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 cactuslike 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.”
Deanna 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.”