Natasha Lechner inquest: ‘kambo’ proponents underestimate its ‘clear and identified risks’ , NSW coroner says

<span>The NSW coroner said Natasha Lechner (pictured) was a ‘clever, independent’ woman ‘searching for a way to cure herself’ when she died after a kambo ritual.</span><span>Photograph: supplied by her father</span>
The NSW coroner said Natasha Lechner (pictured) was a ‘clever, independent’ woman ‘searching for a way to cure herself’ when she died after a kambo ritual.Photograph: supplied by her father

Vulnerable people are placing their trust in self-proclaimed healers who lack basic first aid training, a coroner has warned in handing down her findings into the death of a woman after a two-person ritual involving the poisonous mucus of an Amazonian frog.

Natasha Lechner died suddenly and violently after a “kambo” ceremony in a Mullumbimby sharehouse on 8 March 2019 – a time at which the traditional South American medicine was largely unregulated in Australia.

On Friday, NSW state coroner Teresa O’Sullivan found that the 39-year-old’s death was due to an adverse cardiac event triggered – on the balance of probability – by the kambo.

Lechner was morbidly obese at the time of her death – though was engaged with and focused on improving her health, medical experts had earlier told the inquest.

O’Sullivan said that Lechner was a “clever, independent” woman “searching for a way to cure herself” from the significant pain of a debilitating back condition.

Related: New witnesses offer fresh information into ‘kambo’ death at northern NSW spiritual retreat

The woman who administered kambo to Lechner on that fatal day in 2019 was Victoria Sinclair, a Northern Irish woman who Lechner regarded as a “teacher” as well as a friend, O’Sullivan said.

Going by “maestra Victoria”, Sinclair’s website described her as a “postcolonial specialist and plant medicine practitioner” who was “working on a High Priestess Level of initiation” and had experienced “shamanic initiation”.

At the time of the inquest, she continued to advertise herself as an experienced kambo practitioner.

Last year, Sinclair told the inquest that while she had conducted kambo ceremonies for Lechner in exchange for money or favours on several occasions prior to March 2019, it was Lechner who led the fatal ceremony, having recently completed a two-week training course through an organisation known as the International Association of Kambo Practitioners.

Sinclair admitted she did not know triple-zero was the number to call in a medical emergency and, in any case, had no phone.

“While regulators must balance risk of harm with personal liberties, it appears to me that a number of vulnerable people are drawn to using kambo in circumstances where those who administer it may hold themselves out as part of a healing profession, and yet lack training in basic first aid,” O’Sullivan said on Friday.

“Like Ms Sinclair, those persons may not prepare themselves for what to do in an emergency.”

The coroner said she did not have any power to make recommendations that bind Sinclair as she is not an Australia citizen and does not practise in this country.

O’Sullivan found that “while there is no credible research about medicinal benefits of kambo”, there are “clear and identified risks” that are “underestimated by some of its proponents”.

Lechner’s three-day coronial inquest was held in Lismore in May last year, immediately prior to that of Jarrad Antonovich, who died after participating in kambo and ayahuasca ceremonies held in the hills of the NSW northern rivers region in 2021.

In part due to Lechner’s death, the Therapeutic Goods Administration had listed kambo a schedule 10 poison by the time of Antonovich’s death, making it illegal. His inquest, also presided over by O’Sullivan, is ongoing.

Kambo is harvested in the Amazon by tying live giant monkey frogs to twigs and scraping the secretion from their backs. Applicants have small marks burned into their skin, wounds into which the kambo is dabbed – often inducing severe vomiting, diarrhea, urination and sweating.

Related: ‘Elder’ at spiritual retreat told not to send man affected by frog toxin to hospital, NSW inquest hears

Kambo has been enthusiastically adopted in the west among neo-shamanic circles who see this purging as a spiritual and physical cleansing.

But O’Sullivan noted that in certain South American countries, kambo has become illegal “outside its traditional cultural use”.

The coroner said Lechner was a “gentle, bright and kind woman” and that it was clear to those present in the courtroom that Lechner was “deeply loved by all”, particularly by her parents and brothers and friends.

Lechner’s friend and housemate, Kelly-Anne Green, who called an ambulance moments after coming home to find her friend collapsed and frothing at the mouth, told the inquest last year her her late friend was a “beautiful soul” known as the “Mamma Bear” among friends.

Her father, Frank Lechner, spoke of her innate “incredible wisdom” and poetic soul.