KAREN LABDON EXPECTED that, at the very least, her visit to the chiropractor would be safe. After all, she'd been seeing a chiropractor for her headaches and stress for three years before moving out to the Northwest from upstate New York. Her sister had been seeing Dr. John Brown in Bellevue and recommended him.
This was her sixth visit to Brown's office, and up to this point, she had been satisfied with the results. But this time, when he lifted and turned her head, she felt like she could no longer keep her balance and was about to become violently ill.
"I immediately had extreme vertigo," Labdon says. "I remember telling him that the room was spinning, and I knew that something was wrong. Even though I was lying on the table, I felt like I was going to fall off it and I needed someone to hold me on it, even though I wasn't moving." At her request, Labdon says, Brown called her sister to come pick her up. "I don't know what he said to her because I was in my own little hell right then," Labdon recalls.
While she waited in the room for her sister to arrive, she began to vomit violently, which continued for some time. Eventually, she was picked up and taken home, at which point they decided she should go to the emergency room because things were not getting any better.
"I woke up in critical care the next day with a neurologist sitting next to me, telling me I am damned lucky to be alive," she says.
According to her neurologist, Steven Singer, Karen Labdon had a stroke, which Singer believes was a direct result of the procedure that Brown had just performed on her neck and spine.
What Labdon did not know at the time was that the chiropractor she was visiting had not been licensed for several years. He had let his license go unrenewed since 1993.
In fact, John Brown claims not to be practicing any healing system at all but insists that he is a minister in what's called the Alphabiotic Church. What he was doing for Labdon and his other "participants," Brown says, was a religious sacrament akin to a laying on of hands.
The state's Chiropractic Quality Assurance Commission isn't buying it. The commission issued a ruling earlier this year prohibiting Brown from practicing chiropractic care—which it said was indistinguishable from Alphabiotic techniques—for 10 years and fining him $30,000.
Brown has filed an appeal, arguing that since he's not licensed as a chiropractor, the commission has no jurisdiction over his actions. He also claims that the commission is violating his First Amendment rights by attempting to restrict him from practicing his religion. A hearing is being held on his appeal this week in King County Superior Court.
BROWN IS ONE OF hundreds, if not thousands of practitioners of Alphabiotics, a self-described religious movement that uses a form of neck manipulation to relieve stress and align the mind, body, and spirit. According to Robert Todd Carroll's Skeptic's Dictionary, Alphabiotics claims to be a branch of "energy medicine," like qi gong or acupuncture, which holds that "all disease is the result of an imbalance and lack of Life Energy."
Like all Alphabioticists, Brown learned his technique and was granted the title of "doctor of divinity" by Virgil Chrane, the founder of the International Alphabiotics Association, in Menard, Texas. Chrane and his son, Michael, give four-day-long classes in Alphabiotics and dispense certificates to their students, entitling them to enroll people in the Alphabiotic Church and (for a fee split between the Texas headquarters and the local offices) administer what's called the "Alphabiotic alignment." The stated purpose of the procedure is to enhance the energy flow and remove blockages that they hold to be the underlying cause of not only illness but also stress and unhappiness.
"He never discussed that," Labdon says. "I would definitely never have been seeing him if I knew that he was not a licensed chiropractor and that it was some kind of quote-unquote religious laying on of hands."
John Brown could not be reached for comment. Messages left at the telephone number listed for him in court documents were not returned. When a man did answer the phone, he denied being John Brown and immediately hung up. Brown's version of events and explanations of his actions are drawn from statements to the Department of Health and a deposition he gave in a civil lawsuit that Labdon has filed against him.
"She signed my church's form acknowledging, among other things, that Alphabiotics is not chiropractic, not a therapy, and has nothing to do with the so-called healing arts," Brown says. "I do not hold myself out as being a person who treats disease. . . . I make no attempt to medically manipulate, chiropractically adjust, nor do I try to influence disease pathology in any way." He describes what he did to Labdon—and, he says, hundreds of others ranging in age from a few days to over 90 years old—as administering the "Alphabiotic sacrament," a means to "unite Man the Physical with Man the Spiritual."
"If I were to give secular treatments, as an Alphabiotic minister," he adds, "I could be excommunicated from the Alphabiotic Church and condemned before God."
THOUGH LABDON ADMITS that she signed any number of forms when she began her visits to Brown's office, she said she did not look closely at what she was signing and never thought he was anything but a chiropractor with a particular method he preferred.
Labdon says Brown had explained, when she first went to see him, that he was now practicing Alphabiotics but says she had no idea that he was unlicensed or that she was joining a religious organization by seeing him. "He talked about the Alphabiotics alignment and that the only way it was different in theory from chiropractic was that the Alphabioticists believe that you only need to adjust the cervical spine, that you don't need to adjust anything else. They believe, from what he said to me, that when you adjust the cervical spine, much like pulling up the strings on a puppet, everything else straightens out."
It doesn't seem to have worked that way for Labdon. "She had what [the emergency room staff] thought was 'vertebral artery dissections,' which is injuries to the vertebral arteries on both sides in the upper neck," says Steven Singer, the neurologist who treated her in 1997, when the incident occurred. "They don't break actually; they are just injured internally and close down. The stroke comes from the lack of blood flow to the area that it supplies, which is the back part of the brain."
Singer says that the problem is not limited to just Alphabiotics but that any chiropractor or massage therapist who does extensive neck adjustments is putting their patients at risk:
"To me, it's like all those Bruce Lee movies, where they come up behind you and twist your neck and you die. It's not much different than that, potentially."
Labdon says that although she is now well enough to work part-time, she still has balance problems on occasion and doubts she will ever be as active or energetic as she was before the stroke.
She is suing both John Brown and the International Alphabiotics Association for her injuries and says her main reason for going public is to warn other people of the dangers inherent in cervical spine adjustments.
"If you get adjusted," she says, "be aware that it could kill you."