If It Sounds Like a Quack...

A Journey to the Fringes of American Medicine


By Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

Formats and Prices




$24.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around April 4, 2023. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

A Pulitzer Prize finalist's bizarre journalistic journey through the world of fringe medicine, filled with leeches, baking soda IVs, and, according to at least one person, zombies.

It's no secret that American health care has become too costly and politicized to help everyone. So where do you turn if you can't afford doctors, or don't trust them? In this book, Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling examines the growing universe of non-traditional treatments — including some that are really non-traditional.

With costs skyrocketing and anti-science sentiment spreading, the so-called "medical freedom" movement has grown. Now it faces its greatest challenge: going mainstream. In these pages you'll meet medical freedom advocates including an international leech smuggler, a gold miner-turned health drink salesman who may or may not be from the Andromeda galaxy, and a man who says he can turn people into zombies with aerosol spray. One by one, these alternative healers find customers, then expand and influence, always seeking the one thing that would take their businesses to the next level–the support and approval of the government.

Should the government dictate what is medicine and what isn't? Can we have public health when disagreements over science are this profound? No, seriously, can you turn people into flesh-eating zombies? If It Sounds Like a Quack asks these critical questions while telling the story of how we got to this improbable moment, and wondering where we go from here. Buckle up for a bumpy ride…unless you're against seatbelts.



In which a handful of ordinary Americans discover One True Cure

“And that’s the way” (he gave a wink)

“By which I get my wealth—

And very gladly will I drink

Your Honour’s noble health.”

—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, 1871



There is a tide in the affairs of men

Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;

Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

—William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 1599

When the floodwaters began to threaten the stability of their home, Plan A was for Robert and Helen Vanderbeek to hustle their two kids through the driving rain and into the car to escape Waverly Street, in Rapid City, South Dakota. But before they could even get into the car, they saw other vehicles being swept along by the dark and roiling waters.

So, as quickly as it could be articulated, Plan B was put into motion. Robert made sure that the boat trailer was tied securely to the big, sturdy tree outside their home. Helen climbed aboard the boat with the two boys—Mark, fourteen, a student at West Junior High School, and Matt, twelve, a member of the Little League baseball team for Ward 3.

The little boat was incapable of navigating the rabid waters, but that wasn’t the point. It was moored to the big tree, and the big tree wasn’t going anywhere. So, ipso facto, neither were the Vanderbeeks. They bobbed in the darkness.

The flood was a fluke. The highest rate of flow ever recorded for Rapid Creek had been 1.7 billion gallons in a twenty-four-hour period. But that night, winds pushed major rain clouds over the region with agonizing slowness; the clouds hemorrhaged as much as eighteen inches of rain, overfilling the river with 19 billion gallons that crashed through Rapid City with terrifying power.

The big tree that the Vanderbeeks had chosen stayed firm. But upriver, other trees from all along the valley uprooted and joined floating debris—trucks, propane tanks, mobile homes aflame from fires set by their own severed gas lines, a watery stampede charging like wildebeests down a narrow canyon. No one knows what, exactly, slammed into the Vanderbeeks, and in the end it didn’t matter. Something big and heavy smashed the hull of the boat, and all four Vanderbeeks were flung overboard into the black and raging waters, and there was no Plan C.

Matt Vanderbeek’s Little League practices were run by Coach Larry Lytle, a tall, athletic dentist, age thirty-seven, whose heavy brow and arrow-straight posture added to his commanding presence.

Coach Lytle was born in 1935, in a sod house with a dirt floor in Wasta, South Dakota (about 150 residents and a post office), and raised with six siblings. His family battled clouds of crop-devouring grasshoppers that darkened the sky; one year, the unending dryness wilted the grass until they were forced to use a shotgun to kill their herd of a hundred starving cattle. He’d gone on to study dentistry at the University of Nebraska and founded the state chapter of the American Dental Association.

