On April 9, 2020, St. Louis critical-care physician Mollie James flew to New York. She felt compelled to serve in the country's biggest city, which was facing mounting devastation from a terrifying new virus.
It was a uniquely horrendous stretch of the pandemic. About 700 people were dying in New York — every day — and hospitals were overwhelmed and under-equipped to deal with the then little-understood disease.
And so James temporarily left her work treating ICU patients in St. Louis, to take shifts in a Queens hospital where all of her patients had COVID-19. James stayed in New York for weeks at a time, logging long hours battling the worst plague the city had ever seen, at the peak of its devastation.
"They have double the number of [ventilated] patients as ICU beds," she noted in an Instagram video that week, just after starting at Flushing Medical Center. "The residents are pretty burned out, because they have people out sick on top of getting double and triple work loads. Everyone's just trying to pull together and survive."
At the end of one of those long April days, she filmed herself again, this time in a Queens park, facing the Manhattan skyline as the sun set. Three of her patients had been taken off ventilators that day, she imparted, a promising sign for their survival chances. "So I am personally celebrating that," she told her Facebook Live audience. "That made me feel really good."
James is in her mid-40s. In the video, her long brown hair was secured beneath a pink medical cap, with her face covered by large dark sunglasses and a blue medical mask.
She panned the video across the East River, pausing on the United Nations and the Empire State Building. The camera next zoomed in on the high-rise apartments surrounding the park. A faint celebratory sound could soon be heard, almost imperceptible at first, but soon building to a roar. It was applause.
To show appreciation to first responders, thankful residents were clapping, ringing bells and clanging pots. It was a downpour of gratitude from a city fighting for survival. The nightly ritual ended as a trumpet player emerged on one of the balconies to play the mournful notes of "Taps."
By the end of April more than 12,000 people would be dead from COVID-19 in New York City, including many health-care workers. But James and other volunteers were helping win battles against the disease. New York's death toll never climbed so high again.
James would return repeatedly, eventually spending more than a year in that overcrowded Queens ICU. Simultaneously, she also treated COVID-19 at St. Luke's and Mercy hospitals in St. Louis. An untold number of people likely owe their lives to her.
But somewhere along the way, she seems to have lost the plot.
She no longer works in the New York City hospital. And, because she refuses to get vaccinated or undergo regular testing, her St. Louis hospitals have cut ties as well.
Instead, at her new clinics, located in St. Louis County and Iowa, she tends to patients willing to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars for COVID treatments that medical experts say are useless, or worse.
She has become an emerging public figure who travels the country, speaking at conferences about her opposition to "corporate medicine" practiced at hospitals like those where she once saved lives.
She addresses rallies against health mandates and urges health-care workers to leave their hospital jobs.
To her growing social media following, she warns against the CDC, FDA and profit-seeking pharmaceutical companies. Vaccinating children against COVID, she claims, violates a doctor's promise to do no harm.
In a more recent Instagram video, from last month, she's dressed in a denim shirt and seated in what appears to be her living room. She gestures with both hands as she describes her latest clash with a medical facility.
"Our patients are being medically kidnapped and abused in hospitals," she says. "You are paying for them to be abusive to you. This is ridiculous, and this is criminal."
If you go on Twitter, it won't take long to find people claiming that the "real" evidence of vaccine-caused illnesses is being suppressed, and that hospitals are in league with Pfizer, Bill Gates, Anthony Fauci, Joe Biden and the Democratic Party.
What makes Mollie James unique is that she truly knows what COVID-19 is. In the pandemic's early days, she urged family and friends to stay home, wear masks and social distance.
Today, in interviews with right-wing radio stations, she maintains the COVID vaccine is "unnecessary," and argues that it is causing unreported deaths. It's prolonging the pandemic itself, she asserts.
James says the virus is best treated with a regimen of drugs including the antiparasitic ivermectin, which the FDA warns is ineffective at best, and potentially dangerous.
In January, she told a podcaster that she'd used the drug to treat 3,500 COVID cases since September, with just one death.
"I am a professional who is out to help my patients," James tells the Riverfront Times. "I use every tool at my disposal to keep them alive."
Though James' opinions have been rejected by major medical associations, contradicted by clinical trials and rebuked by the manufacturer of ivermectin itself, they still carry the weight of an experienced, credentialed physician. James maintains medical licenses in not just Missouri and New York but also Illinois, Arkansas, Kentucky and North Carolina.
