News & Politics

Celebrity Trend Uses Nutrients Hospitals Desperately Need

Experts say: “We’ve got babies’ lives hanging in the balance while we’re worried about getting through a hangover.”

Rihanna. Photograph by s_bukley /

It’s been called the new “it” bag. The “vitamin drip”­—a trendy, expensive treatment
of vitamins and nutrients delivered intravenously—is billed as a way to beautify and
reenergize those who are tired, stressed out, dehydrated, or too busy to get a good
night’s sleep.

X Factor judge
Simon Cowell swears by it.
Cindy Crawford, and the Miami Heat’s
Rashard Lewis have been rumored to be fans.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to them, patients across the country—especially premature babies—have
been malnourished because of a lack of some of the same nutrients used in the vitamin

In late May,
Washingtonian reported that nationwide
shortages are threatening the lives of patients who need IV nutrition to survive.
Hospitals have resorted to hoarding, rationing, and bartering. At least 15 people—almost
certainly more—have died. The shortages particularly endanger infants in neonatal
intensive-care units (NICUs), whose young bodies have no nutrient reserves.

Last week, the manufacturer of the most-used adult and pediatric IV multivitamin informed
health systems that its product—which contains B and C vitamins, among others—is now
in shortage. Medical professionals say that, as a result, intravenous B and C vitamins
now may be in danger of also going into shortage. In the 1990s, a multivitamin shortage
led to a widespread thiamin (vitamin B-1) deficiency that caused several deaths.

Amid this public-health crisis, private clinics around the country are using high
doses of intravenous B and C vitamins, and other nutrients that are in shortage, for
nonmedical purposes. In some cases, clinics are taking nutrients out of the same limited
pool that supplies hospitals and home health-care agencies. In other cases, facilities
are injecting clients with nutrients from sources that don’t meet hospital safety

“Children Are Dying”

Special report: Because of nationwide shortages, Washington hospitals are rationing, hoarding, and bartering critical nutrients premature babies and other patients need to survive. Doctors are reporting conditions normally seen only in developing countries, and there have been deaths. How could this be allowed to happen?

Doctors have used the vitamin drip for decades to treat legitimate medical conditions,
but clinics are seeing a recent upsurge in people asking for it for other reasons.

At the Miami Institute for Age Management and Intervention, for example, the menu
of vitamin-drip treatments includes the Recovery Cocktail (“a healthy hangover cure”),
the Healthy Hair/Skin/Nails Cocktail, the Executive Stress Cocktail, and the Skin
Lightening Cocktail, which the institute’s staff says helps Asian-Americans and African-Americans
“achieve a lighter, fairer skin tone.”

Celebrities, models, and business executives are using the drip to make them look
better for photo shoots and other events.

It’s also become popular among athletes. In Washington, professional football and
basketball players have sought out the handful of centers that offer the drip. “It
facilitates muscle recovery,” says
Andre Etherly, business administrator and clinical liaison at Proactive Wellness Centers in Vienna.
“An athlete’s body consumes a lot of things it can’t replace readily—like if a basketball
player has to play two nights in a row, he can’t replenish fast enough.”

Sakiliba Mines, who owns DC’s Institute of Multidimensional Medicine, treats cancer patients but
also administers IV drips to healthy attorneys, George Washington University students,
and others. This month, she treated a new patient who requested an IV because she
was preparing for the bar exam.

Ever since singer
Rihanna tweeted a photo of her IV line in 2012, the practice has also come to be known as
the “party-girl drip,” leading people to flock to IV centers to use it as a hangover
cure. In Las Vegas, a company called Hangover Heaven offers it out of a bus equipped
to run as many as 14 IVs at a time.

Some of Hangover Heaven’s IV bags contain calcium—which is currently in “absolute
shortage,” according to the American Society of Health System Pharmacists (ASHP).

Simon Cowell has said he receives a weekly treatment containing magnesium and other
nutrients. At the time of this writing, ASHP reports that there is no magnesium commercially
available from any FDA-approved US manufacturers.

Sakiliba Mines reports that she typically uses a concoction containing magnesium,
potassium, selenium, zinc, calcium, and chromium—all of which are in shortage. Over
the past 2½ years, hospitals nationwide have run out of many of them.