Now, as the floodwaters began streaming down the Black Hills, Lytle and his wife, Norma, were at a Friday night classical concert at Stevens High School. But the concert was cut short; a Rapid City police lieutenant appeared and told folks that they should hunker down at home or evacuate immediately.

Lytle knew the lieutenant; in addition to being a coach and a dentist, Lytle was city council president and alderman for Ward 3, which lay right beneath the Canyon Lake Dam. He had responsibilities in this sort of crisis.

But first, he had people to take care of—his three kids, Kim, Kip, and Kelly; his wife, Norma; plus a German family he was hosting as part of an exchange program. Lytle tried to take everyone home via 32nd Street, but the bridge there was already underwater; instead, he zipped up Bacon Park and crossed there, just as the water began flowing across the bridge.

At home on Frontier Place, just south of the Meadowbrook Golf Course, Lytle’s basement was already full of water. When the lights and telephone lines died, everyone retreated to the home’s upper level. The house was located near Meadowbrook’s fifth fairway. Across the greens, through the driving rain, Lytle could see a red light, possibly some sort of emergency vehicle. Lytle, not knowing that his own Ward 3 was facing the worst of the crisis, decided to walk over there and plug into the municipal emergency response that way.

Soon he and his eleven-year-old son, Kip (a teammate of Matt Vanderbeek’s), were picking their way across the soaking-wet golf course. The lightning—vast, uncontrolled energy from above—lit up the world in discrete, freeze-frame chunks. They didn’t know it, but as they drew near to the emergency vehicle (it turned out to be a fire truck), the water was flowing in stealthily behind them, covering the golf course and cutting off their escape.

The 38th Street bridge, which would have allowed Lytle to reach the fire truck, was now also underwater and impassable. He got as close as he dared and shouted, but no one heard. He and Kip turned around, but the waters on the golf course were rising quickly. Lytle, who stood six two, scooped Kip up and carried him, water lapping against his legs and threatening to sweep them both away.

Elsewhere, thousands were harried by floodwaters that peaked at ten feet high. On West Chicago Street, a division manager for Sears was electrocuted in his home. A professional cowboy was sitting in his car when a wall of water swept him away. A carpenter was fleeing with his family and friends to higher ground when he returned to the house to answer a ringing phone; they lived, and he died.

Lytle knew none of these stories yet, but by the time he waded off the golf course, panting, with Kip in his arms, he understood it was bad. The father of the visiting German family was a policeman. Using sign language, Lytle made him understand that, if they had to abandon the house, they would retreat to higher ground in the nearby foothills. But first, they would have to rescue the disabled next-door neighbor and take him along.

A little past midnight, Lytle stationed himself on a lawn chair on the house’s rear deck, monitoring the water. A constant, dull roar clouded his senses, but he tried to stay alert, in case the dam broke.

“I was listening for something that might warn me that there was more disaster coming in than we already had,” he later said.

It was a lonely vigil. Each flash of lightning gave him a glimpse of the water; each time, it was a little closer to their end of the golf course. Then it began to race through their backyard. But Lytle could not withstand the fatigue. He fell asleep.

When he awoke, he was disoriented—he could see nothing, hear nothing above the driving rain and rushing waters. But the next lightning flash showed him that the waters were receding. The Lytle home would survive.

Just as the sky began to lighten, Lytle heard screams. People who had fled were returning to the neighborhood. Many found their homes ruined, or gone, some with family inside. Survivors wandered the streets in a daze. And these were the lucky ones in Ward 3. Looking out over the golf course, Lytle saw mud, debris, and bodies, one of which had been partially dismembered by the terrible force of the water.

“So it was a—it was a, uh, a night of horror,” Lytle said.

When the rain stopped in the midmorning, Lytle fired up an old car and made his way to city hall by driving alongside a railroad with one wheel up on the track.

He drove through a community in chaos; there were reports of looting and gunfire by night, and injured people lay on mattresses lining hospital hallways. Ruptured gas mains and power lines fueled explosions and fires. Some blamed the flood on recent cloud-seeding experiments conducted by the Institute of Atmospheric Sciences at a nearby mining and technology school.

