A woman in her 20’s sat with three other people in the small room 12 stories above West 57th Street. She wore jeans and a T-shirt, and a Walkman to block out the cheery pop-classical music that played from a hidden speaker. Another woman, wearing a dark suit, read Deepak Chopra’s Seven Spiritual Laws of Success as she picked through a container of sautéed zucchini and mushrooms. A third, looking up from George Bernard Shaw’s Three Plays for Puritans , glanced at her watch and sighed. They all had intravenous tubes stuck into their arms. They were undergoing a process called chelation.
Every week, about 100 New Yorkers show up to this office, many to have their blood pumped with a synthetic amino acid called EDTA. The process–which costs up to $150 a pop and has been touted in certain circles as beneficial for heart and vascular disease–is simple enough: The EDTA binds to agents that clog the arteries, puts them back into the bloodstream and allows them to be excreted through the kidneys.
The West 57th Street patients are on the hunt for some nebulous form of “healing”–they’re fatigued, they have fertility and impotency problems, diabetes, Lyme disease. Others receive intravenous therapy–not technically chelation, which is confined to the use of EDTA and other metal-loving chemical compounds–simply to treat the common cold. Many feel let down by mainstream doctors who couldn’t tell them what was wrong. Serafina Corsello, a psychiatrist, nutritionist, radio-jockey and self-described “rebel,” is their holistic savior.
A sign in the IV room speaks worlds about Dr. Corsello’s M.O.: “Dear IV Patient, The IV Room in the Corsello Center is a healing area. Please be respectful of your fellow patient. Whisper. Do not scream. If you cannot say anything good, please do not say anything at all. Please refrain from giving medical advice. Remember, we are all different. Finally, always be aware of your attitude. Smile rather than frown. With love, Dr. Corsello.”
Dr. Corsello is a 65-year-old “complementary” physician–the self-styling of practitioners who use what is sometimes known as “alternative” or “holistic” therapies that are not necessarily to the exclusion of traditional medicine–who runs the medical center bearing her name. The Italian-born physician, who was trained in Italy but licensed in New York, prescribes remedies that run the gamut from psychotherapy to Chinese herbal energy treatments, vegetables cleaned with bleach and, of course, chelation.
“It’s scientific art, my dear,” Dr. Corsello said in an interview. “It’s like painting or cooking, and I love to do it.” Author Gail Sheehy, one of Dr. Corsello’s admirers, calls her “vivacious and utterly charming.” She writes for three pages in Menopause: The Silent Passage about Dr. Corsello’s herbal approach to the symptoms of her own menopause: “The outcome of her midlife crisis was a commitment to educate herself in complementary medicine.… She doctored herself with Chinese herbs, indulged in a massage once a week and concentrated on creating a new esthetic in her life.… Since she loathes exercising but loves dancing, Dr. Corsello built in her own unique daily stress-reducing activity. She shuts the bedroom door while she watches a tape of the MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour and throws herself into high-paced disco dancing, all by herself.”
Dr. Corsello’s patients often receive their first contact with her via a video that introduces her philosophy and demonstrates what it’s like to receive chelation. “You’re welcome to our extended family,” she says, “with all the privileges and responsibilities that this implies. When people share in the effort of getting well, the sky is the limit.”
Despite the group rhetoric, a Darwinian sort of emphasis is placed on the fact that Dr. Corsello’s regimen is not for the weak, and that patients are largely responsible for their own healing. “Follow the program and admit when it’s too difficult for you, rather than blame the program’s possible failures,” Dr. Corsello warns. “Let’s remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and undoing years of cellular damage takes time.”
Time and a lot of money–up to $20,000 for a year’s treatment, most of which is not covered by most insurance policies. Despite that–and the fact that chelation, a key element of the Corsello plan, remains essentially unproven to the scientific community–the followers whom Dr. Corsello has amassed in her quarter of a century of practicing alternative therapies in Manhattan and in Huntington, L.I., say they’re more “centered” and better “cleansed” under Dr. Corsello’s ministrations. They say they have increased energy, improved memory, heightened sexual performance and enhanced quality of life.
Said Gaynell Stone, an archeologist who was suffering from Lyme disease, “It cost me, I think, $10,000 or $15,000.… [Dr. Corsello] gives you a lot of vitamins you take by mouth and then, you know, the IV’s … were like $300 a week. But you know what I said to myself later? ‘I could have bought a car with the money I spent there.’ But guess what? When you’re sick and you’re a zombie, you would never even wanna drive your car.”
