The controversial past of a health clinician, who has treated sports stars, has come to light following one of his patients dying in a horrific way. Read at news.com.au
The last act of Craig Dawson’s life was getting inside a hyperbaric oxygen chamber at Chapel Street clinic Oxymed, run by a struck-off chiropractor named Malcolm Hooper.
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) is a controversial health treatment favoured by celebrities including Justin Bieber, who has an oxygen chamber in his house.
But for 42-year-old Craig Dawson on April 6, 2016, the therapy would be fatal.
Court documents from multiple cases over eight years reveal the shocking circumstances of Mr Dawson’s death, at the premises of a former health practitioner.
Oxymed and clinic director Malcolm Hooper have each been convicted in the County Court of Victoria after a lengthy judge-alone trial of three counts of failing to provide a safe workplace after Mr Dawson’s death.
Oxymed last week was fined $550,000, and Hooper, its sole director, was slapped with a personal penalty of $176,750 from Judge Amanda Fox.
Mr Dawson, a multiple sclerosis sufferer who could not walk, was pushed into the hyperbaric chamber about 10.40am that day.
An exhaust valve failed and the mask delivering him 100 per cent pure oxygen suddenly sucked onto his face with 80 kilograms of force, emptying his lungs and triggering a heart attack.
In her verdict, Judge Fox said an able-bodied person without specialist training couldn’t have pulled the suctioned mask off their face – let alone a physically vulnerable man like Mr Dawson.
“The abilities of a regular patient are not those of a trained commercial or military diver,” she said.
“There is no way a person can pull the mask off if they do not know how to break the seal.”
Further flaws in the modified equipment meant it took almost five minutes for the oxygen chamber to be released — while Mr Dawson’s unmoving body was inside, blood spilling from his mouth into the mask.
He never regained consciousness, and his life support was turned off five days later.
Hooper’s clinic has in the past been used by sporting stars, including tennis world number one Novak Djokovic.
It was a favourite of former Essendon biochemist Stephen Dank, the architect of the Bombers doping scandal, who sent players there for oxygen treatments as well as mysterious injections, players allege.
And despite his latest scolding from the courts, Hooper intends to keep selling hyperbaric oxygen therapy at Oxymed to pay off his whopping fine.
‘CHARLATAN’ DOCTOR’S ROCKY PAST
The year 2013 would be a strong candidate for the worst of Malcolm Hooper’s life: he went bankrupt, he was struck off as a chiropractor, and the Essendon doping scandal that would see his name splashed in newspapers was beginning to unravel.
Hooper, a former chiropractor who used to be addressed as “doctor”, was disqualified from practising after he charged a 30-year-old patient with cerebral palsy $50,000 for HBOT.
The patient called his treatments a “charlatan style” sham, and the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal said Hooper showed “disgraceful and dishonourable” behaviour, misrepresenting his treatment’s effectiveness against the incurable condition.
The tribunal, which deals with medical treatments, found him guilty of five counts of unprofessional conduct and three of professional misconduct.
The patient, who was on a disability pension, alleged Hooper told him to fundraise tens of thousands of dollars to pay him — “like some of Dr Hooper’s other clients who were in the same position”.
“I believe that the treatment had a placebo effect upon me,” the patient told the tribunal.
“Because it was costing so much and I was committed to getting a benefit from it for myself and others suffering cerebral palsy, I really wanted to believe it was working.
“I am embarrassed at having trusted Dr Hooper so unquestioningly and feel betrayed by him.”
The patient was “extremely vulnerable” and showed courage in legally challenging Hooper, then-Chiropractic Board of Australia chair Phillip Donato said — adding that the board backed the patient’s action “to protect the public”.
But eight years later, Hooper has again been sentenced for similar acts.
His deregistration as a chiropractor doesn’t stop him from selling HBOT, which does not require medical qualifications to be administered.
By the time Mr Dawson arrived at his clinic in 2016, Hooper did not even have a valid Australian First Aid certificate.
And despite continuing to provide treatments in the interim four years, he still doesn’t have one — something Judge Fox labelled “concerning”.
