A VIAL OF KETAMINE IS SHOWN ON A TABLE AT A CLINIC IN THAILAND. / GETTY IMAGES
Roby Mitchell hasn’t been allowed to practice medicine for 15 years, but that doesn’t seem to stop him from dispensing medical advice. Mitchell, who lives in Amarillo, Texas, was permanently stripped of his medical license in 2005 for not following a previous probationary order. He was then ordered again in 2012 to stop practicing medicine or holding himself out as a doctor; the Texas Medical Board said he told a cancer patient the disease could be treated by drinking cow’s milk, after Mitchell had injected the patient’s blood into that cow’s udder. (The patient died in hospice before they could drink the "treated" milk.)
Today, going by the moniker "Dr. Fitt," Mitchell is still peddling unproven cures and treatments for everything from the novel coronavirus to autism on social media and his personal website. As the COVID-19 outbreak has worsened, he’s begun touting a variety of fallacious cures for the disease.
"At worst, you get mild symptoms," Mitchell promised on Facebook of one of his self-produced treatments, which he calls the "Passover Protocol." With this "protocol," Mitchell said, "You produce antibodies and then you’re immune."
More disturbingly, though, Mitchell is also touting the success his methods have supposedly had on curing real people of other conditions. That includes children: With the help of a local pain-management doctor in Amarillo, Mitchell says, he has been directing the treatment of a six-year-old who’s been given at least three ketamine IV drips. Mitchell has claimed that ketamine and other speculative methods will "cure" the child of their non-verbal autism.
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The child’s name and parents’ names are being withheld by VICE to protect the child’s privacy. The child has undergone at least three ketamine IV treatments, which have been documented in videos and social media posts uploaded by Mitchell, as well as by the child’s mother and grandmother.
The treatment was recommended and directed by Mitchell, according to him, and administered, according to Mitchell and the child's mother, by Dr. BJ Daneshfar, an anesthesiologist and pain management doctor based in Amarillo. Daneshfar didn’t respond to two requests for comment left with someone who identified himself as his office manager, who could never seem to find the doctor in the office when VICE called (which we did prior to the coronavirus pandemic). Daneshfar also did not respond to emails sent to his office and personal email addresses or a text message sent to a cell phone number listed as his in public records.
Reached for comment, Mitchell questioned a VICE reporter’s "level of education," saying, "Looking at your page, you’re not a science writer and don’t appear to have a science background. This topic is not in your wheelhouse." (He didn’t respond to a question about precisely what "page" he meant. His limited response to VICE’s other questions is below.)
"Is this to try to prove something bad about them or ketamine?" the child’s grandmother asked, when reached for comment by VICE. "Because it’s working for us and I trust both of them completely as they’ve never steered our family wrong." She didn’t respond to follow-up questions, except to say that Mitchell was not administering the treatment himself. "Roby Mitchell is NOT practicing or doing these treatments," she wrote. "He helps educate people as to why they are working to help people with autism. Dr. D along with many other doctors do the treatments, so they are completely under the care of medical doctors. So, that’s a misunderstanding somewhere."
The grandmother also claimed that the child’s pediatrician signed off on the treatment. "We also checked with his pediatrician and told her the exact treatment before we did it and she told us nothing about it would hurt him so she was fine with us trying it to see if it would work," she wrote. "We did a lot of research first, no one just talked us into it. Research research research, the life of an autistic family!"
In a video uploaded by Mitchell to both Facebook and Instagram in February, the child’s mother was interviewed by him as he stood off-camera. In the video, she said her child was diagnosed with autism at three years old. Daneshfar recommended the treatments to the child’s grandmother, she added. "He brought it up to her, about us trying it out."
"After the first treatment, within a day or two, he started saying more words than we’d ever heard," the mother claimed on the video. "Just talking for himself, really. He’s not just repeating. He’s using words on his own."
As the mother spoke, the video panned to her child, who was slumped in a wheelchair, verbalizing sounds and, repeatedly, what sounds like the word "No."
Mitchell paired the video with a long caption about "curing" autism. "There are several ways to cure autism," he wrote, "once you understand that the cause is inflammation in the amygdala portion of the brain due to Candida overgrowth."
There are a number of things wrong with that statement, starting with Mitchell’s lack of qualifications to make any claim whatsoever about autism or brain health: He wasn’t a neurologist when he was licensed to practice medicine, according to Texas Medical Board records. There’s absolutely no scientific consensus that autism is caused by inflammation or Candida overgrowth (Though he’s not alone in making claims about the purported links between yeast and autism. Candida albicans is an opportunistic pathogenic yeast commonly found in the human digestive tract, and some autism advocates claim that treating yeast overgrowth mitigates autism symptoms, a claim that is, at this point, speculative at best.) There’s also no proof that ketamine would be a way to cure inflammation or candida overgrowth. And there is, according to every reputable medical expert, no known "cure" for autism at all, particularly not an overnight improvement such as Mitchell claims ketamine can provide.
