Dr. Kim Foster: Wicked Health


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

The Tragedy That Didn't Need To Happen

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)