After graduating with a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Drake University in 1999, she earned a doctorate in osteopathic medicine at Des Moines University in 2003, and received her master's in public health from the same school four years later. She worked as a surgeon in the Minneapolis area for a time, and was an assistant professor in surgery at the University of Minnesota. In 2015, she opened a private clinic in Chariton, Iowa, and then moved to St. Louis around 2018 and opened a second clinic here. She eventually took work as a critical-care intensivist at St. Luke's Des Peres Hospital and joined the staff of Mercy's virtual ICU.
Although James is no longer employed by Mercy, her "About" page remains on their website, listing her board certifications and specialties in critical-care medicine and surgical critical care.
Her transition from frontline caregiver to conspiratorial outsider seems to have been spurred, at least in part, by her bosses' refusals to consider ivermectin, which first gained prominence in the summer of 2021, with some adherents even buying a version of it intended for use as a horse dewormer.
"When stating to a medical director that I had an ethical conflict providing care without all safe and effective, evidence-based therapies," James explains to the Riverfront Times in an email, "I was told, 'I can assure you that ivermectin has no role in this COVID pandemic.'"
James claims she "had two impressive treatment successes" at a hospital in the summer of 2021, though she won't say which one.
Yet two weeks later, ivermectin was "pulled from our shelves by a 'COVID committee' who did not have any role in the patient care," she claims.
James founded the James Clinic in July 2021. From her locations in Wildwood and Chariton she offers an outpatient "concierge"' service for people with COVID concerns who don't want to use vaccines or hospitals but want access to ivermectin. Though she later changed it, the clinic's original URL was IvermectinCan.com.
She opened the clinic "earlier than initially planned," she tells us, in response to demand from patients who are "absolutely terrified to end up in a hospital."
"Perhaps they should be," she adds.
Originally developed by Merck Pharmaceuticals in the 1970s, ivermectin is a proven, world-changing drug. Just not for COVID-19.
Researchers initially used it to treat animals with parasites, but soon discovered ivermectin could counteract the human-inclined parasite that causes river blindness. In the coming decades, the devastating illness would become eliminated in multiple countries — all thanks to ivermectin. In 2015, William C. Campbell and Satoshi mura, who discovered ivermectin's benefits in humans, were awarded the Nobel Prize.
During the first wave of the pandemic, when health-care workers were scrambling for something, anything to stem the tide of COVID, ivermectin gained prominence as a possible treatment, along with hydroxychloroquine, a malaria treatment which was touted by President Donald Trump. The FDA granted emergency authorization to hydroxychloroquine in April 2020, but it was a dud when applied to COVID. The FDA revoked its authorization two months later when a UK study ruled out "any meaningful mortality benefit."
Many still held out hope for ivermectin, however, which was cheap and widely available. Its popularity was fueled by widely reported claims that it was keeping COVID patients alive, causing prescriptions to skyrocket from 50,000 in January 2020 to nearly 200,000 by the year's end, according to MarketWatch. The FDA could not be more clear on ivermectin, saying on its website that ivermectin "should not" be used to treat or prevent COVID-19 and that overdosing on it can cause maladies including nausea, vomiting and seizures, and even death.
Yet ivermectin prescriptions nonetheless peaked in August 2021, at 450,000, which was the same month that James took her pitch to a union hall in Chariton, Iowa. Clad in dark scrubs, her brown hair tied back in a neat bun, she opened her talk with what she called a "disclaimer."
"I really just can't keep watching people die," she said.
At this point James was still working at an ICU, all the while offering ivermectin. But at this talk James didn't mention vaccines or ivermectin at first. "I feel I owe it to colleagues who have given their emotion and their time and dedication to patients," she said, "to sort the record out."
James has excellent bedside manner. She speaks quickly, almost without pause, but with the reassuring air of a doctor knowledgeable of risks and benefits. "There's been a really interesting and odd merger of two of my passions, which are politics and medicine," she continued. "Those have come together in a really disturbing way."
Perhaps surprisingly, James doesn't entertain conspiracy theories. "COVID is not a hoax," she continued. "It's never been a hoax."
She proceeded to criticize the work of the "undercover nurse" — an apparent reference to Erin Marie Olszewski, a registered nurse who claimed in a June 2020 YouTube video that hospitals were putting healthy people on ventilators and allowing them to be infected with COVID.
Instead, James recounted realizing that by the time her hospitalized patients needed a ventilator to breathe, it was likely already too late.
"We watched them get sicker and sicker," she said. "It's very real."
Soon began the ivermectin pitch. Those interested should first check with their doctors, she said. "But if they won't prescribe it and you're interested in having a consultation with me, I generally charge $290 for that."