The family’s story is a window into the desperate and sometimes extreme measures families often take to try to help or "cure" their children with autism. Those families are often greeted by an army of snake-oil peddlers. Generation Rescue, for instance, a charity focused on autistic children whose most famous face is Jenny McCarthy, promoted bunk treatments for years, in several cases ones in which their board members had a financial stake. (Generation Rescue mysteriously shuttered in June 2019.)
The world of alternative autism treatments is vast, buoyed by the facts that legitimate treatment options can take time. The Autism Science Foundation divides those treatments into three categories: "Intense behavioral interventions," "pharmacological therapy," and "speech, occupational, and physical therapy." Taken together, with patience, children with autism can learn new skills, better communicate, and minimize distressing issues like self-injury. (Some autistic adults who advocate for the autism community criticize some behavioral interventions, particularly applied behavioral analysis. They charge that ABA strives only to make an autistic child act "normal"—that is, reducing their outward signs of autism, like repetitive self-soothing behavior—through a series of rigid and repetitive drills. They often point out that ABA’s forefather, the psychologist Ole Ivar Lovaas, used physical abuse and electroshock therapy to punish children during his treatments. ABA therapists and their defenders argue that ABA has changed and become less rigid since its inception, and today does not involve physical abuse or negative reinforcement.)
"Many families of children with ASD [autism spectrum disorder], between 50-75% in some studies, pursue complementary and/or alternative therapies," Dr. Paul S. Carbone told VICE in a statement. He’s a professor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Utah and is a chairperson of a subcommittee on autism at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Those treatments can vary widely, Carbone added, both in terms of how effective they are and whether they can be actively harmful:
"Often these treatments lack evidence for their effectiveness and in some cases are potentially harmful. In cases where there is low chance of harm some therapies might divert family resources in terms of time and money away from other more effective therapies. Pediatricians are a good resource for families to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of therapies for children with autism. There are evidence based behavioral and developmental interventions that can improve outcomes for children with autism and pediatricians can assist in connecting families to these resources."
Ketamine is a medication mainly used for anesthetic purposes and sometimes taken as a recreational drug. (A VICE column from 2017 giddily declared it to be "the best drug on earth.") It has promise as a treatment for depression, and a number of clinical trials are underway across the world to explore its potential effects on mental health. A ketamine-based nasal spray was approved in May 2019 as a treatment for depression, though critics have charged that that approval process may have been rushed.
But none of that potential makes ketamine safe for use in children, said Alycia Halladay, the chief science officer at the Autism Science Foundation, a nonprofit which funds scientists doing autism research and provides evidence-based information on effective interventions for autism.
"Ketamine is a psychoactive drug that has been studied extensively in animal models, and more recently in humans as a treatment for refractory depression in adults," Halladay told VICE. "There are also reports of it being used for seizures in children. There is still very little safety data on it even in adults, so using it for children with autism or other neurodevelopmental disorders is premature and possibly unsafe. We need more research on the safety and efficacy of different doses before it should be used in children with ASD."
After a moment’s thought, she added, "Don’t put your kids down the K-hole."
The sober words of experts are unlikely to sway desperate families in crisis, particularly ones being heavily courted by self-proclaimed experts touting miracle cures. And social media, particularly Facebook, allows those self-proclaimed medical experts unprecedented access to vulnerable families, who are then, in turn, used as advertisements for the supposed efficacy of these "treatments." Mitchell has copiously shared the grandmother’s social-media posts claiming her grandchild has acquired new verbal skills alongside posts baldly claiming that ketamine can "cure autism."
VICE sent Mitchell a detailed list of questions about his claims and apparent direction of medical treatments, as well as whether it’s ethical to experiment on a non-verbal child. Mitchell wrote, "go to Pubmed and find out about the association between autism and inflammation. Find out the antimicrobial properties of ketamine. Autism numbers are increasing on your watch as a journalist." A few weeks later, in response to more followup questions, Mitchell responded, "I always provide scientific documentation. Everything you need is already accessible to you. Not rocket science." (Mitchell specifically didn’t respond to whether Dr. Daneshfar "agreed to try" treatments Michell recommended, as his social media posts claim, and what evidence he has that ketamine is a safe treatment specifically for children.)