Asked whether her clinic has been affected, Mines says, “Not at all. I’m very well
stocked.” Just down the road from her facility, George Washington University Hospital
was out of calcium chloride and short on zinc chloride, magnesium sulfate, selenium,
and other items this past spring.

If hospitals can’t get IV nutrients for ailing infants, how can private clinics procure
them for someone who wants prettier nails or lighter skin?

Mines said she gets nutrients directly from the manufacturers but declines to say
which ones.

Patients Medical, a holistic wellness center in New York City, gets some of its IV
nutrients from Henry Schein, a global distributor of medical supplies. Henry Schein
Susan Vassallo explains that the company serves medical offices, not hospitals, and fills orders
on a first come, first served basis unless the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
recommends otherwise. Only when a nutrient is on “extreme back order” would Henry
Schein restrict the quantities of customer orders. “We have not done that yet with
these products,” Vassallo says.

Proactive Wellness Centers in Vienna has “not come across any extreme shortages,”
Etherly says. His office buys nutrients from compounding pharmacies, which get them
in bulk from a distributor. Etherly says most bottles the company receives “come unopened
directly from the main manufacturers.” When pressed, he agrees that Proactive Wellness
Centers could, in theory, give vials of nutrients to local hospitals in need.

Etherly says that clinics have more options than hospitals because they’re not constrained
by “policies, rules, and regulations.”

That’s why a bus like Hangover Heaven can obtain nutrients. Anesthesiologist
Jason Burke, who runs Hangover Heaven, says he’s “reasonably skilled at calling around to find
out what’s getting ready to go on back order—we always stay ahead of the game. Hangover
Heaven [sees] a lot of demand for our services. You’re on vacation, you have a hangover,
you feel awful—I can’t let shortages get in the way.”

Burke uses a compounding pharmacy to produce his formulations. He buys nutrients that
aren’t in shortage from a distributor called McKesson Medical-Surgical.

Burke says he’s confident in his source. But compounding pharmacies, which create
made-to-order drugs, have been a danger to patients.

Last October, an outbreak of fungal meningitis killed 61 people and infected more
than 700 because of unsanitary conditions at a compounding pharmacy. Following the
outbreak, the FDA conducted inspections of 30 compounding pharmacies that produce
sterile drugs. Each one had “objectionable conditions,” including unidentified black
particles in vials, rust and mold in supposedly clean production rooms, gloveless
technicians handling sterile products, and employees wearing nonsterile lab coats.

Because of these and other safety problems, many hospitals have stopped using compounding
pharmacies, says
Bona Benjamin, ASHP director of medication-use quality improvement.

Experts say IV treatment centers might also be giving placebos, using expired products,
or diluting the vitamins.

What can be done? The FDA has “very limited authority” to conduct inspections of compounding
pharmacies, spokesperson
Curtis Allen says. During the agency’s spring inspections, some pharmacies were so uncooperative
that it had to get administrative warrants from the courts and US marshals had to
escort the inspectors at the sites.

Distributors don’t police their buyers, either. The GW Center for Integrative Medicine,
a DC facility that offers IV nutrient drips, typically buys calcium gluconate from
McKesson Medical-Surgical, which purchases directly from manufacturers. Spokesperson

Randy King says that the company supplies physicians’ offices, pharmacies, other distributors,
and a few health systems: “We don’t know how [the nutrients] are being utilized once
they’re sold.”

Most healthy people don’t know enough about the shortages to ask whether their hangover
treatment is using nutrients that could otherwise go to a NICU.

But the concern at the root of the shortages is that there’s no centralized system
to monitor the medical inventories of hospitals, home health-care companies, clinics,
and other treatment facilities. If there were a system that tracked the deliveries
of the nutrients, an oversight entity might be able to redirect them to hospitals
in need instead of clinics helping healthy people recover from a hangover or look
good in a photo shoot.

“It’s appalling that we are sacrificing the health of our babies for beauty, energy,
and hangover relief,” says clinical pharmacist
Steve Plogsted, who chairs the drug-shortage task force of the American Society for Parenteral and
Enteral Nutrition. “We’ve got babies’ lives hanging in the balance while we’re worried
about getting through a hangover.”

Alexandra Robbins is the author of six books, most recently The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth.