“Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing happened.” – Winston Churchill
“William D. Kelley, D.D.S.” That’s what I put in the space marked “Father” on the hundreds of forms I have had to fill out in my time. In the space marked “Father’s Occupation,” I put “Health Researcher.” That’s about all the information I volunteer without a darn good reason, though. To my frequent embarrassment, my father has managed to attain a certain degree of fame.
Euphemistically, he can be said to be controversial. Those less kindly disposed toward him might use the term “infamous.” In any case, I have always found it easier simply to avoid him as a topic of casual conversation.
When we lived in tiny Grapevine, Texas, everyone in town knew of my dad. He was the dentist in the little yellow office on Worth Street who didn’t appear to be practicing dentistry. His patients didn’t come from across town; they flew in from across the country. And the people coming to see him were all so desperately ill; many of them were cancer patients, obviously on their “last legs.” Just what was going on in the small office?
The Fort Worth Star Telegram answered that question in a “shocking expose,” which set the town buzzing. Dr. Kelley, an orthodontist, was seeing cancer patients! Further, the “therapy” he suggested was largely a matter of altering the diets of his patients and giving them vitamins and such! The notion that an individual’s diet might be a factor in a disease as serious as cancer was considered absurd, but only slightly less so than the idea of a dentist working with cancer patients in any capacity. The scandal instigated by this article was the first I remember. Unfortunately, it was not the last.
My father became involved in cancer research first as a patient. In the early 1960’s life in this family was relatively normal. At that time, we lived in Midland, the tumbleweed capital of Texas. Dad was practicing orthodontics, and his practice was thriving. He belonged to the local country club, the school board, and the Church of Christ. In his spare time, he indulged his passion for “tinkering” by restoring antique cars. His pride and joy was named Twinkles, a 1923 Cadillac that ran like a top in response to his diligent and loving care.
I would like to think that my father, given a choice, would not have changed much in his life. However, he wasn’t given the option.
Dad became ill in 1963, and critically so by 1967. The physicians he saw in Midland and Odessa couldn’t find anything physiologically wrong with him for quite some time. The fact that he was ill was undeniably apparent; he was so weak, he found it necessary to lie down at the office between seeing patients. After he suffered what appeared to be two heart attacks, a diagnosis was finally made. The situation, I have been told, was as follows. He had cancer of the pancreas and liver. As is usually the case, the malignancy was in its final stages at the time of diagnosis. The doctor refused to operate, saying Dad would die on the table. He should “get his affairs in order” quickly; he could expect to live only a few months. The doctor took my mother aside to tell her that, in his opinion, two months was a more realistic time frame.
One of the many reasons cancer is such an effective killer is its ability to destroy completely the individual’s will to live. The patient suffers overwhelming pain, and his prognosis is rarely very optimistic. Any strength he might possess to combat the disease is soon exhausted, and death ceases to be viewed as something to be avoided. In death, the pain will be gone. The patient will no longer be forced to face the people he loves and the sorrow his suffering has brought them. Death becomes a friend, not an adversary. My mother and grandmother Kelley have told me stories of how terrible a thing it was to watch.
Unfortunately (or very fortunately), my mother had some more unpleasant news for him. Mom has always had a real talent with a credit card. Due to the fact that we were living heavily in debt, she had quietly allowed Dad’s life insurance to lapse. His death would leave his wife and three young daughters destitute.
I imagine Dad was very angry. He had come to terms with dying, but this news surely obliterated any peace of mind he might have attained. At some point, he made the decision to do whatever he could to live. I don’t know from what source he found the strength to attempt the impossible. Maybe his anger provided the motivation. (After all, if he died, he wouldn’t be able to kill my mom!)