She also mentioned a $145 "mini-consultation" and later unveiled a set of membership options, including the "I am sick with COVID-19 and can't breathe" package for $790, and "Long Haul COVID" for $999.
Posing as a prospective patient, the RFT signed up for a free quote for a preventative regimen with the James Clinic. The resulting recommendations didn't include ivermectin — for that, one needs a formal appointment — but rather a $148 package of various vitamins and minerals, as well as zinc pills, melatonin and the antioxidant quercetin. (We did not place an order, nor try any of these pills.)
James notes that her protocol was inspired by the Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance, made up of physicians who broke with medical institutions over ivermectin.
In a September 2021 email exchange, we asked James to share studies supporting her use of ivermectin on COVID patients. She relies on "population studies" that she says have been "repeated in different countries" and show "a consistent 90% reduction in cases within 14 days with widespread ivermectin treatment," she responded, adding: "That hospital admissions can be reduced within 14 days should be the most prominent news story around."
She did not name the study she referenced, and did not respond to follow-up questions.
The 90 percent figure is similar to results initially claimed in a November 2020 ivermectin study by researchers at Benha University in Egypt. The largest trial of its kind at the time, it claimed "substantial improvement and reduction in mortality rate in ivermectin treated [COVID-19] groups," as high as 90 percent.
Frequently cited by those extolling ivermectin's benefits, the study was also championed by Dr. Pierre Kory, cofounder of the Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance. In December 2020, Kory cited it in testimony to the U.S. Senate to support his position that ivermectin is "miraculous" and a "wonder drug."
Yet the Egyptian study turned out to be riddled with data problems, and even plagiarism. In July, the study's publisher withdrew it and added an editor's note acknowledging "concerns" over its methods and conclusions, which are "now under formal investigation."
Soon, national news outlets were reporting people flooding animal-feed stores to buy ivermectin paste intended for horses. "You are not a horse," the FDA tweeted, in response. "You are not a cow. Seriously, y'all. Stop it."
On September 7, one of James' Mercy colleagues, virtual-care physician Dr. Steven Brown, told KMOV he had seen patients who had taken toxic doses of ivermectin in a misguided attempt to treat COVID.
"People who are relying upon ivermectin and remaining unvaccinated are under a tremendous false sense of security," Brown said. "I have seen people with ivermectin toxicity in the emergency room from taking the animal formulation. I've seen people who relied on ivermectin to prevent themselves from getting COVID who are on ventilators and who have died."
James, however, was convinced of ivermectin's efficacy. And her time as a hospital physician was quickly coming to an end.
On September 2, 2021, James posted an emotional update across her social media platforms.
"I've been in the unit for the last eleven days straight. I love my job," James wrote to her tens of thousands of followers. "I'm told as of midnight I'll be 'suspended without pay' because I will not participate in a medically unnecessary screening that is being 'mandated' for people who choose to work under an exemption instead of a vax card."
Two weeks later she posed at the Flushing Hospital Medical Center with other hospital staff before a Carvel cake, which bore a message in icing: "Good luck doc! We will miss you!"
By now she had spent nearly a year and a half going back and forth between St. Louis and New York; the Flushing ICU was like a second home. On September 28, New York state enacted a vaccine mandate for health-care workers.
Back in St. Louis, James' employment with Mercy had already ended on September 1. Later that month, the website for St. Luke's Des Peres Hospital still listed James as a resident. A spokeswoman for the hospital told us James "is on the medical staff" but that "she is not currently caring for patients there."
Not long afterwards, James' page on St. Luke's website was removed. Now, the hospital says she is no longer on their staff.
On the Conservative Review podcast in September, James told host Daniel Horowitz that she successfully applied for a religious exemption at one St. Louis hospital, without mentioning which.
"I kind of thought I was safe," she said, adding that the hospital had adopted new policies for unvaccinated staff, which would have allowed her to keep her job. The problem was that she would be required to wear a mask, social distance and submit to a swab test every week.
"I made the decision that I would not be participating in any kind of discrimination like that," she told Horowitz. "I was notified that I was on suspension."
In October, on St. Louis right-wing talk station KFTK, James complained that she was fired by an unnamed St. Louis hospital, despite evaluating patients virtually from her home office.
"They refused my religious exemption, which is interesting, because it's a religious organization," she said.
Also in October, James appeared in a KMOV story describing her history as a local ICU doctor who was fired over a vaccine mandate, and was now urging "early outpatient treatment."
Responding to claims about ivermectin James made in the segment, Dr. Clay Dunagan, head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, said that most health-care workers who have confronted COVID support their hospitals and their treatment policies — which do not include ivermectin — as well as vaccine mandates. "The benefits of vaccination are dramatic.
