'Nothing apparent:' Dad accused in son's meningitis death says no obvious signs

A father accused in his son's meningitis death testified Monday in a southern Alberta courtroom where the man and his wife are accused of failing to get medical attention for their toddler.

David and Collet Stephan charged with failing to provide necessaries of life for son, Ezekiel

David Stephan, left, and his wife Collet Stephan were charged with failing to provide the necessaries of life for their son, Ezekiel, right, when the family lived in southern Alberta in March 2012. (Left, Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press; right, Facebook )

A father accused in his son's death testified Monday that the sick boy's condition worsened after he had appeared to be doing better, but not to the point where his parents were worried.

David and Collet Stephan are charged with failing to provide the necessaries of life for their son, Ezekiel, who had meningitis, when the family lived in southern Alberta in March 2012. (Although unusual in everyday parlance, the word "necessaries" — not "necessities" — is the term the legal system uses.)

A medical examiner has previously testified that Ezekiel died of bacterial meningitis and a lung infection in 2012.

It is the second trial for the Stephans, who now live in Grande Prairie, Alta. A jury found them guilty in 2016, but the Supreme Court overturned the convictions last year and ordered a new trial. This one is before a judge alone.

The Stephans initially treated their son for days with herbal remedies, alternative therapies and a priesthood blessing and only sought medical attention when he stopped breathing.

Stephan, who is acting as his own lawyer, has been telling his story to a court in Lethbridge on Monday in what amounts to a monologue.

Stephan testified that he and his wife thought Ezekiel had croup and appeared to be recovering at their home near Glenwood, Alta.

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, Stephan said. But they didn't think it was serious enough.

"I didn't see a need. The idea was there on the back burner. There was nothing that was concerning or alarming as a parent," he said. "There was nothing apparent."

Stephan said his wife did call a friend of hers who was a nurse and a midwife. The friend mentioned the possibility Ezekiel might have meningitis but she wasn't sure. And with a lack of symptoms, Ezekiel probably "would be turned away" if he sought medical attention.

Collet Stephan, right, is being retried with her husband, David, left, seen in 2016 while arriving at a Lethbridge court during their first trial. (David Rossiter/Canadian Press)

"He went down for his nap and he woke up in crisis. His breathing started to get worse," said Stephan. "I was shocked and confused. He became very tired right before he stopped breathing."

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

About a half hour later, Stephan again called 911 as the family was driving to a hospital. They were met on the highway by an ambulance. Ezekiel was eventually airlifted to the Children's Hospital in Calgary.

Stephan testified he and his wife remained hopeful.

"We hoped he'd be leaving hospital in just a couple of days."

Stephan said while they were in Calgary, they were told children's services believed there might be neglect and there would be an investigation.

"We were dumbfounded," Stephan said.

Under cross-examination by Crown attorney Britta Kristensen, Stephan said he had learned from his wife that her friend suggested Ezekiel might have meningitis.

"You were made aware that bacterial meningitis was quite serious?" she asked.

"Yes I was made aware that with bacterial meningitis you generally have 24 hours before it became a crisis," Stephan replied.

"Do you recall being told that it was a potentially deadly condition?" Kristensen continued.

"That would have been communicated to me," Stephan said.

Stephan also told court that Ezekiel and his older brother didn't have routine visits with a pediatrician or family doctor, and they didn't get standard vaccinations.

Kristensen asked Stephan if he was aware that the vaccinations would have protected against meningitis.

"No," said Stephan. "I wasn't really aware of what meningitis was."

Defence lawyer Jason Demers said in a brief opening statement that the Stephans didn't do anything wrong.

"Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Parenting is not like looking into a crystal ball," Demers said.

"Taking Ezekiel to hospital any sooner than the Stephans did may not have made a difference."

In March 2012, the Stephans took Ezekiel to Lethbridge so they could buy remedies but 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.

Court heard the couple made two 911 calls on March 13, 2012.

The first was when Ezekiel had stopped breathing, but he seemed to recover, so David Stephan turned down an offer for an ambulance.

The prosecution told the judge that by the time paramedics got involved, Ezekiel had no pulse and no neurological activity.

With files from CBC News