When Adults Shun Modern Medicine and a Child Pays the Price

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


April 12, 2016

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Hi. I'm Art Caplan from the Division of Medical Ethics at the New York University (NYU) Langone Medical Center.

Little Ezekiel Stephan is dead, and that is a tragedy. It's a tragedy for his parents and for his community. The little boy died of meningitis in a small town up in Manitoba, Canada. It should not have happened. It could have been prevented because the little boy could have been treated.

His parents chose, out of loving concern for him, to pursue alternative medicine. In this case, they knew the boy was sick. They fed him smoothies made out of maple syrup, horseradish, and other ingredients. They went to the natural foods store where the father worked and got some immune-boosting agent to give to him. They basically tried to do everything outside of mainstream medicine to help their son. They even had a friend, who was a nurse, come by, who said, "I'm not sure what's wrong with Ezekiel, but I think you should take him to the doctor, because it could be meningitis."

They didn't do it.

Why were they so afraid of mainstream medicine? What led to their opposition? I don't know. Appropriately, authorities in Canada have put the parents on trial. Now the parents are claiming that they are being persecuted for their beliefs in non–mainstream medicine. They even suggest that they are being persecuted because they did not vaccinate their little child against meningitis.

I don't think they're being persecuted. The trial is appropriate. But I don't think it's appropriate to punish these parents. They lost their son. They clearly loved their son. By their own lights, one could say they tried to do right by their son.

Something that every doctor needs to tell parents who might be interested in alternative treatment is, "If your family member stays sick for more than a few days and looks seriously ill, you must take that family member to a doctor, to a hospital. No issue and no argument about it. They have to go." Ezekiel was stiff from the meningitis. They could not get him into the car easily. When he finally went through respiratory arrest, he was in pain and suffering—he was obviously very ill.

Remember, all that is being required is a diagnosis. Then we can argue about whether there is a treatment, whether the treatment should be forced, or what should be done. Every parent should have a duty to take their child to the hospital no matter whether they are pursuing mainstream medicine, alternative medicine, or some cultural belief that does not recognize Western medicine. We might consider lobbying to pass laws that say, "When your child is very sick for more than a couple of days, you must bring them to the doctor."

That is what I would advise telling families. Pursue the philosophies you like—whether you want to pray, use horseradish smoothies, or whatever you are going to do. But if that does not work, and somebody is very sick for more than 36 hours—particularly a child—you'd better take that child or your family member to the hospital. One can believe what one wants, but when it comes to kids or family members who are too incapacitated to say what they would want, they must go to a physician. They must go to a hospital.

I'm Art Caplan. Thanks for watching.


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