"Getting through medical school doesn't always mean you're able to interpret and use science in the proper way," Dunagan added.
In the fall of 2021, James' faith in ivermectin faced the ultimate test. That October, her brother came down with COVID-19.
His illness was so bad that it nearly killed him, she told an Indianapolis "COVID summit" two months later.
"When his stats dropped, we didn't go to the hospital," James continued. Instead, she found him a doctor who would, of course, prescribe ivermectin. "I wanted a doctor who would do everything they knew about, use every tool they had, every effort they had, to save my family's life."
"Four days later my brother was off oxygen, and five days later he was back to work," she claimed. "Because we found the right doctor."
At the Missouri capitol building on January 31, some 150 protesters filled the rotunda, rallying against the confirmation of Donald Kauerauf as the state's top health official at the Department of Health and Senior Services.
"Join the pure bloods and say no to the death jab," urged one rallier's sign.
Despite his opposition to mandates for vaccines and masks, the fervently anti-vaccine assembly distrusted Kauerauf, a former career public official from Illinois. Without substantiation, he was accused of planning to ban the unvaccinated from public spaces. His pro-life credentials were also questioned. With Kauerauf having been nominated by Governor Mike Parson, his initial chances for confirmation looked good. But Mollie James was on the case. Just as Kauerauf's confirmation hearing commenced in a closed hearing room, she ascended a podium in the rotunda. Much like the Queens residents nearly two years earlier, the Missouri crowd showered her with applause.
By now James' public profile had risen; instead of scrubs, she wore a brown leather motorcycle jacket.
"Do you want to make your own health decisions in the state of Missouri?" she asked.
"Yes!" the crowd roared.
In what by now had become something of a stump speech, she told her story as a former ICU physician and frontline health-care worker. She said the James Clinic employs a staff of 25 and has delivered, for some 4,000 people, COVID treatment "which was denied to my patients in a hospital."
The crowd applauded for ten solid seconds.
James then turned to the subject of Kauerauf, who for months had led the state's health department while awaiting a confirmation vote. The Facebook page for the Missouri DHSS contained warnings against ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, she said, blasting the department's opposition as "ludicrous and false."
COVID vaccination for children "shouldn't be mandated, and it shouldn't be available," she continued.
Meanwhile, at his hearing, Kauerauf kept repeating his same answers, including that he had no secret "vaccine passport" plan.
But things were quickly going downhill, and the Missouri Senate voted against his confirmation. The anti-Kauerauf crowd had won. Somehow, they managed to cancel a conservative health director handpicked by the state's Republican governor.
And James likely acquired new patients in the process.
Since the Kauerauf revolt, James has continued building her brand, appearing on conservative podcasts to talk about the James Clinic and the harm perpetrated by hospitals eschewing ivermectin.
It has been a whiplash-inducing two-year run in which she has gone from a COVID frontline warrior to fringe skeptic at odds with accepted medical science. Her long hours in ICUs have been replaced by a lucrative private practice and a direct influence on government.
While it's easy to dismiss the zealous and uninformed vaccine skeptics across the internet, James is a different case entirely, someone who knows the facts, but uses them to tell a different story, one that still features brave doctors fighting a deadly virus. The difference is, in her version, the enemy isn't just COVID but her former colleagues, doctors and hospitals.
James' about-face has culminated in a new mission, a series of operations she calls "jailbreaks," which involve removing patients from hospitals, with their consent.
Patients with COVID-19 are "completely mistreated and under-treated" in hospitals, she told podcast host Robert Scott Bell last month. As a result, they don't recover from the illness; they "get worse."
It's unclear how many patients she has "freed" in this process, but her descriptions posted to social media suggest that convincing patients to disregard hospital experts and trust her with their lives is a daunting task.
"There are two families that we helped their loved ones out of the hospital; both of them are now at home and recovering," James said in a February 22 Instagram video. She also described the plight of a female patient who remained "stuck" at a hospital. While the James Clinic was prepared to intervene, the patient's family "was a little bit uncomfortable" with the thought of her walking independently on nine liters of oxygen.
When informed of the patient's desire to leave, the hospital refused to provide a wheelchair, James claimed, and even threatened the family with arrest. "That is medical kidnapping," she alleged.
Recently, James also told her Instagram audience about a hospitalized patient whose family "found a way" to get him ivermectin. When the hospital began to suspect, it banned the family from visiting without chaperones.
"This is disgusting," James insisted. "This is what's wrong with medicine right now."