Massage therapist died after eating plant root during ‘spiritual’ ceremony

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Friday, 28 January 2011

A massage therapist who travelled to Africa to take part in a spiritual initiation ceremony died after consuming a “holy” root plant that was being used as part of the ritual, her inquest was told yesterday.

Laura Thornton (32), a renowned tennis and squash player of Whitestrand Park, Salthill, Co Galway, fell ill and died on January 2, 2010, after consuming iboga, a plant root — a “holy wood” — after travelling to Cameroon to take part in a a spiritual ritual involving a shaman, or traditional healer.

Following the inquest, her father, retired schoolteacher Kevin Thornton, spoke of his “lovely Laura” and said her family wanted to send out a strong warning about the great risk involved in taking iboga.

Her brother Ian Thornton told Dublin County Coroner’s Court that Laura was a massage therapist and was involved in healing and he believed she saw the initiation ceremony as part of her education in this area and the next step to developing her own spirituality.

Coroner Dr Kieran Geraghty said iboga was a psychoactive drug used by pygmies to help them get in touch with their ancestors and the spirits.

“There is a type of religion practised in Gabon and Cam-eroon and the taking of the drug is a sacramental part of that religion. They use a shaman to perform the ceremony and the initiation involves the taking of a very large amount of this root,” Dr Geraghty said.

Kevin said that he understood that on a previous occasion she had a mild reaction to iboga while in Wales and had travelled to Cameroon to take part in this initiation ceremony in which the plant was eaten.

A French nurse who had attended the ritual later spent four days with the family and told how she tried to resuscitate Laura after she fell ill.

“There is no structured organisation around this thing. This is a heavy ceremony and there is a big risk if it (iboga) is not administered by somebody who is competent,” Mr Thornton said.

“It was a ritual act for therapeutical and spiritual purposes. It was supposed to be a catalyst for her own evolution and she hoped to carry whatever benefits from it and pass them on to her clients.”

Consultant pathologist Dr Muna Sabah, who carried out a post-mortem, found that the most likely cause of death was cardiac arrest associated with the consumption of iboga.

She said ingestion of the plant was part of the culture in Africa and was used as a stimulant to combat hunger and thirst and also for healing.

Recording a verdict of death by misadventure, Dr Geraghty said Laura had died from cardiac arrest associated with iboga.

“It would also appear people are using this plant in Ireland, England and elsewhere and they should be aware of the dangers involved.”

Afterwards, Kevin warned of the dangers of taking iboga and said that it was being used “under the radar” in Ireland.

“It is unregulated and uncontrolled and the family and friends of Laura would wish through this inquest to send out a strong warning of the great risk involved in the use of iboga. We would not wish anyone else to die unnecessarily like our lovely Laura.”

Iboga: ‘visionary root’ taken during rituals

Iboga, described as the “visionary root” of Africa, is a perennial rainforest shrub that originated in the Congo Basin and was spread to Cameroon and Gabon by Pygmies and Bantu natives.

Also referred to as the “holy wood”, bark from from the plant root is chewed for pharmacological or ritualistic purposes and can stimulate the central nervous system and induce visions.

It is used by visionary healers called shamans for therapeutic and spiritual purposes.

Outside Africa, a derivative of the plant, ibogaine, is used to treat opiate addition like heroin but iboga is illegal in several western countries.

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