Mother of Alberta boy who died of meningitis breaks down testifying at trial

The mother of a toddler who died of bacterial meningitis broke down several times while she testified at her trial Tuesday that she is still haunted by her boy's death.

Collet Stephan was holding her son when his breathing first stopped

Collet Stephan, shown left in a 2016 image, says she pinched her son Ezekiel's nose and blew into his mouth after he stopped breathing in March 2012. (Left, David Rossiter/Canadian Press; right, Facebook)

The mother of an Alberta toddler who died of bacterial meningitis broke down several times while she testified at her trial Tuesday that she is still haunted by her boy's death.

Collet Stephan told the court in Lethbridge, Alta., that she still counts Ezekiel among her current living children, even though he died in March 2012..

"He's my son," she said tearfully. "My role as a stay-at-home mom is to care for my children. It's my purpose. It's why I was put on Earth."

Stephan and her husband, David, who now live in Grande Prairie, Alta., are charged with failing to provide the necessaries of life for Ezekiel. He was about 19 months old when he died in March 2012. (Although unusual in everyday parlance, the word "necessaries" — not "necessities" — is the term the legal system uses.)

David and Collet Stephan, shown in a 2016 photo, are on trial for the second time for failing to provide the necessaries of life for 19-month-old Ezekiel. (David Rossiter/Canadian Press)

The Crown argues the Stephans should have sought medical treatment for the boy sooner. The couple opted instead to treat him with alternative medicines for weeks before he stopped breathing.

A jury convicted the couple on the charge in 2016, but the Supreme Court of Canada ordered a second trial last year. It is being heard by a judge without a jury, and David Stephan is acting as his own lawyer. 

Collet Stephan testified that she has vivid memories of some aspects of Ezekiel's death but has blocked out others.

"It was an extremely traumatic time which no parent should have to go through," she said.

Stephan was holding her son and listening to his irregular breathing when he first stopped.

David Stephan called 911, but when Ezekiel started breathing again, the father declined an ambulance.

Irregular breathing

"I had patted him on the back and he started breathing again," Collet Stephan told court Tuesday. "I carried him to the bedroom and when I laid him on the bed he stopped breathing again."

She said she pinched his nose and blew into his mouth and he coughed up mucus and fluid and seemed to improve.

They called 911 while driving him to meet an ambulance that could rush him to the hospital in Cardston.

The court earlier heard that, by the time paramedics got involved, Ezekiel had no pulse and no neurological activity..

The couple have testified that they originally thought Ezekiel had croup and began treating him with natural remedies.

Two weeks before he was rushed to hospital, the toddler's condition had worsened to the point that they discussed whether they should take him to a hospital. Despite a fever and a lack of energy, they didn't think it was serious enough.

"I didn't see any health concerns warranting him to see the doctor," she said.

David Stephan earlier testified they eventually concluded Ezekiel may have contracted viral meningitis. It is less serious and usually clears up on its own, but the bacterial form can be fatal if not treated quickly with antibiotics.

"I recall distinctly that bacterial meningitis wasn't on the radar," David Stephan told Crown prosecutor Britta Kristensen during her cross-examination.

"If we thought he had a fatal infection, we would have been to the doctor right away."

He testified that his wife did call a friend at one point who was a nurse and a midwife. The friend mentioned the possibility Ezekiel might have meningitis but she wasn't sure. 

Court also heard that at one point, the Stephans took Ezekiel to Lethbridge so they could buy remedies but according to prosecutor Britta Kristensen, the toddler's body was so stiff at that point that the couple was unable to get him into his car seat and instead had him lie on a mattress in the back of their car.

David Stephan told court that he was "100 per cent convinced" that Ezekiel had recovered, until he noticed the child had an odd breathing pattern.

He said the couple continued to treat him with natural remedies, even after he was declared brain dead at the children's hospital in Calgary.

"We were given no hope whatsoever. We weren't willing to let go," he said.

"We would cling onto anything."