When 'Chicago Hope' Dealt in Heimlich, Malariotherapy and AIDS

8:00 AM PST 08/14/2014 by Seth Abramovitch

The choking-technique doctor's controversial theories hit primetime in 1995

Dr. Henry Heimlich's startling "malariotherapy" research, funded by Hollywood luminaries like Jack Nicholson and Ron Howard and detailed in a new story in The Hollywood Reporter, found its way into a 1995 episode of Chicago Hope, the CBS medical drama from David E. Kelley.

In season one's "Freeze Outs," an HIV-positive patient at Chicago Hope Hospital is told by a doctor (Vondie Curtis-Hall) of an experimental procedure championed by Heimlich, the man behind the famous choking technique.

"Basically, the malaria parasites jump-start the immune system into attacking the HIV cells," another doctor explains, an accurate description of Heimlich's actual theories. The patient then agrees to undergo the malaria injections.

Chief of staff Dr. Watters (Hector Elizondo) then halts the procedure: "He specializes in forcing mashed potatoes out of windpipes," Watters says of the real Heimlich. "He's not an AIDS specialist."

But the hospital's legal counsel (Peter Nichols) later hints that the hospital will look the other way if the patient is injected with malaria parasites. The episode ends with the HIV-positive patient, now infected with malaria, shivering in his bed with a high fever.

After viewing the episode prior to air, Dr. Paul Bronston, an ER doctor and chair of a medical ethics board who has been among Heimlich's most outspoken critics, sent a four-page letter to the late Laurence Tisch, then CEO of CBS, strongly warning against airing "Freeze Outs."

"[It sends a] potentially dangerous message to the public in general and specifically to people who have AIDS or are HIV-positive," Bronston wrote of the episode's treatment of malariotherapy, which has been discredited by the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization. "I believe that Chicago Hope has unintentionally given incorrect information to AIDS patients and to the public, maybe even given them false hope."

Bronston says Tisch was "great ... He was responsive as hell." Within two days, Chicago Hope producers called Bronston to consult on a follow-up episode. Three months later, the show revisits the same HIV-positive character, who dies despite having undergone the malariotherapy treatment.

Says Bronston: "I killed a guy on Chicago Hope."

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