Lytle helped lead a ten-day, round-the-clock rescue effort that focused on pulling apart wreckage in the hot, humid sunshine to search for survivors—and bodies.

Amid the horror, stories of individual courage began to emerge. A railroad worker was found by a helicopter on the roof of his house with a woman; he requested that they take her first, and when they returned for him, he was gone. Another man, Russ Haley, lifted his wife and daughter onto a roof but found that he could not hoist himself up to join them. Haley used his belt to strap his body to a tree limb, clinging to his branch for seven hours in the frigid rushing waters, like the ornament on the bowsprit of a ship. He left the belt in the tree for what he called “a conversation piece.”

The rescue effort revealed more examples of bravery and independent judgment. Scores of local contractors used loaders and backhoes and trucks wherever they saw a need, whether they were being paid or not.

Lytle worked to whittle the list of fifty-five hundred missing people down to confirmed living or dead. They scooped mud out of the Meadowbrook School gymnasium and used it as a base of operations. More than two hundred bodies were recovered in the first couple of days, but only eighty-seven had been identified. They were laid out at the junior high school, many mangled beyond recognition. Lytle called other dentists in Rapid City and collected dental records, using them to attach names to bodies.

Some of the missing were Lytle’s friends—patients from his dental practice or classmates of his kids. He found that three members of Kip’s Little League team had died.

In the end, there were 238 dead, counting two people who lived outside Rapid City’s borders.

The oldest victim was James Atkins, a ninety-four-year-old farmer turned carpenter and father of six.

The youngest victim was four-month-old Jenifer Traversie, who died with her two-year-old brother.

“So,” Lytle said, “we had a pretty difficult time in Ward 3.”

One person whose name was not on the list of the dead was young Matt Vanderbeek, the boy whose family took refuge in a boat that was smashed to pieces. After being thrown clear, Matt reclaimed the surface of the water and managed to stay afloat.

“They picked him up several hours later on…, gasping for the last bit of life he had,” Lytle said.

The storm orphaned the boy. Lytle and other rescue workers found the Vanderbeek parents, Robert and Helen, side by side, about seventy-five feet from their home.

Volunteers coordinated watches on bridges downstream, near Cheyenne, where people scanned the waters to see if they could find survivors clinging to debris.

Five bodies, including that of Matt’s brother, Mark Vanderbeek, were never found.

For a year, Lytle worked intensively on the rebuilding effort—he won an award for his service to Rapid City during and after the flood—but then he felt that he’d given enough and retired from public service.

“I figured my family deserved some more of my time,” he said.

Lytle’s medical training, which served him so well in identifying the bodies and in other aspects of the recovery, was the hard-won legacy of a battle that had been fought in the 1840s, when a community of Parisian doctors successfully argued for the merits of objective data in their field. What seems so obvious today—that medical practices should be dictated by the scientific method—initially met stiff resistance from other doctors within the medical community who didn’t want to cede their authority and judgment to a body of knowledge being compiled by a bunch of far-distant Numbers Junkies. But by 1860, the evidence-driven approach had been so successful in treating patients that virtually all medical schools were instructing their students to follow the science.

Lytle’s formative years and dental training took place between the 1930s and 1960s, when reverence for institutional health care was at an all-time high. In case after case, science was throttling death and disease—the polio vaccine, anesthesia, penicillin, histamines, radiation, and chemo were all discovered in this period, and medical devices like iron lungs and mechanical heart valves were developed. Every tomorrow glimmered with the promise of even more astonishing science-based medical advances, and an army of medical researchers was delving into ever more discrete, localized causes for sickness.

That’s why it’s so strange that Lytle grew increasingly convinced there was in fact a single, systemic explanation for disease, one that had been completely overlooked by the medical establishment.

