Last month, Helen Comer drove back from Las Vegas with 11 small bottles of medicine. Or maybe 11 small bottles of water. It depends on whom you believe.
Comer, a Layton teacher, had been diagnosed in January as having a grapefruit-size fibroid tumor on her uterus. Her gynecologist recommended an immediate hysterectomy.Comer got a second opinion, and a third. Then faced with the prospect of major surgery and years of hormone therapy, the 37-year-old Comer decided to drive down to The Nevada Clinic in Las Vegas to try something else entirely -- a 200-year-old controversial system of medicine called homeopathy.
Two days later she was back in Utah with 11 bottles of homeopathic remedies -- not only for her reproductive ailments but for allergies , "past surgeries" and "general cleansing."
Comer hopes that by the next time she visits her gynecologist her tumor will have shrunk. She sees homeopathy as a safe alternative to surgery and side effects. Most Utah doctors, on the other hand, see Comer's trip to Las Vegas as a gamble, at best.
"It's witchcraft, basically," says University of Utah medicinal chemistry professor David B. Roll about homeopathy -- a system of medicine based on the theory that diseases can be cured using minute doses of substances that, in larger doses and in healthy people, would produce symptoms of the same disease. Homeopathic remedies, according to this belief, stimulate the immune system so that the body can heal itself.
What particularly bristles scientists is the homeopathic theory that remedies work best when the active ingredients are so diluted that they're nearly non-existent. A typical homeopathic medicine, for example, might be one part plant extract to 1 million parts water/alcohol mixture.
Despite continued skepticism from the traditional medical community, however, homeopathy is apparently undergoing a resurgence in America. According to Dana Ullman, author of "Homeopathy: Medicine for the 21st Century," there are now somewhere between 3,000 and 8,000 health professionals -- including at least 1,000 doctors of medicine and 500 dentists -- who use homeopathy in their practices.
Last month, a bill to license the practice of homeopathy in Utah -- which would have given homeopathy its first official recognition in the state -- passed the Utah House of Representatives. The bill's sponsor -- Helen Comer's father, Reese Hunter, R-Salt Lake -- says he thinks it would have passed the Senate as well if time hadn't run out first. Hunter plans to try again.
Intense lobbying -- both against the bill, by members of the Utah Medical Association, and for the bill, by people who argued that they should have a choice about medical care -- added to the drama of this year's Legislature.
The intensity of emotions is not surprising, considering Utah's fascination with health practices that you won't find in the typical doctor's office. From herbs to coffee enemas, from iridology to chelation therapy, Utahns have a long history of flirting with medicine outside the mainstream.
According to Fuller Royal, a doctor of medicine who runs The Nevada Clinic in Las Vegas, over 6,000 Utahns have visited his homeopathic-oriented clinic since it opened in 1980. He says that Utahns make up 30 percent of his practice.
That's one of the reasons, says Hunter, that he introduced the homeopathy bill, which would have set up a special board to license doctors of medicine and D.O.s (doctors of osteopathy) to practice homeopathy in Utah, Hunter reasoned, Utahns wouldn't have to drive to Nevada for treatment.
Currently, doctors of medicine technically can practice homeopathy in Utah, but "the political climate is such that (the medical licensing boards) would come down hard on you," says Utah Valley physician Dennis Remington.
A few Utah naturopaths and chiropractors practice homeopathy. West Jordan naturopath Cordell Logan says he uses homeopathic remedies on about two-thirds of his patients.
The National Center for Homeopathy in Alexandria, Va., cautions consumers to be wary of anyone professing to practice homeopathy who is not also licensed to practice some form of medicine. The center also cautions consumers to ask for details about the person's homeopathic training. Most traditional physicians would argue, however, that even those precautions aren't enough.
The rift between traditional doctors of medicine and homeopaths is deep - and it cuts both ways.
"We treat people, not, not diseases," says naturopath/homeopath Logan, who sardonically adds: "Except for insurance purposes."
While traditional medicine, for example, basically treats all common colds as if indeed they had everything in common, homeopathic medicine thinks of each cold as unique to the person suffering it. How did the cold begin, asks the homeopath. Did it come on slow or fast? Is there intense sneezing? A desire for hot drinks? Does the patient want to be left alone or want company? What's the personality, lifestyle and diet of the patient.
The homeopath then matches up the specific symptoms to symptoms listed in a book of homeopathic remedies. About 60 percent of the remedies are derived from plant parts. Remedies are also made from minerals, animal substances and diseased tissue.
Whether it's crocuses, sheep glands, extract of toad or human pus, the concentrated substances are put through a series of dilutions, in an alcohol/water mixture, until the amount of active ingredient remaining is infinitesimal. Each dilution is followed by rigorous shaking. According to homeopathic theory this combination of dilution and shaking releases the substance's "hidden energy."
"The doses are so small they don't contain even one molecule of the active ingredient," argues medicinal chemistry professor Roll. "You might as well not be taking anything." And in fact, adds Roll, "you aren't."
But practitioners and patients of homeopathy disagree. "The test is whether or not something works in practice, not whether or not we can explain it," writes Dean Black, a former Brigham Young University professor in a newsletter published by his BioResearch Foundation in Springville.
Homeopathy has come under fire ever since it was founded by German physician Samuel Hahnemann in the late 1700s. Hahnemann was looking for a system of medicine less violent than the bloodletting and leeches common at the time. By the turn of the century there were 14,000 homeopaths and 22 homeopathic medical colleges in the United States. But traditional medicine continued to find fault.
While most scientists and doctors today dismiss homeopathy as an "unproven practice," supporters point to controlled studies they claim prove the remedies work. According to author Dana Ullman, of the Foundation for Homeopathic Education and Research in Okaland, Calif., 81 double-blind studies have found homeopathic remedies to be "effective" for conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, hay fever and migraine headaches.
Ullman points out that his most recent book was written by Queen Elizabeth's personal physician, a medical doctor who practices homeopathy. Homeopathic medicine is popular all over Europe, he says, especially in France.
In addition, he says, several thousand veterinarians around the world use homeopathy on their non-human patients. "I challenge anyone to treat cattle with a placebo," Ullman adds, referring to traditional medicine's complaint that homeopathy works only because the patient expects it to.
"There's a lot of prejudice and misunderstanding among doctors and the public" about homeopathy, says Royal of the Nevada Clinic. While traditional medicine compartmentalizes the human body into organs and diseases, homeopathy treats the whole person, he says.
"Acute crisis is where traditional medicine shines," says Fuller. "Chronic degenerative, debilitating disease is where homeopathy shines."
Royal doesn't treat the queen of England. But Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah has been one of his patients. As have thousands of other Utahns.
Colleen Love, a former nurse, says she never believed in anything like herbs or non-traditional medicine, until she became very ill with arthritis, Lyme disease and the Epstein-Barr virus.
"You get in a position where you really need (help) and you become open-minded fast," she explains. She has been driving down to Las Vegas to be treated by Royal for several years now, bringing back her own little bottles of homeopathic remedies.
Traditional medicine would argue that Love's ailments were largely subjective. It's hard to measure pain and fatigue. But Love is convinced that homeopathy works and that its effect is beyond measure.
"I have my life back," she says.