A PAIN IN THE NECK
part 2 of 2
Stjernholm, Son and Grandson Buffalo Acres occupies a wedge of land in unincorporated Lakewood between Mt. Carbon Dam, which holds back Bear Creek Lake, and a new golf course. Dr. Stjernholm nods toward a nearby strip of green. He says, "There's only one--fairway?--on this side. I think. I've never played, so I'm not familiar with their terms. I just don't have enough time. There's too much work to do."
Two buffalo bulls munch hay in one fenced-off area. In another pen, three young buffalo calves graze. Next to them are three Black Angus cattle. A horse and a mule wander freely around the three-and-a-half-acre compound. Mostly, though, Dr. Stjernholm has fondness for his equipment.
Next to the entrance is a forty-foot flatbed trailer. It is to Dr. Stjernholm what golf clubs and Porsches are to other doctors. "I'm probably the only licensed doctor in Colorado with a commercial driver's license," he says. "We go down the Valley Highway twelve feet wide and seventy feet long. That's what I do for relaxation."
Inside a shed are another dozen or so farm implements, trucks, grinders, tractors. "Got the ol' five-ton crane over there," he says proudly. "That's one of the handiest things I got."
To the south of his property, the concrete of Old Hampden Road fades into dirt. Then it runs directly into one of Dr. Stjernholm's fences. He built it over the road in 1983, after the county had abandoned the street in favor of the new Hampden Road, Route 285. Dr. Stjernholm figured the land belonged to him, so he absorbed it into his compound.
Jefferson County disagrees. The lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial next March.
To the north are a half-dozen large semi- and flatbed trailers sitting on Dr. Stjernholm's property. The county ordered them removed in 1988, contending that storing feed in trailers violated the zoning laws; Dr. Stjernholm kept them there anyway. "Because they're wrong," he says, reasonably. "Let them come and get 'em. There are trailers all over Jefferson County. Why just single out Stjernholm?"
Still, he is confident the county's bureaucrats won't come calling anytime soon. "They know I sure know where the courtroom is," he points out. "And I might just be my own lawyer."
Dr. Stjernholm is also in the process of protesting his property taxes and, in a related matter, the county's decision to rezone his land from agricultural to residential. There is only one possible solution. "They'll just have to change it back," he says. "If they don't, they'll have a lawsuit on their hands." Which compels him to a short lecture:
The Value of Adversity Even If You Lose. "With these people in authority, you go up against them, and boy! They just don't like you to challenge them," he says. "I don't thrive on it." He pauses. "Well, I shouldn't say that. I thrive on controversy when I know I'm right."
He continues: "I've spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on lawsuits over principles. But I'd rather go to court because of principle and lose than not stand up for what I believe in."
Lesson? "When it's all said and done, there's never a U-Haul behind the hearse," Dr. Stjernholm says. "All you leave behind are your accomplishments."
Back at the office, sitting in the parking lot before getting out of the car, Dr. Stjernholm is inspired to deliver another short lecture:
Fever as the Body's Natural Reaction to Infection. "We use all these drugs as soon as we get a fever," he says, "but a fever's so natural."
Lesson? "Fever is nature's way of softening tissue so it can stretch and grow," Dr. Stjernholm says.
Across the hall from Dr. Stjernholm's Testimony Room is the Legal Room.
In one corner is a laser printer. A table in the middle is piled with official documents. One entire wall is decorated with oak file cabinets crammed with other documents. Each cabinet has a label, "Stjernholm vs...." Another wall supports metal shelves teetering with cardboard boxes stuffed with still more legal documents. "Here," Dr. Stjernholm says helpfully, reaching for one of the higher boxes. "This is a real cute one."
Dr. Stjernholm began exercising his legal rights in earnest in 1963, when he wrote a note for one of his patients to the Jefferson County school district explaining that she was unable to attend school and thus would have to be educated at home. The district balked, questioning whether a chiropractor could make the medical determinations traditionally made by physicians. Dr. Stjernholm sued.
His case against the state Department of Education wound up in the Colorado Supreme Court. It came down in Dr. Stjernholm's--and the chiropractic profession's--favor. The justices reasoned the state could not license chiropractors to practice and then have another public agency ignore them. (The family later sued the state for damages--Dr. Stjernholm paid their legal bills "just to prove a point"--but lost.)
Dr. Stjernholm's highly personal relationship with the state's Board of Chiropractic Examiners began in 1980, although at the time no one knew it. That's when he treated a six-year-old girl named Wendy Holland. After leaving his office one day, she was admitted to University Hospital, where she subsequently suffered a heart attack and permanent brain damage.
Wendy's parents sued the hospital for negligence and received an out-of-court settlement. Dr. Stjernholm wasn't named as a defendant. But in 1983 the hospital's lawyer notified the chiropractic examiners board that Wendy had seen him the fateful day she was admitted to the hospital and recommended that they investigate. In April 1986--six years after the original incident--the board charged him with negligence.
Insulted, Dr. Stjernholm launched an aggressive campaign of his own. "We don't go looking for trouble," he explains. "But we sure respond to it." He dug up Breckenridge police records showing that the board's investigator at the time had been arrested for suspected cocaine use and sent them to the governor. (The chief investigator for the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies says that the woman no longer works for him--although he adds that she did not leave because of Dr. Stjernholm's counter-investigation.)