At the same time as his VCAT battle with a cerebral palsy sufferer, Hooper was haemorrhaging money, going bankrupt across 2012 and 2013.
The reasons for this bankruptcy were not revealed to Judge Fox, and Hooper had clients with money at this time — football stars, sent to Hooper’s clinic to be allegedly pumped full of mystery substances.
Former Essendon rookie Hal Hunter sued the AFL in 2015 in an attempt to find out, among other things, exactly what had been put into his body at Hooper’s clinic in the wake of the doping scandal that rocked the league.
Mr Hunter alleged that between February and April 2012 he attended the clinic, then called HyperMed, at the club’s request.
He was sent by Stephen Dank, the sports scientist since banned for life from the AFL for giving Essendon players banned supplements.
Mr Hunter did not know what Hooper injected him with, he said.
He later settled with Essendon.
Hooper now has findings of guilt behind him in the County Court, the Magistrates Court — for a bankruptcy-related offence — and VCAT, with proceedings about his clinic in the Supreme Court, and his troubles with the law aren’t over.
He is also currently fighting a $63,000 fine in the Federal Court for alleged unlawful advertising imposed by Australia’s medical regulator, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA).
The TGA took him to court after he did not pay the fine.
Hooper last year illegally claimed on Oxymed’s website that HBOT could treat conditions including Covid-19, autism, cancer, dementia, hearing loss, infertility and quadriplegia, the TGA alleges.
He allegedly also continued to advertise HBOT as a treatment for multiple sclerosis, despite Mr Dawson’s death in 2016.
COWBOY CLINIC SELLING UNPROVEN TREATMENT
Hyperbaric oxygen therapy chambers are used both within mainstream medicine and as an alternative therapy.
Hospitals, including the Alfred in Melbourne and the Royal Brisbane Hospital, use them to treat seven conditions – most notably decompression sickness, which occurs in scuba divers who come up from the ocean too quickly.
But they are also used outside medical facilities by clinics like Oxymed and in private homes, with dubious claims they treat all kinds of conditions.
Michael Jackson was a famous early adopter of HBOT, with a chamber at his Neverland Ranch, for burns sustained while filming a Pepsi commercial and with hopes it would prolong his life.
Justin Bieber’s wife Hailey shared a picture of the superstar sleeping inside one in 2019.
The troubled singer shared on YouTube show Seasons last year that he uses an oxygen chamber as part of his efforts to improve his mental health, with one at his recording studio and one at home.
Within Australia, HBOT chambers are covered by Medicare for use in medical settings for seven specific, scientifically-backed treatments: for non-neurological soft tissue radiation injuries; bone death due to radiation; flesh-eating disease; decompression illness; gas gangrene; air or gas embolism; diabetic wounds including diabetic gangrene and diabetic foot ulcers.
But they are not required to be registered as medical devices with the regulator, the TGA.
The relevant standard for hyperbaric chambers, Australian Standard AS 4774.2, is not legally binding and was not followed by Hooper.
HBOT experts called to give evidence in Hooper’s County Court trial said that the treatment was controversial in its use for many conditions, including multiple sclerosis.
They said “reasonable minds” would disagree as to whether it was appropriate.
But the usual problem was that it didn’t work, not that it was dangerous.
It was equipment failure in Hooper’s self-modified machines that caused Mr Dawson’s death.
THE SIXTH OF APRIL, 2016
Craig Dawson was 42 when he stopped breathing at Malcolm Hooper’s clinic.
He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at 22, and had a history of severe, life-threatening seizures.
His family, including his wife and doting father, were described in court as “exceptionally caring and involved”.
After years of unsuccessful therapies, it was his dad’s idea to try the “novel” treatment of HBOT on the advice of an American doctor.
By this stage, Mr Dawson used a wheelchair and couldn’t remember a football score after 15 minutes.
Mr Dawson and his father went to the clinic in 2013, and after an initial serious problem with a catheter during the first session, continued buying treatments for the next three years.
His father “understood the treatment was considered novel, was subject to continuing scientific and medical debate, and was not currently accepted as suitable for treating MS by the bulk of the medical profession in Australia,” Judge Fox said.
