Quack Cancer Therapy Led to Vitamin A Poisoning

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

In 1979, eight-year-old Charles "Chuckie" Peters, Jr., entered a University of Chicago hospital suffering from headaches, extreme sensitivity to bright lights, severe bone pain, mental confusion, and a ten-pound weight loss. Previously diagnosed as leukemic, the boy had been receiving effective doses of chemotherapy. But his mother—who was concerned about its severe side effects—had been persuaded to give him large doses of vitamin A as part of a program of "metabolic therapy" advocated by Harold Manner, Ph.D.

In 1980, Mrs. Peters' told the Illinois state legislature's Commission on Cancer Quackery that Chuckie reached a point where "he couldn't walk at all and the touching of his arms and legs brought screams of pain." The cause: vitamin A poisoning. Chuckie stayed in the hospital for about two weeks so the doctors could relieve his bone pain with narcotics and monitor the gradual return of the function of his brain. After returning home, he was unable to attend school for another two months. "Almost half the time we carted him around in a wheelchair," his mother told the Commission. "Our son was a shell of what he was a few months before. The three years on the chemotherapy program never yielded the amount of pain he experienced from vitamin A toxicity . . . which almost cost him his life!"

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. Chuckie recovered completely from the vitamin A poisoning. Following his final course of chemotherapy, his leukemia did not recur and he remains well today. At a Congressional hearing conducted by U.S. Representative Claude Pepper, Mrs. Peters, accompanied by Chuckie, told their story this way:

In March of 1978, our son, Chuckie, 7 years old, was first diagnosed as having leukemia by doctors at Wyler's Children's Hospital Following the diagnosis, my husband and I were presented with an explanation of the treatment to be used to produce and maintain a remission in our child. We agreed to the treatment plan. The following weeks proved to be a very traumatic time for our son. He had spinal taps, bone marrow aspirations, bone marrow biopsies- all very painful. He also was introduced to large amounts of chemotherapy drugs and radiation treatments.

After some prodding from friends, we went to a nutritional consultant, hoping to find a way to build up our son's body from the devastating effects of the treatments and the drugs. We started Chuckie on a nutritional program which included vitamins, herbs, fresh fruits and vegetables, among other things.

The nutritional consultant also suggested that we contact a retired doctor in Texas, Dr. Robert Baldwin, who administered a special German preparation of vitamin A that was seemingly valuable in enhancing the immune system of cancer patients. The nutritional consultant called Dr. Baldwin, and we were soon convinced to start Chuckie on this therapy around September of 1978. At the same time, we were told about a Dr. Harold Manner who treated cancer victims with a metabolic therapy, including the use of vitamin A and laetrile.

In November, I attended a health convention at which Dr. Manner was one of the speakers. Following his talk, I was thoroughly convinced that this was the way to go, and I ran up and explained Chuckie's situation. He said I should get Chuckie into the American International Hospital in Zion and that Dr. Davis would be the doctor to talk to.

A few days later, I called Dr. Davis and scheduled an appointment for Chuckie on December 6. That day, while waiting to see Dr. Davis, we talked to patients who were terminally ill, from all parts of the country. They told us about the debts they had incurred coming to this hospital. It was a last resort. Later we spoke with Dr. Davis, who agreed that Chuckie should continue taking vitamin A and going to Wyler's Children's Hospital until they set up their own program for him. We agreed that American International would be best for Chuckie in his office, as he confirmed our hope that Chuckie would eventually be taken off chemotherapy without any injurious side effects. Dr. Davis told us he hoped that he had caught Chuckie in time before any irreversible damage from the chemotherapy drugs had taken place. He also advised us that we should order laetrile right away and begin treating our son with it. We were told to order 30 vials and given a list of distributors.

The first thing we did when we got home was to call these different distributors of laetrile. Our first encounter was with a very shady sounding character who sold laetrile as a side line. He told my husband to meet him at a warehouse at a location my hu_sband felt totally unsafe going to. The man then replied it would be best to meet during the day. The transaction was to be strictly a cash basis sale. Well, we crossed that distributor out. The next person we talked to was a woman whose husband had died from cancer, but she still had about 20 vials of laetrile that she would sell to us cheap. She promised they were all still good. Needless to say, we crossed that one out, too.

Finally, we located a more professional sounding business, Cytotex Corp., in Dallas, Texas. We ordered the 30 vials of laetrile at $9 per vial, and this was just the beginning. It was to be shipped to us C.O.D.. within that week.

