When A Mother's Beliefs Led To Her Child's Death

The Tragedy That Didn't Need To Happen

When A Mother's Beliefs Led To Her Child's Death

Last week a Calgary mother was arrested for causing the death of her 7-year-old boy. She had refused to take him to see a doctor when he was sick, and after he had been ill and feverish in bed for 10 days he finally began suffering seizures. An ambulance was called and he was pronounced dead due to cardiac arrest. The autopsy confirmed that he had died because of an untreated Strep infection. Friends had apparently urged the woman to take her boy to a doctor but she had refused. Why? Because she was treating him with herbs and homeopathic medicine.

When I read that story, I felt a variety of emotions: anger, sadness, heartbreak, nausea. But also, an excruciating amount of frustration.

Because Strep is an extremely treatable infection. I see it at work virtually every day. My own boys both had Strep throat last month, in fact, and they were treated and recovered within days. Penicillin is the treatment of choice.

So how, in 2013, could this boy have died from such a treatable illness?

Well, maybe I’ve phrased that question poorly. Because it has nothing to do with it being 2013. This infection would have been treatable in 1973. Or, for that matter, in 1933. Because Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1929.

So what stopped this mother from getting such a simple, time-honoured treatment for her child that would have saved his life?

My heart is broken and I’m gnashing my teeth. But it's not because I view this as a failure of the homeopathic remedies this mother was using.

It’s because I actually view it as a failure of western medicine.

See, we could have treated this poor little boy and made him well, easily. But even the most powerful and miraculous treatments only work if people take them. Western medicine is not perfect, by any means, but we do have effective treatments for so many things these days. And yet, people are increasingly turning away from mainstream medicine in favour of complementary and alternative approaches. There's a growing distrust and suspicion towards western medicine.

How I wish this were just an isolated case. Over the years I’ve seen many people—and their kids—suffer  unnecessarily because of a deeply-rooted distrust of modern medicine. After reading about this Calgary case I searched the literature to see if there had been other deaths due to this phenomenon. I had to stop. Because I started finding way too many, and my heart can only take so much.

How did this happen? Why have we lost so much ground in the public’s eyes? Where did we go wrong? Because, clearly, somewhere along the line, we have failed in some way.

Every day I find myself up close and personal with the suspicion and mistrust of conventional medicine. And I have spent a lot of time trying to figure it out.

Maybe western medicine is intimidating to some people because it seems modern and new? Because it's heavily embedded with technology and science? Maybe that's why many people feel more comfortable with herbal approaches and natural remedies. It's older. It's tried and true. Is that it?

But the fact is, the foundations of western medicine reach back to ancient Greek times. When I graduated from medical school I recited the Hippocratic Oath--named after Hippocrates, the father of western medicine, who was treating people in 400 BC.

Things have, of course, changed and evolved since ancient Greek times. We have a whole lot of new tools at our disposal. But the reason we continue to develop new medicines is because of a scientific approach, not because of a rejection of natural remedies. Indeed, many of our pharmaceuticals originally came from natural sources. The Journal of Natural Products estimated that around 70 percent of all new drugs introduced in the past 25 years have been derived from natural products.

Here are some examples of mainstream drugs that originally came from plants:

  • Aspirin comes from willow bark. In Victorian times, people with headaches would chew on willow branches for relief. Scientists took note, studied willow, isolated the active ingredient, and voila, aspirin.
  • Tamiflu is the "fancy new" antiviral medication we’ve been using in recent years to treat influenza. The active ingredient is a compound isolated from star anise. Yes, the cooking herb from China.
  • Then there’s chemotherapy. Does anything sound more intimidating and high-tech than chemotherapy? Well, one of the best chemo drugs used in the fight against cancer these days is called Taxol. And Taxol was discovered in the bark of the Pacific Yew tree.

So, even though western medicine is actually an ancient practice, and even though most of our treatments come from natural sources, we are still viewed with suspicion by many. Why?

Maybe our branding is wrong. Maybe we should call things by their natural-sounding names, instead of making up fancy, chemical-sounding names like Taxol and Tamiflu. Maybe we need better PR? I’m not sure.

For the record, I'm not against complementary medicine. In my practice I recommend natural treatments all the time. I actively promote and “prescribe” treatments like yoga and meditation, and supplements like vitamin D and omega 3. But I also believe in the practice of western medicine: because it has ancient roots, because it’s scientific, and because I have seen, firsthand, amazing things happen as a result of it.

Of course, there are other factors to blame for this particular tragedy. If the reported facts of the case are true, the mother is undoubtedly negligent. You don’t need an advanced degree in human pathophysiology to know when a kid is sick in bed for 10 days, something is going horribly wrong. Also, I’m dismayed that although friends urged this woman to take her child to the doctor, they did nothing else. A call to Child and Family Services should have been placed, at minimum. The village failed this boy, too.