He later said that he’d gotten the first hint of it as a boy on the farm, when he took his father’s good knife without permission and began whittling. He slipped, and the sharp blade cut a deep gash in his leg. Without telling his parents, he treated it with brackish well water, so alkaline that it gave the family diarrhea.

“I often wondered why that cut seemed to heal overnight. Now I know,” he wrote, years later. “It was the energy.”

Lytle enrolled at the University of Nebraska in 1960 and graduated its dental college in 1964, moving to Rapid City just as an emerging generation of leftist hippies was infusing America with a suspicion of institutions, including medical institutions. Seeking alternatives, they revived long-dead New Age theories about healing energy, crystals, pyramids, and astrology, among many others. While Lytle was growing his dental practice, he came to believe that a universal healing light suffused all living things; disruptions in this energy, what ancient Chinese healers called qi, were the root cause of all illnesses.

Lytle came to believe that this universal energy could power everything from spontaneous healing to dowsing rods. He began working to invent a medical device capable of harnessing that ancient force and focusing it in a way that would allow all of humankind to enjoy better health.

For Larry Lytle—coach turned dentist turned civic leader—healing light was the One True Cure.



Ah me! Love can not be cured by herbs.

—Ovid, Remedia Amoris, c. 2 AD

Toby McAdam—the guy who believes that zombies can be created by rejiggering the rabies virus—was born in August of 1958 in Clyde Park, Montana, about ten years before George Romero’s shambletastic Night of the Living Dead defined zombies for American filmgoers.

Over the course of several wide-ranging phone conversations, two different pictures of Toby emerged. He was optimistic and full of his own bravado—a high school tough, a gleeful thorn in the side of institutional oppressors, and a healer of those in need. Toby traced his heritage, proudly but vaguely, through John Loudon McAdam (a Freemason and the Scottish inventor of macadam blacktop) and on back to the ancient druids of Scotland.

But when Toby told me the stories that made up his childhood, I saw a boy who seemed, mostly, sad.

Young Toby’s dark complexion and woolly hair (an inheritance from his French Canadian father) made him the closest thing to a minority in his overwhelmingly white, underwhelmingly populated hometown of about 250 people. The racists of Clyde Park, hard-pressed to find an outlet for their bigotry, landed on Toby as an easy target. His parents were raising three kids in a modest rental home, and Toby’s father, a night-shift lumber mill worker, also hauled garbage for the town. Even worse in this deep red state, his parents were strong Roosevelt Democrats, admiring FDR’s commitment to a list of human rights, including “the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.”

Toby’s Scottish mother, Frances Simmons McAdam, a sometime waitress, sometime bartender, leveraged all of her fierce temper in an effort to shield Toby. When his teachers banished him to the coatroom for hours or held him back in the second grade, she laid into them with reckless abandon. During one of his youth soccer games, she raged at the referees, drew a technical, and then laughed about it on the way home. Other times, she railed against injustices being faced by Native Americans, or the evils of Richard Nixon.

But there was little she could do about the cruelty of Toby’s peers. As Toby went to and from school, bullies sometimes threw garbage at him and called him racial slurs. After school one day, they caught Toby and tied him up. Other times, they broke his bicycle, and his knuckles.

It was in 1976 that Toby, fresh out of high school, began what would prove to be a decades-long quest for his purpose in life. He tried on a variety of jobs, but nothing seemed to fit. When he got married and was hired by a management company, Frances was delighted. When he got divorced, and fired, she was sympathetic. When he wound up in court over child support and wrongful discharge claims, she took his side.

Toby’s older siblings sometimes resented her soft spot for him, but he was the baby, by several years. In 1989, and again in 1993, he got in trouble for writing several thousand dollars’ worth of bad checks and for setting up a fraudulent checking account. She forgave it. He would find his footing, she was sure.

Still, as Frances aged, Toby couldn’t help but notice that she rarely turned to him for help. If she couldn’t find her remote control, she called his brother, Fred. If she needed a ride for a doctor’s visit, she called his sister, Jeanie.