Throughout the investigation, Dr. Stjernholm had a difficult time avoiding controversy. In 1986, while he was its president, the Colorado Chiropractic Council filed a lawsuit against several local hospitals demanding its members be given medical privileges. (The suit petered out after some of the hospitals agreed to allow the chiropractors to treat inpatients.)
And several years before that Dr. Stjernholm had attracted attention when a Commerce City couple took their son to him for treatment of jaundice. The Adams County Social Services Department was unsure that a chiropractor was the appropriate health professional to treat the child. When it learned of the incident, the county temporarily relieved the parents of their son.
The parents complained that the agency had deprived them of their right to choose their doctor. Dr. Stjernholm, meanwhile, was pleased to announce that publicity from the case had helped his practice rather than hurt it. "That's what happens when you are one of the most successful chiropractors in the state," he informed the Rocky Mountain News, adding, promotionally, "I've had some amazing results."
Despite the dire implications of malpractice, in October 1987 an administrative law judge found only that Dr. Stjernholm had not kept thorough records. (He claimed he referred Wendy Holland to a medical doctor, but there was no such notation in her chart.) The board placed him on a six-month suspension and ordered him to find another chiropractor to monitor his record-keeping. Today, Dr. Stjernholm attributes the peer censure from the outgoing president of the Colorado Chiropractic Association to professional jealousy.
By 1989 Dr. Stjernholm had yet to hire a records monitor. (Finding volunteers proved tricky. At one time the board thought it had found two chiropractors willing to help. But the day after they were appointed, Dr. Stjernholm sent them letters pointing out that he was suing the board and that they might be called on to testify later. Both men informed the board they had reconsidered and had decided not to monitor Dr. Stjernholm's records.)
In September 1989 the state decided it had done enough waiting. Noting that it was now nearly two years after it had ordered him to hire a records monitor, the Board of Chiropractic Examiners suspended Dr. Stjernholm's license to practice for three months.
The suspension came and went without too much disruption--he hired a temporary associate so his offices could remain open. Also, Dr. Stjernholm prepared a short lecture:
A Miscarriage of Justice. In October 1989 Dr. Stjernholm produced a 45-minute video, during which he urged his patients to sign a petition demanding a grand-jury investigation of the Board of Chiropractic Examiners and the Attorney General. The tape (still available for distribution) ran on a continuous loop during office hours throughout his suspension.
The punishment ended in early 1990. But that September the board determined it had evidence Dr. Stjernholm had continued practicing chiropractic during his suspension. One of the complaints to the Board of Chiropractic Examiners came from Dr. J. Eric Griffiths--who at the time was president of the board. He claimed one of his patients told him she was treated by Dr. Stjernholm during the time he was suspended. (Dr. Griffiths did not return phone calls from Westword.)
In December 1990 a fed-up Board of Chiropractic Examiners voted to suspend Dr. Stjernholm's license again, this time for "willful and deliberate violation of the Chiropractic Practice Act." Dr. Stjernholm appealed the decision. And, mostly, he won.
Much of the case against Dr. Stjernholm hinged on the testimony of a chiropractor he'd hired to cover for him while he was suspended the first time. Dr. Patrick Morries told state investigators he had witnessed Dr. Stjernholm treat four patients while his license was suspended.
Unfortunately for Morries, the administrative law judge didn't believe him. The judge noted that Morries hadn't complained until he'd been fired by Dr. Stjernholm. But the main reason for the judge's ruling was the patients themselves. One by one, the four testified they'd never been treated by Dr. Stjernholm between December 1989 and February 1990. (Morries, who today practices in northwest Denver, declines to comment.)
The judge was not entirely supportive of Dr. Stjernholm. For instance, in her June 1991 opinion she noted that he hadn't exactly cooperated with the board. "As a factual conclusion...the Court would find that Dr. Stjernholm's approach to the disciplinary hearings against him can be reasonably described as obstructionist," she wrote.
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.
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.
Lesson? "I always tell my patients: Don't burn the toast. A little dab'll do you," Dr. Stjernholm says.
"What Dr. Stjernholm is doing has had extraordinary results--anecdotally," says Gorman. "That said, I must stress that it's an experimental therapy; there's no direct scientific foundation for what he's doing. He's had tremendous success. But we can't endorse it."
She continues: "Dr. Al can be considered a pioneer. He's the most ethical doctor I've ever met. But he uses unorthodox treatment for his patients. He believes so strongly in the ability of the body to heal itself. And he believes strongly in his ability to do it. It's such a powerful thing to have that belief."
While he observes his patients absorbing the dancing laser light, Dr. Stjernholm is inspired. He delivers a short lecture:
The Body's Response to Good Chiropractic. "She'll probably kill me for telling you this, but my wife, Elsie, was scrubbing the floor the other day, the old-fashioned way, on her knees, and when she was done she had hemorrhoids this big," Dr. Stjernholm says, holding his thumb and forefinger in a circle the size of a half-dollar. A series of proper manipulations, however, and they soon disappeared.
Another example: Dr. Stjernholm says, "The wildest thing I have in my video library--Cindy, who takes my X-rays, her uncle, Ken, I've known for thirty years. He came in with hemorrhoids. And I said, `Ken, why don't you get off your duff and go home and do the stretches I told you to do? Do that slowly and gently every day forever, and they'll disappear.' And they did."
Lesson? "Movement is life," Dr. Stjernholm says. "Ain't been a cat born that don't know how to stretch."
end of part 2
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