MANASSAS, Va. (AP) — Dying and desperate, Douglas Crabbe paid a doctor $12,000 up front for an unorthodox cancer treatment: injections of aloe vera, the same stuff in hand creams and burn ointments.
It wasn't long before Crabbe's lower body swelled to four times its normal size, cracking the skin on his feet, and he began throwing up. Less than a month after his first aloe vera injection, he was dead.
Now the doctor who treated Crabbe is under investigation in that case and in the deaths of three other patients, and Virginia authorities suspended his medical license last week.
“We were just reaching out for anything," said Crabbe's widow, Deanna. “We believed what we wanted to believe, and we wanted to believe that Doug would get well."
The aloe vera mixture Dr. Donald L. MacNay used has not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for treating cancer, and regulators say MacNay was not authorized to conduct research trials. In fact, MacNay is an orthopedic surgeon with no known training in cancer research.
Although autopsies did not directly blame aloe vera in any of the deaths, police cited a possible manslaughter charge in seeking search warrants of his suburban offices.
MacNay's office is closed. He did not return calls.
Aloe vera is a cactus-like plant that releases a gelatinous sap that is commonly used to treat skin irritations. It is also used in shampoos and laxatives.
Before his license was suspended, MacNay said only that the treatment is intended to help the immune system, and usually works best in healthier patients.
“I think there are desperate patients who just are preyed upon by unscrupulous practitioners who practice quackery," said Dr. Matthew Ellis, a cancer specialist at Georgetown University's Lombardi Cancer Center. “They extract money from people who are willing to believe them. I suspect that is what happened in this case."
Patients learned of MacNay's treatments through word-of-mouth, the Internet or through his aloe vera supplier.
Mrs. Crabbe said her 48-year-old husband got the first of his 21 injections the first day he walked into MacNay's office in March. The doctor told him it could help Crabbe's immune system fight his esophageal cancer.
“It was a lot of promises," she said. “He said it worked, that it had worked before, and I think he truly believed it."
After an emergency hearing last week, the state medical board said allowing MacNay, 60, to continue practicing would endanger the public.
His license was suspended one day after a 41-year-old drywall installer from Royal Oak, Mich., died at a hospital hours after getting the aloe vera injections. He had suffered from renal cell cancer.
Authorities were already looking into the death in May of an 83-year-old Waco, Texas, man who sought treatment from MacNay.
The medical board also linked MacNay to the May death of a 57-year-old Alabama man who died shortly after aloe vera treatment for prostate and kidney cancer.
The Crabbe death is not yet part of the criminal investigation, but investigators are looking at the case as part of a review of all MacNay's files, State Police spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell said.
Investigators seized patient records, drugs and medical equipment from the small office in a squat suburban office building, and from three apartments leased by MacNay's orthopedic practice.
MacNay cannot practice until the Virginia Board of Medicine hears his case next month. The board could revoke or reinstate his license.
MacNay, a 1962 graduate of a Canadian medical school, worked for 26 years at the same hospital where the Michigan man died. He has operated two offices in northern Virginia since 1995.
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