Do No Harm

Brian O'Connell was supposed to stand trial on June 23, facing fourteen criminal counts.

Instead, he went to Disney World.

That excursion violated the conditions of his bond, and when O'Connell returned to Colorado, he was arrested. His attorney also withdrew from the case because of a conflict of interest, so the naturopath had to find new representation. On Friday, June 29, he stood before District Court Judge Margie Enquist with his new attorney, Malcolm Seawell, asking for another extension in setting the trial date. Begrudgingly, Enquist agreed.

This is just the latest snag in O'Connell's story, which has been unfolding since he was arrested almost eighteen months ago.

On March 30, 2004, the Wheat Ridge Police Department raided Mountain Area Naturopathic Associates, O'Connell's clinic on Ward Road. The cops had been alerted by doctors at Lutheran Medical Center; they had concerns about several of O'Connell's patients who had been admitted to their facility.

Five days before O'Connell's arrest, physicians had treated seventeen-year-old Catherine "Cat" Elizabeth Bresina for cardiac arrest. Cat and her family had traveled from Wisconsin to receive medical treatment from O'Connell. During one session, he performed photoluminescence -- drawing blood, exposing it to ultraviolet light and replacing it in the body -- and gave the teenager an injection of vitamins C and B12. It was supposed to be a routine preventive-care session, but after the vitamin injection, Cat vomited, gasped for breath and lost consciousness, according to police records. While O'Connell attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, paramedics raced to the scene and delivered Cat to Lutheran Medical Center.

According to paramedics, she was in cardiac arrest for at least ten minutes, and doctors initially weren't sure whether she would make a full recovery. O'Connell explained to them that his patient had had an anxiety attack, but Dr. Joanne Edney was skeptical. She told police that she believed the young woman's sudden problem was caused by an allergic reaction, an air embolism, a blood embolism or a contaminated product -- not by an anxiety attack.

Doctors at Lutheran were particularly concerned because this wasn't the first patient of O'Connell's to end up in their emergency room. Two days earlier, colon-cancer patient Roy Gallegos died in the hospital hours after O'Connell treated him. And in December 2003, nineteen-year-old Sean Flanagan died the day after a photoluminescence treatment by O'Connell.

When the Wheat Ridge police got to O'Connell's clinic, they charged him with a laundry list of offenses, including theft, criminal impersonation, seven counts of assault, practicing medicine without a license and submitting a false application or report for controlled substances. Flanagan's parents also sued O'Connell for the wrongful death of their son; they settled out of court in June. (Neither O'Connell nor his attorneys returned numerous calls for comment.)

Catherine Bresina, Cat's mother, however, isn't suing the naturopath. She believes mainstream medicine has a vendetta against alternative healing. "He was a caring person. I really don't want to get him into trouble," she says.

And therein lies the crux of the issue: Are naturopaths doctors? O'Connell's business card listed him as an "NMD," a doctor of naturopathic medicine. He wore scrubs and a white coat with "Dr. O'Connell" embroidered on the breast. He hung an impressive assortment of certificates and diplomas on his walls.

From that, a potential patient might assume that O'Connell is a naturopathic physician. Someone who has a pre-med bachelor's degree and attended one of the four accredited graduate programs in the United States. A program in which he would have had an experience similar to that of a traditional medical school, with rigorous coursework; anatomy and cadaver labs; classes in clinical nutrition and botanical medicine, as well as homeopathy, massage, lifestyle counseling and acupuncture; clinical tests; residencies; and the fourteen-test, three-day naturopathic board exams. In states that license and regulate the profession, such naturopathic physicians are licensed primary-care physicians who can diagnose health problems, prescribe medication, perform minor surgeries and deliver babies.

But despite his impressive wall display, O'Connell is not a naturopathic physician.

He received his degrees from an unaccredited "distance learning institution." O'Connell's alma mater, Herbal Healer Academy, is run by Marijah McCain, who in August 2002 was sued by the Arkansas Attorney General for offering "accredited" two-week accelerated courses that would qualify participants to practice naturopathic medicine. She has since been ordered to stop offering "accredited" degrees.

Colorado doesn't license naturopathic doctors, but there is a naturopathic "regulatory" organization: the Colorado Alternative Medical Regulatory Board. However, that board is "illegitimate and unlawful," according to the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies.

Naturopathic physician Rena Bloom is the president of the Colorado Association of Naturopathic Physicians and has been fighting for Colorado to license her profession for more than a decade; the current application for regulation and licensure was submitted to the Department of Regulatory Agencies last year, and naturopathic physicians are expecting a reply sometime in November.

"Anyone can use food, herbs and homeopathy," she says, "but not anybody can call themselves a doctor."

Not all naturopaths agree. Joanie Sevcik-Weichbrodt, president of the Coalition of Natural Health, sees regulation as ineffective. "The problem is, they want only certain schools to be allowed to sit for board exams for licensure," she says. "Only nationally accredited naturopathic schools. They want to put all the other 5,000 to 10,000 natural healers in the State of Colorado out of business; they want a monopoly."

She is also concerned that licensing would restrict the number of people who can use the term "naturopathic doctor." As it is, Sevcik-Weichbrodt doesn't think that those who legitimately call themselves naturopathic physicians are "real" naturopaths; their practice is too tainted by modern medicine. They are, she says, "doctor wannabes. A naturopathic doctor uses only natural forms of healing. [These others] want to be alternative primary-care physicians, and that has nothing to do with a definition of doctor of naturopathy or naturopathic doctor. The true, traditional naturopathic doctors would not do any medically related type of therapy."

The Bresinas weren't aware of these nuances when they went to O'Connell. Catherine Bresina found him online, where he listed such qualifications as "Board Certified Naturopathic Physician," "Colorado Naturopathic Medical Association Member," "Licensed by National DEA," "Licensed by the State of Colorado, Controlled Substances Division," "Doctorate in Naturopathic Medicine" and "Masters of Science: Microbiology, Minor: Biochemistry." He does not say where he obtained his master's degree, but O'Connell has claimed he attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The university says he was there for three months but did not earn a degree. He also claimed to have worked in the pharmaceutical industry for ten years. According to police reports, he worked in a pharmacy as a technician until he was fired for allegedly stealing prescription pads and drugs.

One of the official-looking certificates on O'Connell's office walls stated that he received a doctoral degree in naturopathic medicine from the Colorado University of Naturopathic Medicine. The "degree" claims that the CUNM program's "high standards may exceed the credit hour requirements of the Dept. of Education by twenty percent or more" and that the "diplomate endorsement" applies "criteria beyond established standards set by the Dept. of Education." It includes the seal of the unrecognized Colorado Alternative Medical Regulatory Board.

Another certificate was O'Connell's license, obtained from Washington, D.C. The district does license registered naturopaths, but a practicing naturopath need only register to get one. There are no procedures in place to examine educational requirements or proof of residence. Furthermore, D.C.-licensed naturopaths are supposed to provide their patients with a written statement proclaiming that they are only doctors of naturopathy, not medical doctors. They are also not allowed to inject substances into patients or prescribe drugs.

Though Cat didn't know that before her photoluminescence treatment, she still doesn't have ill feelings toward O'Connell. She did, however, tell police that she "probably wouldn't go to him again" unless she had a serious health problem. And she does agree with O'Connell's assessment of why she went into cardiac arrest.

"I could have spazzed," she told them. "Things happen."

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Amber Taufen has been writing about people, places and things in Denver since 2005. She works as an editor, writer, and production and process guru out of her home office in the foothills.
Contact: Amber Taufen