What remains unclear is whether Dr. Corsello is really healing the sick, or whether she is going to expensive and potentially dangerous lengths to offer people medical explanations for what might be just existential malaise. While chelation is Food and Drug Administration-approved for certain treatments, the possible dangers of the process are these: A patient who chooses chelation therapy instead of a bypass or an angioplasty could have a heart attack before the IV process–which takes months–has worked its magic. Then there’s the argument that dietary supplements–F.D.A. argot for herbs and vitamins, which form the cornerstone of Dr. Corsello’s general program–are regulated by the Federal Government but not nearly as strictly as drugs are. Furthermore, IV’s often cause infection and repeated use of them can lead to thrombosis of the veins. And even more seriously, as Saul Green, a retired researcher for the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, said chelation can in fact increase the risk of heart attack in patients who have high iron content in the bloodstream.
Mainstream doctors are made nervous by Dr. Corsello’s therapies. “I had a hard time stomaching this video,” said Shari Midoneck, a specialist in internal medicine and infectious diseases at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. Said Stephen Barrett, a retired physician and the founder of Quackwatch, “Chelation is the most dangerous form of quackery there is.”
“We figure there’s a couple thousand doctors doing [chelation],” said Dr. William Mauer, chairman of the American Board of Chelation Therapy. “Some of them are closet chelators. They’ll do it themselves and to their family and friends; they won’t do their patients.” Dr. Mauer said that “chelation is the No. 1 means for opening up the circulatory system. There’s nothing else on the market that even comes close.” He said that, in particular, arthritis, diabetes, post- stroke conditions, psoriasis and lead and mercury poisoning can be remedied by chelation.
And Dr. Corsello’s patients, many of whom don’t trust the medical mainstream and who believe fervently that the F.D.A. is on the take from pharmaceutical companies, say that through chelation, Dr. Corsello has cured cancer and unclogged arteries.
But the patients interviewed for this story were by and large diagnosed with vague, hidden illnesses such as chronic fatigue immune dysfunction syndrome, chronic candida (yeast) infections and food allergies–all of which, said Steven Lamm, an internist and professor at New York University School of Medicine, cannot be measured or “defined clinically.” He said they are characterized by vague, subjective symptoms, as opposed to objective data “such as abnormal liver-function tests, or temperature, or things that you can measure.”
Amid all the debate, one thing is sure. It’s a lot easier to admit that you’re sick than to admit that you’re unhappy.[break; drop cap]
In the late 19th century, people suffered from what physicians diagnosed as neurasthenia–a sort of psychophysiological malaise that historians linked to anxiety surrounding the rapid urbanization and industrial advancements of that century. That anxiety manifested itself in the form of fatigue and nervousness, which writers like Edith Wharton and Theodore Dreiser depicted in their novels.
The 20th century’s technology boom may be responsible for a similar condition. Perhaps, more than from chronic fatigue, Dr. Corsello’s patients are suffering from their own millennial disease. Combine that ennui with a “distrust of the medical establishment and an uncontrollable fear of the disease that they have,” said Dr. Green, and you get desperate people. “And that desperation makes them so vulnerable.”
Sue Ann Armstrong is a 44-year-old musician who began seeing Dr. Corsello in April 1997. She and her husband had been listening to Dr. Corsello’s radio show, WOR-AM’s A Second Opinion . Ms. Armstrong was having trouble fighting off the flu, had chronic yeast infections and “just wasn’t able to operate at full steam,” as she put it. But the main reason she went to see Dr. Corsello was that she couldn’t get pregnant, a problem that, in her mid-40’s, she was eager to remedy.
Ms. Armstrong, who also sees a psychotherapist, another fertility doctor and a music therapist, began the Corsello program lock, stock and barrel–chelation, vitamins, a yeast-free diet and an acupuncturelike treatment called magnetically influenced homeopathic remedy, or M.I.H.R. She gave up teaching music at an inner-city school to focus on her “own personal growth.” A year later, she said she’s seeing results: an increased artistic connection to music, spiritual fulfillment and a general sense of well-being. But Ms. Armstrong is still not pregnant, and the money that she had put aside for a “baby sabbatical for when I had a baby and I wanted to take a year off from working” is pretty much gone. “It’s very expensive,” Ms. Armstrong said of Dr. Corsello’s therapies, “and I have had moments where I’ve had great difficulty psychologically with that.” But, she said, “I want to be a vibrant, full participant in this life. I want to be able to go out and make a difference in the world and in the work that I do … I need to be healthy.”
Fashion designer Gail Couturier (her real name) contacted Dr. Corsello about her chronic fatigue and irritable bowel. Twenty thousand dollars later, she is still not healed. Though she claims that Dr. Corsello rid her of the Epstein-Barr virus that is often the cause of chronic fatigue, Ms. Couturier said she has developed new food allergies since she began her treatment. She is now back on the chelation that was initially prescribed, despite low-grade fevers, diarrhea and a red rash that itched for three days after her first intravenous treatment.
“It’s a longer and harder process than traditional medicine because it takes longer and you have to be involved,” said Ms. Couturier in defense of the Corsello regimen. “As you start cleaning out your system, it goes deeper and deeper into the tissues.… I think that, in essence, I’m just digging deeper. I have gotten better.… I’m frustrated that it’s taking this long, but I understand why.”