But he wanted to try it anyway.
And he remains a supporter of Hooper despite his son’s death.
“He said Mr Hooper cared about his son, and was respectful, kind and attentive,” Judge Fox said.
He told the court Mr Dawson looked forward to his oxygen treatments.
The machines at Oxymed required the patient to get into the horizontal acrylic cylinder and put on a mask. The chamber is pressurised — allowing the lungs to take in more air — and medical-grade 100 per cent pure oxygen is inhaled.
A key exhaust diaphragm was on the wrong side and its oxygen regulator didn’t provide enough air flow, court documents show.
The chambers should also have an “emergency dump valve” which allows for rapid decompression, so that a patient can be reached by an attendant in 30 seconds.
But Hooper’s did not have this.
It took him almost five minutes to open the chamber and release Mr Dawson — and that was after he noticed something was wrong, one hour and 15 minutes after Mr Dawson was placed inside.
There were four HBOT machines at Oxymed, all were in use by patients that day, and Hooper was the only person supervising.
It is unclear when the valve failed and emptied the air from Mr Dawson’s lungs, and it is not known how much time passed before Hooper noticed he was pale and wasn’t moving, with blood in his mask.
In her verdict, Judge Fox was unambiguous that Mr Dawson’s multiple sclerosis was not a cause of his death.
“What occurred to Craig Dawson on 6 April 2016 created a medical emergency, but it was not caused by any of Craig Dawson’s comorbidities including any physical disabilities,” she said.
“It was caused by the exhaust valve failure resulting in a sudden negative pressure event.”
Alfred Health Hyperbaric Medicine Senior Specialist Ian Millar told the court the mask was “primed to fail”, because of a leak most likely caused by corrosion.
Royal Hobart Hospital Hyperbaric Medicine senior visiting specialist David Smart said the mask was “filthy” and that dirt could cause the exhaust valve to fail — which it did.
Judge Fox found Hooper and Oxymed guilty of failing to complete comprehensive risk assessments of patients, and of failing to have attendants with adequate first aid training.
Each also pleaded guilty to failing to ensure appropriate supervision of patients.
Judge Fox found Hooper and Oxymed not guilty of failing to have a proper communications system.
She found each not guilty of recklessly placing a person in danger of serious injury.
WHAT MOTIVATES MALCOLM HOOPER?
Hooper, now 61, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
But hundreds of pages of court documents paint a picture of a man welded to his belief in his pet therapy’s ability to cure the incurable; resolutely defensive and unable to consider the possibility he could be wrong.
Prosecutor Jeremy Rapke QC put it this way in an address to Judge Fox: “Mr Hooper’s ‘passion’, which was really a blinkered rejection of any contrary opinion, overwhelmed his judgement”.
Judge Fox said that Hooper clearly believed in the effectiveness of HBOT, including for conditions that fall outside the mainstream.
Patients that gave evidence all described him as caring and attentive, she said.
His interest in HBOT started almost three decades ago when his daughter fell into a fire at the age of 18 months.
He was seeking alternative therapies for her treatment and learned about HBOT.
But he couldn’t access it within Australia, and became obsessed with providing the machines to people like him.
His daughter is now the sole shareholder of Oxymed.
Despite being disgraced from his former chiropractic profession, a patient taking him to a tribunal and serious findings of misconduct, a media storm around his mystery supplement injections, and the death of Mr Dawson, he remains committed to his obsession.
Chiropractor and RMIT Associate Professor Allan Terrett was asked by VCAT why patients with serious illnesses and disabilities could be drawn into using hyperbaric oxygen therapy.
“Well, a lot of these people are desperate and a lot – if you’ve got multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease, a lot of these people are desperate because medicine doesn’t offer much,” he said.
“Either they’ve got multiple sclerosis and they’ve been given no hope or they’re not responding any longer to the Parkinson’s disease – to their medication, rather.
“A lot of these people look for somebody, anybody who offers hope, and so they are vulnerable people to all sorts of suggestions.”
Malcolm Hooper remains selling HBOT at Oxymed, 8am to 8pm, Monday to Saturday.