"Inflammation does not ‘cause’ autism," Alycia Halladay of the Autism Science Foundation told VICE. "Not one thing causes autism and it’s disingenuous to claim that one treatment is going to help everyone or that it will help all symptoms. There are markers of inflammation in some people with autism and there is evidence that the immune system in the brain is altered. This could be a consequence of ASD, not a cause of it. It’s a very important area to study, because it could lead to better treatments and interventions for some people. But so far, there have been no conclusive studies on if things that affect inflammation alter ASD."
ketamine "treatments" being shared on Facebook and Instagram caught the attention of Melissa Eaton, an activist who monitors private Facebook groups that promote dangerous treatments for children with autism. Eaton and another woman, Amanda Seigler, told NBC in May 2019 that they go undercover in those groups, screenshotting parents’ posts where they talk about using potentially harmful treatments on their own children. Sometimes, they told reporter Brandy Zadrozny, they report the parents to Child Protective Services, though they rarely know if CPS subsequently takes any action.
"I am very concerned for the child’s wellbeing," Eaton told VICE. She said she watched the documentation of the child’s ketamine "treatments" with alarm, then contacted the American Society of Anesthesiologists to report Daneshfar. After not hearing anything back, Eaton said, she decided to go to the press. "Roby Mitchell is someone I closely monitor due to his promotion of MMS and other dangerous ‘cures,’" she said. (The ASA told VICE that Daneshfar is not a member of the organization, adding, "We do not have any information about him.")
By MMS, Eaton meant "Miracle Mineral Solution," which is indeed something Mitchell has also promoted. Specifically, he’s advocated for the use of chlorine dioxide and the work of a woman named Kerri Rivera. (Chlorine dioxide can be extremely dangerous to consume, and the FDA says that "Miracle Mineral Solution and similar products are not FDA-approved, and ingesting these products is the same as drinking bleach.") Products like Miracle Mineral Solution contain sodium chlorite, which, when mixed with a citric acid as directed, make chlorine dioxide. Rivera is one of the most pernicious sellers of chlorine dioxide: The state of Illinois has banned her from marketing it there, but from her home base in Mexico she continues to sell it to families across the world. Her book was recently removed by Amazon for promoting misinformation. (On her website, Rivera has a general response to inquiries from reporters. She writes, "To call chlorine dioxide 'toxic bleach' is fraud, pure and simple." She also accuses reporters of "actively coordinating with abusive Internet trolls" to spread misinformation about chlorine dioxide, writing, "We expect that when the details of these relationships reach public awareness – and they will – that some reporters will lose jobs and even careers over this." She didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment from VICE.)
Mitchell has been warned many times before about making misleading claims about curing or treating disease. In 2018, the FDA sent a warning letter to a business Mitchell was running at the time, "Dr. Fitt Intelligent Designs, LLC," warning that Mitchell was misleadingly marketing several supplement-style products as a treatment or cure for serious diseases.
"For example," the letter wrote, "your websites recommend or suggest the use of BALI Greens, BALI Purples, Black Seed Oil, DHEA Capsules, Lugol’s Solution 2% Drops, Robenyzme Capsules, OMG Max Drops, New Dawn Capsules, and Vitamin C with R-Lipoic Acid to treat, cure, mitigate or prevent Alzheimer’s disease, asthma, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, HIV, hypercholesterolemia, hypertension, MRSA, diabetes, dementia, pneumonia, depression and influenza."
Mitchell was advised to either submit an application to the FDA to get his supposed new drugs approved, or else take down the misleading language. Mitchell still sells various supplements through his website, with much tamer language; he seems to reserve his more speculative language for Facebook.
Beyond his questionable medical claims, Mitchell has had other controversies and run-ins with the law since losing his medical license. In 2017, he was convicted of making a terroristic threat, a misdemeanor, after posting on Facebook, "Make no mistake that my desire is to put a bullet into the head of Robert Kaufmann MD and all of his flying monkeys." (Kaufmann was the head of the Texas Tech University Health Sciences department at the time, and Mitchell appeared to blame him for the death of his "administrator and friend” Jodi Bytheway, the Amarillo Globe-News reported at the time. Mitchell told a journalist at the time, the paper wrote, “that going through the trial was the only way he could get information from Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center regarding the 2015 death of Bytheway.")
Mitchell seems unlikely to stop making medical claims any time soon. The day after VICE contacted him, he was busily promoting various supplements, urging his followers to consider buying them "for your loved ones that are confined to their homes." The cure for everything, he seems to suggest, is just in the next bottle.