“Do you have difficulty losing and maintaining the correct weight? Losing excessive fat is good for everyone, but it’s virtually impossible for those with a sugar problem, diabetes or cardiovascular disease. With this in mind, I have designed a special product called Fat Burner Plus , which contains amino acids and other nutrients that help burn fat and build muscles.… To order fat burner plus, call Global Nutrition at 1-888-461-0949.”
That was the first commercial break in Dr. Corsello’s A Second Opinion , her radio show. All the commercials that run on the Saturday evening show feature her, hawking products used at the Corsello Centers. Some of the vitamin and nutrient “packs” she advertises were designed by her personally. Others are simply supplements manufactured by Global Nutrition–whose toll-free number routes the caller to either of Dr. Corsello’s West 57th Street or Long Island dispensaries.
That night, the topic was diabetes, and a number of callers had relevant questions. For example, “Rhoda” had diabetes. “I am diabetic,” she announced, “and I was diagnosed about a year ago, a year and a half, really, suffering from fatigue. Now, what can be done about that?”
“A serious fatigue problem can be due to many reasons,” said Dr. Corsello. “There is no question that no matter what, if you did all the things I recommended today, took all those nutrients and changed your life style and ate fiber and did some exercise, walking, and then … of course, you need antiviral, natural product[s].… But I recommend, frankly, my diabetics do very well with chelation, because they all have clogged-up arteries, they all have problems with viruses, they all have toxic metals that make the diabetes worse … and they do extremely well.”
That, more or less, is the Corsello regime in a nutshell. Every patient who opts for her treatment goes through a standard regimen, beginning with a battery of tests and follow-up consultation. Then Dr. Corsello and her staff come up with an individually tailored plan for wellness, which might include chelation therapy, acupuncture or massage therapy, but almost always includes a high-vegetable, low-carbohydrate diet. “It’s clear from the number of individuals who have sought out the alternative-care market that there is a need that the traditional physicians are not meeting in one way or another,” Dr. Lamm said. “A traditional doctor will sometimes be a little negative, unfortunately, and might say, ‘Well, I’m not certain I can help you,’ whereas the alternative physicians have a much more positive approach: ‘I can help you, I can cure you, I can work with you.'”
“I began alternative medicine in 1972,” Dr. Corsello told The Observer . “When I started, I was using soft intervention, the same one these people are using now. Vitamin E, C. Biofeedback. They called me the witch doctor.”
She seemed angry at the beating her practices have taken by the medically conservative establishment, which in her mind means, in particular, the F.D.A. and the pharmaceutical corporations. “The sale of drugs brings very high revenues to the pharmaceutical industry,” continued Dr. Corsello. (To be fair, her patients must buy only her vitamins and be tested only by her preferred laboratories.) “I strongly suspect that this is the reason behind the constant attempt on the part of the F.D.A. to seize and control essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals that are aimed at treating these conditions naturally. In the struggle to maintain freedom of choice and independence, we have learned how the enforcement branch of the F.D.A. is more interested in serving the needs of the pharmaceutical cartel, rather than those of the people of the United States.”
And in regards to her more traditional peers, Dr. Corsello is unequivocal. “[T]hey’re always–even the well-meaning–10 to 15 years behind.”
On a recent Saturday, Dr. Corsello’s clinic was packed. In the waiting room–which is decorated with sketches of Napoleon–Ray Owens, a Corsello patient, waited for his fiancée, Sheila Levy, to finish her chelation therapy. “I had a lot of exposure to very, very sick people,” said Ms. Levy, a nurse, “[so] for me, it’s a chelation for heavy metal toxicity. I had mercury taken out of my teeth.” The Observer asked Mr. Owens for his opinion of the Corsello Center. “What happens to old guys like me when you start taking blood-pressure medication is that you become impotent,” said the bespectacled, white-haired archeologist. “And this has rejuvenated me. That’s a pretty strong endorsement, I think.” Perusing that week’s New York magazine in another room in the office was a 73-year-old retired teacher. Approached by The Observer , she was more than happy to sing the Corsello Center’s praises. “My health has improved, but, of course, I’ve been through so much stress,” she said in a soft-spoken voice. “The reason I’m coming now is because my husband died, and, you know, stress. He died in my arms of a heart attack.” She went on to tell a story of how the paramedic who responded to her 911 call–the one she placed when her husband was stricken–actually removed the apartment key from her husband’s trousers, copied it and colluded with a building employee to rob her a month later.
Difficult though it was, the woman expressed gratefulness for Dr. Corsello’s care. “I just thank the Lord every day for having this wonderful care with Dr. Corsello,” she said. “I’m not a religious person, but I pray for her. She’s a warm human being. There’s no pretense.… It isn’t long before people become a part of the family.” The woman paused for a moment to collect her thoughts. “I’ll tell you what I love,” she said. “Her floral arrangements are just beautiful.”