In 2000, Toby thought he’d finally found a purpose that would make Frances, and even his siblings, proud. He publicly announced he was running for governor of Montana under the Hamletesque slogan “Toby or not Toby.” The campaign fizzled when he failed to qualify for the ballot, but by then the local paper had called him out for not having paid child support since 1988. Fred and Jeanie called him an embarrassment.

You might argue that this all sounds like a real bummer, but Toby didn’t see himself as a sad sack. His siblings were simply jealous. “It was more of a—because I would fight. I would take on the status quo. If somebody had an issue, I would get involved with it. That’s why I do so well when I get into it.”

One day Frances told Toby she’d been diagnosed with lung cancer. A few months later, she moved in with his sister, Jeanie. When Toby visited, Frances cooked for him and her poodle, Midget, who ate bacon and drank from a glass of water on a TV tray.

At some point, Toby and Frances developed a shared belief that Frances would see the end of the tumor growing on her lung, rather than the other way around. Their stubborn optimism got on Jeanie’s nerves.

“You have cancer,” Jeanie would say. “You don’t understand.”

“I don’t care what I have,” Frances would reply, Toby by her side. “I’m gonna beat this thing.”

Fred sided with Jeanie, who saw it as a deceptive plying of false hopes, and so an emotionally difficult tug-of-war between family members began, two sets of best intentions that expressed themselves in familial conflict.

Jeanie drove Frances to the hospital for radiation treatments and urged her to listen to the doctor’s grave pronouncements. When they got back, Toby would share an article about alternative cures and work with Frances to find speckles of hope amid the doctor’s grim words.

One day, Toby received a package in the mail from an East Coast company. Inside was a clump of reddish-brown tendrils and shreds. It was bloodroot, also known as bloodwort, a small and modest plant that bears white flowers and grows from Nova Scotia to Florida.

Toby sat at a table and used a mortar and pestle to grind the roots into a fine powder, which he tipped carefully into tiny half capsules. In his readings, Toby had learned that bloodwort contains berberine, a chemical compound that had, in some test-tube studies, triggered a physical process called apoptosis. Apoptosis is programmed cell death, and it’s the lack of apoptosis that allows tumors to grow uninhibited.

Soon he was handing a bottle of the capsules to his mother. His siblings scoffed, but Frances accepted them with gratitude and promised to take them.

Toby, eager to help Frances, began seeking out other plants with medicinal properties. This proved to be surprisingly easy, because, due to a recent change in federal law, more than six hundred American corporations were aggressively selling the idea that the plants of their suppliers could cure the ills of their customers.

In 1994, the dietary supplement industry had successfully lobbied Congress to pass the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA), which broadened the definition of a food supplement to include almost any vitamin, mineral, plant, or hormone. It also, critically, shifted the burden of proof away from manufacturers so that the Food and Drug Administration had to identify dangerous products on a case-by-case basis.

The new, lax regulatory environment made selling supplements more profitable, which led to an influx of unscrupulous players. This made the industry much bigger and much, much more toxic. Between 1994 and 2000, the supplement industry in the US mushroomed from $4 billion in annual sales to $18.7 billion, and the number of dietary supplements advertised mushroomed right along, from four thousand to twenty-nine thousand. Most were, if not beneficial, then at least harmless. But the race for profitability led some companies to sell the cheapest-possible supplements, containing bulk fillers like talc and gelatin and produced in facilities that allowed (or intended) them to be laced with all sorts of nasty adulterants—blue printer ink, drywall, boric acid, lead paint, floor wax, rat poison. Other manufacturers tried to stand out from competitors by slipping pharmaceuticals into their supposedly all-natural products or were ignorant of what was actually in their own pills. One supplement producer that I spoke with, a vegan activist who’d had his name legally changed to Erb Avore, dedicated years to bringing an all-natural version of Viagra—he called it Stiff Nights—to market. After a man who took Stiff Nights died, the FDA found that Erb’s supplier had given him not a plant extract but a synthetic analogue of sildenafil, the pharmaceutical in some commercial dick-stiffening drugs. The pills of one of his competitors was found to contain thirty-one times the prescription dosage of tadalafil (the key drug in erection-boosting Cialis), plus an antidepressant.

