Case raises questions about regulation of alternative healing

Published: 2011-08-08 12:10:06
Author: Amy Karon | Milwaukee Journal Sentinel | August 1, 2011

Paintings in Barbara May's two-story home depict a cabin in a sunny meadow, an abstract flower in shades of orange and green.

May, 49, created those scenes. Three years ago she played guitar, painted and cleaned homes. Now she uses a walker for balance, fighting spasms in her legs when she stands. Sometimes she struggles just to breathe.

"I don't go anywhere. I don't work anymore," May said. "It feels like I'm wearing a corset. My hands constantly sting. It's hard just to write a couple of checks."

May has severe, chronic spinal disease in her neck, her medical records show. She can walk because two years ago she had urgent surgery to remove discs that were compressing her cervical spinal cord, making it swell with fluid. She also has spinal osteoporosis — weak, brittle vertebrae. Spinal manipulation — commonly known as chiropractic adjustment — can be dangerous for patients with spinal nerve damage or osteoporosis, states the Mayo Clinic website, which offers comprehensive information on hundreds of diseases.

But before May knew she had spinal disease, she spent almost a year in the care of a Milwaukee man named Sik Kin Wu. And May says she paid Wu, a self-described "intuitive healer," to adjust her neck — not once or twice, but 11 times during a year.

Wu, a Shorewood, Wis., restaurant owner with a history of federal tax fraud, says he can tell what's wrong with people by looking at them. He acknowledged he isn't licensed to provide health care in the United States, instead providing a certificate stating he completed a four-month acupuncture and Chinese massage program in Shanghai.

But a Journal Sentinel investigation found Wu has used spinal manipulation — considered the work of a chiropractor or, in some cases, a physical therapist or credentialed massage therapist — on May and many others for years. By his own account, Wu also charges $350 to put his hand in people's vaginas and rectums to "heal" conditions such as ovarian cysts and erectile dysfunction.

The Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services wouldn't say whether Wu's activities are legal, but Wisconsin statutes prohibit the unlicensed practice of medicine, surgery or chiropractic care.

May said she sent the department a complaint about Wu over a year ago, but officials said they have no record of it and didn't investigate. Indeed, the department doesn't regulate many alternative providers at all. And its rate of seriously disciplining physicians ranked third-worst in the country last year.

May's story raises questions about who, if anyone, ensures alternative treatments are safe for the nearly one in four American adults who use them.

May was trying to start a business with her husband in April 2008. They had no health insurance, so when May began having burning pain beneath her collar bone, she didn't see a doctor.

"I've heard hospitals will get a judgment and take your house away from you," May told the Journal Sentinel. "That scared me."

Then Joyce Goulet, May's mentor in an entrepreneurship group, told her about Wu. "You know, Barb, he fixed my heart," May recalled Goulet saying. That word-of-mouth exchange typifies how clients find Wu. Joyce Hill of Milwaukee recommends Wu and says she's brought "well over 100 friends" to see him in the eight years he's treated her chronic pain.

"He can put a neck in place so beautifully," said Hill.

May and her husband met Wu at his Chinese restaurant and followed him to the basement. There, May says, she saw medical books, a skeleton hanging in a corner, and partitioned-off cubicles with exam tables. Wu pressed her spine, twisted and pulled her leg, pushed her pubic bone outside her underwear.

"He massaged the back of my neck and told me to relax," she said. "He whispered in my ear, 'Barbara, just relax,' over and over."

Then, May said, Wu "cracked my neck" fast in both directions. It was loud, but it didn't hurt.

May said her chest pain disappeared after seeing Wu, but about two weeks later her fingers began tingling and feeling numb. So she visited Wu again May 9. He charged $200 to see her the first time, she said, and $40 the second. But this time her symptoms persisted.

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