Stjernholm claims he has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars fighting the Board of Chiropractic Examiners, the state Board of Education, Jefferson County and Lakewood. But his most expensive running battle has been against the government ueberbureaucracy, the Internal Revenue Service.

During the 1970s, as part of his mission to spread the word of chiropractic, Dr. Stjernholm began building and then exhibiting a small fleet of trucks he'd converted to "mobile educational units" displaying information about chiropractic. In 1980 he donated one to the Colorado Chiropractic Society and declared it as a tax deduction. After nearly a decade's worth of complex tax rulings and appeals, in 1989 the IRS determined it was not an appropriate gift for a tax writeoff.

Dr. Stjernholm claimed the original gift to be worth a $58,000 deduction. By the time the case wound its way through various courts, the IRS had assessed penalties and interest, bringing the final bill to more than $230,000. Five years ago the federal agency filed a lien on Dr. Stjernholm's house.

If the IRS hadn't acted so aggressively, it probably would have saved several local government agencies a load of future legal fees. In 1988 Dr. Stjernholm was on his way to retiring to a ranch in Wyoming. He'd already put a down payment on the land and moved several truckloads of equipment there.

But the IRS lien prevented him from securing a loan to close on the ranch. Worse, in May 1991 IRS agents seized Dr. Stjernholm's Wyoming farm equipment and auctioned it off to begin retiring his debt.

Two months ago Dr. Stjernholm filed the latest in his long series of lawsuits against the federal tax agency. This one claims that in its auction, the IRS didn't get fair market value for his farm equipment. By Dr. Stjernholm's calculations, the agency owes him $207,133.18.

"I don't see any way we're going to lose this one," Dr. Stjernholm says. "We've got all the receipts and everything. I don't intend to give them another nickel."

In the far back of the clinic, behind the Testimony and Legal rooms, are Dr. Stjernholm's soft-laser machines.

On the way back, hanging to the right in the hallway, there is a picture of a man hurling a bowling ball down an alley. The inscription reads, "If it wasn't for you I couldn't do this." Nearby is a posted note of thanks from Marilyn Hickey, of Marilyn Hickey Ministries in south Denver. "I treated her just yesterday," says Dr. Stjernholm. "We do a lot of local pastors. We don't charge them. It's a professional courtesy to those who've given so much to the Word."

The treatment room is crammed full of soft-laser machines. They look like hygienic engine hoists, with arms poised about four feet over the examination tables. Red light squiggles over one patient's forearm. Another woman lies prone while red swirls dance on her clothed bottom.

An eight-year-old girl with epilepsy lies on her back wearing dark sunglasses while the laser light whirls about her chest area. "After 34 years of practicing, I can sit here and say, `That child's going to be normal,'" Dr. Stjernholm tells her mother, who drove 21 hours to Denver from Indiana after hearing about the clinic from a friend. The reason, of course, is the laser machines, whose proximity provides a nice excuse for a short lecture:

Energy in Moderation. According to Dr. Stjernholm, only a half-dozen Colorado chiropractors use the soft-laser machines, but Martha Gorman, of the state chiropractic association, says it is used extensively in other countries. Dr. Stjernholm says the soft-laser is to the chiropractor's ultrasound machine what the MRI is to the X-ray: just another technological leap in patient treatment. The idea, he says, is to use very, very small amounts of laser-light energy to stimulate the tissues toward beginning their own healing process.

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