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Colonic led to burst intestine: suit

By Marty Clear
9/9/2010 © Health News Florida

Last January, Samuel Williams, a retired delivery driver from eastern Hillsborough County, was suffering a lot of intestinal distress. He was constipated, bloated, gassy and miserable.

His wife Charlotte did some research online and found the ReNew Life Clinic in Clearwater, which promised relief through “colonic hydrotherapy.” She was impressed enough with what she saw online that she drove her husband all the way to Clearwater for the procedure.

Within two days after his colonic, though, Williams had to seek emergency care for a perforated intestine, according to a lawsuit he’s filed against the clinic. Also named in the suit is Bonnie Barrett, the licensed massage therapist and colon hydrotherapist who performed the procedure.

Williams had to undergo two surgeries, one involving removal of part of his colon, and has more than a half-million dollars in medical bills. 

“He almost died," said William’s attorney, Joseph Diaco Jr. of Tampa. 

Barrett says the suit is “frivolous” and “unjustified.” She referred questions to her attorney, Andy McCumber of Tampa.

McCumber doesn’t think the colonic caused the perforation; he says Williams already had a perforated colon before he came to the clinic and that’s why his belly ached.

“It’s like you have a headache and a doctor gives you an aspirin,” he said. “If you still have the headache the next day, it doesn’t mean the aspirin caused the headache.”

Colonic hydrotherapy uses special equipment to send a stream of water into the colon through the rectum; the water is then drained out, taking waste products with it.

While a self-administered enema at home washes out just the lower part of the colon, colonic hydrotherapy sends water into the upper colon as well.

Diaco alleges that Barrett allowed the water to flow into the colon under too much pressure.

But McCumber said the water pressure is never strong enough to perforate a patient’s colon.

“It’s not like a pressure wash,” McCumber said. “It’s a gentle soak.”

The executive director of the International Association for Colon Hydrotherapy agrees. A.R. “Dick” Hoenninger said the machine that Barrett uses, manufactured by Clearwater-based Dotolo Research Corp., limits water pressure to 2.5 pounds per square inch, which he said is not enough to cause a perforation.

But there have been at least a few documented cases of colon hydrotherapy causing such perforations. A 2004 paper in the Medical Journal of Australia cited three such cases. The writers, three Australian surgeons, said high water pressure could cause perforations. They suspected faulty equipment in two of the cases.

McCumber accuses Williams of withholding a full account of his symptoms from Barrett, but the suit claims Barrett started the colonic while Williams’ wife was filling out the questionnaire.

Diaco, Williams’ lawyer, said the clinic should have sent Williams to be examined by a physician. “There were clear contraindications for a colonics procedure,”
Diaco said.

McCumber says it’s “ridiculous” to say you should never get colon hydrotherapy without going to a primary care physician first.

“You don’t hear anyone saying you have to have a license to give an enema,” he said.

Barrett would not have performed the procedure if Williams had been honest about his symptoms and his medical history, McCumber said, because she wouldn’t have wanted to cause him discomfort.

Still, in the pre-litigation investigation required in medical malpractice cases, Williams’ case was found to have enough merit to proceed to trial.

“It’s not a frivolous suit,” Diaco said.

Barrett, a licensed massage therapist, has an intermediate-level certificate from The International Association for Colon Hydrotherapy. She also holds a license in colon hydrotherapy from the Florida Department of Health. Hoenninger says Florida is the only state that requires these practitioners to be licensed. 

--Marty Clear is an independent journalist in Tampa. Questions can be addressed to Carol Gentry, Editor.