But the kicker, the ultimate sickening irony for me in the tragic case of this poor little boy who lost his life, is this: penicillin is bread mould. And its use dates back to way before Sir Alexander Fleming discovered it in 1929. In ancient Greece, Serbia, and India, patients were given mouldy bread and other fungi to treat infections.

And that's what was rejected by a woman who was fearful and suspicious of "modern" medicine, and felt more comfortable with natural remedies.

Medicine that came from bread mould would have saved her boy.

Clearly, something needs to be done. We just cannot have children dying from completely treatable illnesses. It just can't happen. And if it does, we have failed. We certainly failed this one innocent little boy.

(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)



On Being Hangry: Does Your Mood Need A Sandwich?

Do you ever get so hungry you get irritable and grouchy? There's a reason for that

On Being Hangry: Does Your Mood Need A Sandwich?

When I’m hungry, I often turn into a different person. I get irritable and grouchy, and my sense of humour evaporates. Does that happen to you, too?

Turns out there are good physiologic reasons why many of us get hangry. Specifically, there are hormones at play.

The hormone ghrelin is produced by the stomach lining, in response to a lack of food. Ghrelin then travels to your brain and stimulates the hypothalamus to feel hunger and turn on your primitive drive to find food (nuts and berries, bacon double cheeseburger, whatever...). This stimulation of the hypothalamus also triggers a variety of emotional changes, like stress and anxiety.

More recent research has uncovered other hormonal responses, too. A University of Cambridge study, published in 2011, showed that serotonin plays a role in producing that hungry grumpiness. You’ve probably heard of serotonin because of its role in depression and anxiety disorders. Well, the Cambridge study also showed that serotonin fluctuates and drops during times of hunger, which affects the parts of the brain that regulate anger.

It makes evolutionary sense, too. An organism that can easily ignore feelings of hunger would not last long, survival-wise. An organism that has both physical and emotional drives to satisfy nutritional needs would likely fare better.

So how to tame hanger?

Well, for starters—and at the risk of stating the obvious—eat regularly! Know yourself, and if crankiness tends to strike after a mere 2-3 hours without food, make sure you’re having frequent, smaller meals evenly spaced throughout the day.

Beyond that, there are certain “mood foods” that, according to recent research, may increase serotonin levels.

Try including more of these in your daily diet:

  • tryptophan-containing foods like poultry, beef, eggs, nuts, soybeans. Tryptophan is an amino acid required by your body to make serotonin. 
  • omega-3 containing foods like salmon and other fatty fish, flaxseed, and nuts. Research has shown that omega -3 improves function in the parts of the brain that regulate emotion and mood.
  • low glycemic carbs (or “good” carbs), like whole grain grain bread, rice, and oatmeal. Carbs are important because they actually help tryptophan (the building block for serotonin) get into your brain.
  • vitamin D-containing food like milk, fish, and mushrooms.

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.



Is A Glass Of Wine Okay During Pregnancy?

What Is The Safe Level?

Is A Glass Of Wine Okay During Pregnancy?

For many of us, facing nine long months without our favourite indulgence is enough to make a girl break down and cry. (And that’s independent of all the hormonal changes of pregnancy that are making you...well, break down and cry.)

But how much truth is there to this?

We first recognized Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in the 1970s, and a huge public health campaign spread the word about this preventable tragedy. It was a sea change, to be sure—did you know in previous generations pregnant women in Ireland were advised to drink a small Guinness daily, to fortify themselves and their babies? Once we understood the dangers of alcohol in pregnancy, however, things quickly altered. For our generation, it has become accepted wisdom that alcohol is a big fat no-no in pregnancy. Heavy drinking, in particular.

But what about light, or occasional drinking?

Although many studies have shown there is potential harm at any level of alcohol intake, some recent research is creating controversy on this point. Very early results are suggesting that light drinking isn’t as harmful as we’ve feared. Some people have been reassured by these studies, but it’s confusing at best. And—it’s a slippery slope. What’s light intake? And isn’t it different for everyone?

In the past, I’ve been somewhat relaxed about the idea of a very occasional drink during pregnancy (like one a month, perhaps). But I have to admit, the more I’ve looked into the research, the less certain I am of this stance. To my eye, the research is preliminary, it’s limited, and the parameters are unclear.

The fact is, alcohol freely crosses the placenta. And I know what alcohol does to me. Am I comfortable with my unborn baby being exposed to that, even occasionally? Not really.

Sure, the research may eventually confirm that very light drinking in pregnancy won’t harm your baby...but we’re just not there yet. There simply isn’t sufficient research to show what a safe level is. And until there’s more rock solid evidence, I think caution is the only way to go.

When you know something is dangerous at high doses, and you don’t know what the lower limit is, the only logical thing to do is to abstain. I know nine months may feel like a long time without a glass of wine but, let’s face it, it’s a relatively short period in your lifetime. Especially when you consider what’s at stake.

There will be plenty of time for grownup drinks after your baby is born. (And there are plenty of things that are good about those drinks, too!)

But those are my thoughts—what are yours?