Instead of tinkering with Twinkles, Dad now began tinkering with himself. The doctors had offered him no hope and no help; his only option was to take his case into his own hands. He wasn’t overly armed for the fight; one of his degrees is in biochemistry, and he knew of several people conducting innovative research in natural healing. His illness was so severe that, by trial and error, he was able to determine quickly what substances (food, vitamins, and/or minerals) swung the pendulum of his well being in what direction. Virtually everything the rest of the family ate would make him wretchedly ill. I remember sitting down to fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy while dad dined on vile-smelling liver. My sisters and I didn’t understand why he was eating this way; no one told us he was dying.
Anyway, Dad must have done something right. Two months came and went, and the next four followed suit. During this time (and for sometime after, to be sure), Dad was critically ill; and for the purposes of this paper and its space limitation, I have greatly simplified the things he did to get well. But the bottom line is still the same; he didn’t die.
Word got around – boy did it get around! The parents of Dad’s orthodontic patients started asking him for advice about their ills and those of their loved ones. And Dad naively dispensed it. I don’t believe it ever occurred to him to do otherwise. Many of those asking his advice were friends or, at least, people he knew. He simply told them what he had done to help himself. He had ‘been there’ and knew first hand the agony a cancer patient experiences. Here were people in desperate need of help. If he knew something that might ease their pain at all, he felt it was his moral duty to tell them. And many of those who did what he said got well.
People came to see Dr. Kelley in increasing numbers, and they weren’t looking to have braces put on their kids’ teeth. Since he had to earn a living for his family but still felt a moral obligation to help anyone he could, he wrote a slim booklet in 1969 entitled, One Answer To Cancer. In it was the story of his personal encounter with malignancy and the theoretical explanation of the procedures he used in getting well.
After the publication of One Answer To Cancer, things really started to happen. As you might imagine, the American Medical Association, the State Board of Dental Examiners, and a host of other health-oriented organizations began to get hostile. He endured a great deal of persecution during this time, and found himself in quite a dilemma. On one hand, the number of individuals seeking his help was ever increasing; on the other, charges of “practicing medicine without a license” were being leveled at him. Eventually, he began seeing cancer patients for a living and started charging for his services. However, he saw only those people whose doctors had referred their patients to him. He consulted with the individual as well as the physician involved, always working well within the law. At the last count with which I am familiar, he has worked with over 33,000 patients in this way.
Dr. Kelley’s case load has always been predictably lopsided; until recently, the only patients who came to him did so after being advised that there was nothing left to do but buy their burial plots and make out their wills. They had tried everything else before coming to see him. It is really amazing that he was able to save any of them at all. A great many of those early patients are alive and well today, singing his praises to anyone who will listen. In the cases of those who he was not able to save, their quality of life was still drastically improved. Many who succumbed to their illnesses did so without the reality-distorting drugs they once took for pain relief. Noting this, many of their relatives became vocal supporters of my fathers work as well.
Dad has helped blaze a trail; he has been a genuine pioneer in his field. I think the phrase “health food nut” must have been coined specifically to describe him. It is difficult now to remember how “far out” his concepts were considered in 1969. Just as women today take for granted the rights their forerunners worked so hard to win, it is easy to forget that Dad preached health foods and ecology long before it became “chic” to do so. When I was growing up, many of my friends asked me why I never had acne at all; I was too embarrassed to tell them. I must admit I am shocked to see things I was forced to consume and used to hide frantically (such as granola or carrot juice) not only socially acceptable but become socially desirable!
When friends came over to play with my sisters and me, there were no snacks we felt comfortable offering them. There was food in the house, to be sure, but nothing they might recognize. The milk in the refrigerator was raw goat’s milk (we had a goat in the backyard – that by itself caused a great deal of comment). My mother milled wheat to make her own flour to bake her own bread. Instead of sugar, the sweetener our family used was black-strap molasses. Carob brownies are terrific, but if I offered them, I would have to explain that chocolate was not allowed in our house. People thought my parents were crazy, and I didn’t really disagree.