At the end of the week, Chuckie developed an infection in his finger which led to blood poisoning. We immediately took him to Wyler's Hospital, where he was admitted. I requested a meatless diet and revealed to the dietician that Chuckie was receiving megadoses of vitamins. The dietician related this to Dr. Wilson, a hematology doctor, and he talked to me at length about the possible side effects of giving megadoses of vitamins to Chuckie, especially the vitamin A. Dr. Wilson was very, very convincing in his argument that we should not put Chuckie on Dr. Manner' metabolic therapy. So we decided against changing hospitals and using laetrile, but we did stay with the vitamins and diet. We figured they couldn't possibly do any harm, even though it was against our doctor's wishes.

After leaving the hospital, I called Dr. Manner and explained what I was doing with Chuckie. I told him of our doctor's urging to take him off the megadoses of vitamins, to which Dr. Manner' reply was, I should stay with it. I also asked Dr. Manner if he would completely back me in what I was doing, and would he also talk to my son's doctors if they so requested. He said he most definitely would. That week, two of the doctors tried to contact him, but he was unavailable.

In October 1979, a year after having started Chuckie on the vitamin A therapy, he started having waves of nausea and much itching of the skin. On October 23, 1979, I got a call from his school to come and get him. He was very nauseated, along with having a severe headache. He started vomiting repeatedly at home and was unable to hold anything in his stomach. The day after, the headaches continued, as well as the wrist and the skin pain. The pain progressed in the days to come to such a point that he could hardly walk. Sensitivity to light increased to where the room had to be darkened. He then started showing signs of muscle spasms in his right arm. It would jerk downward as he tried to feed himself. Each day brought more and more pain. He couldn't walk at all, and the touching of his arms and legs brought screams of pain.

At this time, I wrote to Dr. Baldwin—I couldn't reach Dr. Manner—asking again for reassurance about the vitamin A and also the vitamin C we had him on and informing him as to what was happening to Chuckie. He did assure me the problems Chuckie was experiencing had never been noted by him, nor did he ever read of them in relation to the vitamins.

After a thorough examination and blood tests were done on Chuckie at Wyler's Hospital, excessive levels of calcium were found in Chuckie's blood, a resulting factor of vitamin A toxicity. He was immediately admitted to the hospital and an IV started to help flush out the calcium from his system. Leukemia relapse was immediately ruled out by a spinal tap procedure. A brain scan and a body scan were scheduled. The brain scan showed swelling in the cranial areas, and the body scan revealed extra bone growth, causing much bone inflammation, the reason for the extreme amount of pain he was experiencing. One doctor made the comment after Christmas tree lights. The only relief he had from the pain was through various pain medications. First, doctors tried Tylenol with codeine, then demerol. After a while, these had no effect on the pain. They administered methadone in combination with other .pain killers; they eventually had no effect. The doctors were beside themselves, not knowing what more they could do to help relieve this horrible pain. Then, by the grace of God, Chuckie started showing signs of improvement, less pain, and his appetite started picking up.

Two days later, he was released from the hospital, but he was unable to go back to school for 2ó months. Almost half of this time, we carted him around in a wheelchair. His thinking capabilities and concentration were minimal for a time. His weight loss was almost 10 pounds. Our son was a shell of what he was a few months before. The 3 years on the chemotherapy program never yielded the amount of pain that he experienced during that 3ó months of pain from vitamin A toxicity. We don't know what the benefits of this vitamin A therapy were. We saw much of the negative effects, which almost cost our son his sight, which almost cost him normal brain functions, which almost cost him his life.

We have run through the gamut of quacks in attempting to help our son. Not only laetrile, not only vitamin A, but coffee enemas were also recommended to use as treatment for leukemia.

As incredible as all this sounds, parents with young, helpless children, elderly persons, and the like, become desperate for treatment alternatives and find themselves at wits' end. It is these desperate people-the young in my case, as well as the old-on whom these peddlers of quackery prey. The vulnerable should be protected, and these magical cure artists should be stopped. People, including my son, were injured by their reckless activities, and that just should not occur.

I hope our tragic experience with an unorthodox and unproven cancer treatment will serve to alert others to the dangers associated with such experimentation. We are the lucky ones. Chuckie is alive. Others have not been as lucky.

When I told Chuckie we were coming to Washington, D.C., to tell our story, his eyes lit up, and his comment was, "Mom, perhaps it is like you said. Good can come from evil." And I hope our being here will facilitate that statement that good certainly can come from evil. Thank you.

In 1983, the Peters family sued Dr. Manner and the others who had led them astray. The suit was settled out of court with undisclosed payment, but I don't recall which of the defendants were involved in the settlement. Manner died in October 1988, but various forms of "metabolic treatment" are still available.

This article was posted on December 20, 2018.

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