To chiropractor Joanne Gallagher and her patients, her practice is almost like a religion.
One patient described her laying on of hands as “a gift. In my church it’s called grace.”
Outside a federal courtroom yesterday in Harrisburg, some of her 200 followers and supporters recited the rosary.
Inside, others talked about their absolute faith in her. And Gallagher, awaiting sentencing on a fraud charge, led the packed courtroom in prayer while asking the judge for leniency.
That faith, prosecutors say, cost a woman her life when Gallagher insisted she could cure her epilepsy without medicine by waving her hands around the woman’s head — what she called “balancing the meninges.”
U.S. District Judge Christopher C. Conner rejected pleas to reduce her recommended term. The judge sentenced Gallagher to 18 months in prison followed by 2 years of probation for her guilty plea. He also fined her $9,100.
Conner said prosecutors showed that Gallagher had been engaged in a continuing practice of improper treatments outside the scope of her expertise before the April 29, 1999, death of 31-year-old Kimberly Strohecker.
Gallagher told other patients that she could cure Down syndrome and epilepsy. A neurologist from Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center warned Gallagher that similar treatment she was giving another epilepsy patient could be disastrous.
The Hazleton-area chiropractor pleaded guilty in July to a single count of fraud after her trial, which could have resulted in a life term, was abruptly halted.
A mistrial was declared when the mother of Strohecker’s fiance produced a tape recording of an April 28, 1999, telephone call in which Gallagher assured her the continuous grand mal seizures Strohecker was suffering was the anti-seizure medicine working its way out of her body.
“Eventually you will see her just go into a peaceful sleep,” Gallagher said in the phone call. “And it’s going to take her brain a little while. She’s going to be tired for a while, but she’ll recover.”
Strohecker died what prosecutors called a slow and horrible death hours after the phone call.
Strohecker, who had lived fairly normally on medications, arrived at her last appointment with Gallagher the day before she died in a wheelchair, wearing adult diapers, choking on vomit, with her tongue nearly bitten through.
Her mother, Dawn Strohecker, testified that her family’s life has been devastated by Gallagher’s actions.
Her daughter was engaged to Troy Shade, a Jehovah’s witness who took Kimberly Strohecker to Gallagher in an attempt to get her off medication.
Dawn Strohecker said she called Gallagher’s clinic before her daughter’s death and said she needed to be back on her medication.
“I told them not to see my daughter,” Dawn Strohecker testified. “We took our children to specialists, not quacks, not witches.”
Dawn Strohecker’s comments drew a gasp from Gallagher’s followers, as did comments from Assistant U.S. Attorney Mary Catherine Frye, who told Conner it was Gallagher’s arrogance that led to Strohecker’s death because Gallagher thought she knew better than medical doctors.
“She exploited the faith of her patients,” Frye said. “She used this faith with people like Kimberly Strohecker to experiment with their lives. As far as we know she only killed one of them.”
Gallagher’s attorney, Matthew Gover, who at trial pointed the blame at Shade, said his client did nothing intentional.
Strohecker’s parents had tried to press involuntary manslaughter charges against Gallagher in Schuylkill County Court, but Claude A.L. Shields, the district attorney there at the time, refused, saying the recklessness required under the law could not be proven.
The court upheld his position.
Gallagher, 43, also faces sentencing March 18 in Dauphin County Court on state charges of violating the chiropractic law. Chiropractors are licensed by the state but are not medical doctors.