Moreover, it wasn’t just that we ate differently, Dad used the members of our family as guinea pigs to check out every new theory he came across in his research. For instance, he had all the silver fillings taken out of my mouth and replaced with gold. There had been quite a bit of silver in there, so the procedure took a long time and was very expensive. I didn’t understand why he wanted to do this, nor did I bother to ask for an explanation. Nothing Dad did at this time made sense to my sisters or me; we just rolled our eyes and did as we were told. Just within the last year, however, I have heard the news that the composition of silver fillings changes over time, sometimes producing the same symptoms as does mercury poisoning. This is just one example out of hundreds. I am still discovering on a daily basis just how much ahead of his time my father has been, and now I can appreciate the courage it must have taken to adhere to the truths he found.
Dr. Kelley has never refused any patient. His philosophy is: “Where there’s life, there’s hope.” When actor Steve McQueen came to him for help, he did not turn him away although he knew that accepting the man as a patient was actually very dangerous. McQueen had a rare form of cancer, mesothelioma, which, to date, is always fatal. Again, he had been told to “get his affairs in order” by every physician he had seen; they offered him no hope. All the medical community could offer Mr. McQueen was a short delay of the inevitable by using surgery and chemotherapy. Steve McQueen was not unlike the rebel and the fighter he portrayed on-screen. Rejecting the concept of lying in a hospital bed, passively awaiting death, he preferred to fight to live, even in the face of odds no one could deny. Too, he had seen his friends (specifically, John Wayne) undergo the procedures the doctors recommended. He wanted no part of the slow, painful mutilation that held no hope of survival.
The last thing anyone involved wanted was that the story of McQueen’s illness and subsequent treatment be leaked to the press. McQueen himself did not want the public to know he was ill; the people surrounding him did not want the star to be linked with the controversial treatment he was receiving. Dad didn’t want to go public with a famous patient whose chances of survival were so slim. He knew that if he lost a patient of McQueen’s stature, that particular death would be all the public would remember; the lives he had saved would be overlooked entirely.
But that bastion of American Journalism, The National Enquirer, unearthed the story. Possessing an intense hatred for the tabloid, McQueen insisted that he be allowed to break the news before the Enquirer could go to press. He wanted to tell his fans about his illness himself.
Steve McQueen died November 7, 1980, from complications arising after surgery performed for the purpose of removing dead tumor masses.
The majority of the media never did get the story straight. They had a field day with Dr. Kelley. I will never forget watching the Today Show and seeing my father sit there, verbally brutalized by Tom Brokaw and Jane Pauley, watching him say virtually nothing in his own defense. He had known the probable outcome of the situation and took the abuse as if it were his due. In reality, all he had done was try, to the best of his ability, to help another human being who had no other avenue open. Tom Snyder gave him a fair hearing, and so did several others; but such was the exception, not the rule.
Dad received a great deal of unexpected support from his old patients and their relatives, though; and I will never forget that either. He was swamped with their calls, letters, and gifts. They stood up to be counted; but, unfortunately, no one really cared about the lives Dr. Kelley saved – Steve McQueen was dead.
I worked with my father at the International Health Institute, a privately owned foundation conducting research in natural healing. When people calling there discovered that my last name is “Kelley,” I am in for an earful of praise for my father. They launch into hour-long dissertations about how wonderful Dr. Kelley is and how his work improved or saved lives of loved ones. It seems to be very important to these callers that Dr. Kelley’s daughter should understand and appreciate the magnitude of his work; they all take upon themselves the personal responsibility of informing me who he is and what he has done. He receives thousands of cards and presents each year from people he no longer remembers. They remember him, though; and they are grateful for his help.
But no one is more grateful than I. My “healthy childhood” may have caused me a little embarrassment from time to time, but it has stood me in good stead. Dad has taught me to search for the truth, even if it means questioning what others readily accept. I will always be thankful that my father had the insight to find the truth, and the courage to say so.
Kimberly S. Kelley
Dallas, Texas (1985)