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Maryland doc spins fantastic tales while diagnosing mystery illness

Maryland doc spins fantastic tales while diagnosing mystery illness

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Health reporters receive calls from people all the time who say they are experiencing symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, and, most recently, Morgellons, and they can't get help. Often they say they are part of a cluster of cases that they think may be linked to an environmental problem, food contamination or "sick building." The easiest thing to do is to not write a story and avoid getting caught up in a debate between dueling experts about how serious the disorder is.

That's why what Brigid Schulte at The Washington Post did in 2008 was gutsy. She dove right into Morgellons, reporting as deeply as the evidence would allow for the story "Figments of the Imagination?" She then opened herself up to questions – some of them from people who seemed angry and desperate – in an online forum.

Toward the end of her story, Schulte introduced Dr. James Matthews, a family practice physician in Gaithersburg, Maryland:

Matthews, who says he himself has Morgellons and offhandedly mentions aliens and conspiracy theories, puts his patients on a strict, experimental regimen of high-dose antibiotics, antiparasitic medication and antifungal cream that can run as much as $1,000 total. They're told to drink colloidal silver, which doctors used as an antibiotic before the 1930s and which the Environmental Protection Agency has approved for use as a disinfectant in hospitals; and they mix diatomaceous earth (made of the hard shells of sea creatures) into their food and take a variety of herbs such as ginkgo biloba, as well as vitamins and home remedies such as cod liver and coconut oils. Sue took the long lists Matthews gave her and didn't ask questions. High doses of colloidal silver can turn the skin permanently blue. Though the silver is legal to sell as a dietary supplement, the Food and Drug Administration maintains it has never been tested to prove any therapeutic value.

She also noted this key fact that should always give patients and reporters pause, Matthews "prefers not to work with insurance companies, and patients often pay out of pocket, sometimes $500 per visit. Matthews, who has since sold his family practice to study Morgellons full time, also receives a portion of the proceeds every time he sells a bottle of NutraSilver brand colloidal silver in his office. The money, he says, is used to further his Morgellons research."

On his website, Matthews calls Morgellons "a quiet emergency that has been developing these past few years". In April 2008, four months after Schulte's story, he sent out a press release asking for people to donate money to "Advanced Medicine, L.L.C., a new non-profit company that he directs."

That same month, the Maryland Board of Physicians filed charges against Matthews for an entirely different emergency. The board said that it had been documenting since 2006 complaints that Matthews was prescribing high doses of painkillers for patients and getting them hooked. When confronted with these accusations, Matthews had an interesting response. He told the board that "for the immediate future, I will be working on a project for the U.S. Department of Defense involving brainwave reprogramming for soldiers with PTSD."

The board found Matthews guilty of "immoral conduct in the practice of medicine" and "selling, prescribing, giving away, or administering drugs for illegal or illegitimate purposes". The board put him on probation for three years in October 2009.

Because of that investigation, the board interviewed a physician's assistant who had worked with Matthews. She told the board that Matthews "believes that aliens are trying to eliminate humans from the planet earth to get access to the earth's resources, a manifestation of which is Morgellons Disease."  It was not clear whether he discovered this during his brainwave research or in some other fashion.

Then the board read The Washington Post story by Schulte. Even though countless medical board actions have been prompted by news stories, it is rare to see a news organization actually quoted. Here is what the board said:

On January 20, 2008, the Washington Post published an article entitled Figments of the Imagination which discusses Morgellons Disease and patients who claim to suffer from the illness. The writer of the article interviewed [Matthews] who stated that he had Morgellons and, according to the writer, "off-handedly mentions aliens and conspiracy theories."

Matthews, perhaps not surprisingly, claimed to the board that he had been misquoted and that the physician's assistant was a disgruntled former employee. But he also said that he was doing something new, apparently because he was no longer needed by the Department of Defense. Instead he was being paid $240,000 a year to provide "personal services" to a patient, including "driving him, doing household chores, talking with him and taking him to meetings and doctors' appointments." How many patients have a doctor who drives them to see other doctors?

The board investigated this claim and found that Matthews had moved to Florida where he was treating this patient without a Florida medical license. He and the patient were planning on purchasing a ranch in Nevada where they could create a "Wellness Center" to treat Morgellons patients. They were going to research infrared therapies and split the profits from the sale of these therapies 50/50. The patient also had agreed to leave Matthews $1 million in his will.

The board found Matthews "guilty of unprofessional conduct" and said he "failed to meet the standards of quality care, and failed to maintain adequate medical records in regard to 6 patients and the diagnosis of Morgellons Disease."

All that talk of aliens, military research and million-dollar wills must not have concerned the board much. It put Matthews on five years of probation in September 2010 to run concurrently with the earlier probation. At least the board fully documents Matthews' case and makes the information easy to find on the board's site.

Final question: What should you do when a person with a Morgellons story calls you? I try to keep all of my patient calls in a spreadsheet tagged with information about the disorder, doctor or hospital involved so that I can search for patterns later. This has led to some interesting pieces, and it's also a great way to let the caller know that you take them seriously and will be storing their information in a file you keep of story tips. Anyone with interesting Morgellons cases should post a comment below.

View Matthews and other doctors on the Doctors Behaving Badly Google map.

Questions? Tips? Email askantidote [at] gmail [dot] com

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