The one thing every supplement seller had in common was a vested interest in promoting the idea that the raw active ingredients in its products—mostly minerals and plant extracts—were the key to good health, which they did by flooding the public with promotional materials: magazines and newsletters that cited the flimsiest of scientific studies.

And so, when Toby went searching for information, he found dozens of articles that hinted, implied, or flat out argued that bloodroot could combat cancer. He also read that white willow bark was a good natural alternative to aspirin, leading him to make some capsules of an extract. Then he read that hawthorn berry promoted blood flow.

Toby read more articles that made more promises about more plants. As an optimist, he viewed every herb-related claim in the best possible light. He soon internalized the broader picture that the supplement sellers were painting and came to believe the body was wholly capable of fighting off any disease, if only modern medicine would get out of the way. Packets and boxes of herbs and powders and roots and bark began arriving regularly in his mailbox. He turned a table into a de facto manufacturing lab space and ground these raw ingredients into what seemed like reasonable doses. He made pills to boost his mother’s immune system, and pills to reduce fluid buildup in her lungs, and pills to address her forgetfulness. Everything she complained of found a theoretical remedy in bottles of his homemade medications.


  • “Prepare yourself for a wild ride. With a carefully calibrated balance of wit and horror, Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling leads readers into dark historical corners and down internet rabbit holes to understand the origins and influence of the ‘medical freedom’ movement. A book full of rich characters and shocking details about America’s war on science you won’t soon forget.”—Seyward Darby, author of Sisters in Hate
  • “Matt Double-H is a must-read writer for me, if only for the belly laughs. Here he spins a fantastically weird and entertaining tale about medical quackery in twenty-first century America and the faltering efforts of the government to curb it. Adds credence to the idea that we are living through a Counter-Enlightenment.”—Richard Grant, author of Dispatches from Pluto
  • “My jaw hit the floor and still hasn’t recovered. From the slimy secrets in hospital basements to preventable tragedies that elude the healing powers of God and magic, If It Sounds Like A Quack . . .  tells unfathomably flabbergasting tales of the wacky world of American snake-oil sales. Readers will come away inoculated against the allure of any one true cure.”—Kavin Senapathy, SciMoms.com
  • “A wry, wide-ranging investigation into the ‘alternative medicine’ business…rollicking…entertaining…but there is a dark side. [Hongoltz-Hetling] knows when to be funny and when to be serious.”—Kirkus
  • “Blistering…novelistic…by turns humorous, enraging, and heartbreaking…a powerful antidote to medical disinformation.”—Publishers Weekly
  •  “If It Sounds Like a Quack is a genuine scream: irreverent, very often snarky, sometimes bawdy, but always insightful and well reported.”—Science Magazine
  •  “If It Sounds Like a Quack is wry, irreverent, and hilarious, poking equal fun at presidents, patients, and quack practitioners alike, while it makes a big point: faux medicine is relatively harmless, until it’s not and someone gets hurt.” —Marco Eagle News
  • “Hongoltz-Hetling revels in the weirdness as he recounts a variety of questionable alternative treatments touted by so-called medical freedom movement… Be prepared to both laugh and feel horrified”—Booklist

On Sale
Apr 4, 2023
Page Count
320 pages

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

About the Author

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling is a journalist specializing in narrative features and investigative reporting. He has been named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, won a George Polk Award, and been voted Journalist of the Year by the Maine Press association, among numerous other honors. He is the author of one previous book, A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear, and his writing has appeared in Foreign Policy, USA Today, Popular ScienceAtavist Magazine, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, the Associated Press, and elsewhere. He lives in Vermont.

Learn more about this author