Parents on trial in meningitis death of toddler defended use of natural remedies in police interview
'Has it worked for us in every single scenario in the past before? Yes,' David Stephan says
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Audio recordings obtained by CBC News of police interviews with two Alberta parents accused of allowing their toddler to die from meningitis reveal how strongly the couple believed in the power of natural remedies over conventional medicine, even after the boy was flown to a Calgary hospital in grave condition.
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David Stephan, 32, and his wife, Collet Stephan, 36, are accused of failing to provide the necessaries of life for their nearly 19-month-old son Ezekiel, who died in March 2012. The charges were laid almost a year later.
Just after 1 a.m. on March 15, 2012, as the toddler lay unconscious at the Alberta Children's Hospital in Calgary, RCMP Cpl. Ryan Bulford conducted separate lengthy interviews with the Stephans, asking both to describe in detail the events leading up to that point.
A jury is now deliberating after a six-week trial in Lethbridge, Alta., about 210 kilometres southeast of Calgary.
With that eight-woman, four-man jury sequestered, CBC News is now allowed to publish the audio of those interviews, which were exhibits at the trial.
Asked by the officer whether he considered himself an expert in naturopathic remedies, Stephan said no.
"Do we have a formal education? No. Are we educated in it? Absolutely," he said. "Has it worked for us in every single scenario in the past before this? Yes."
Ezekiel was regularly given vitamin and mineral supplements, said his father, who is a vice-president of Truehope Nutritional Support Inc., a natural remedies company founded by his father, Anthony Stephan.
"And then when he was sick there, we were giving him, above and beyond that, the olive root extract, which is an antifungal, antiviral, it's a very powerful one," he told Bulford.
The toddler's mother told the officer that Ezekiel, who had been unwell for about 2½ weeks with what she thought was croup, became more lethargic on Sunday, March 11.
Nurse suspects toddler has meningitis
The next day she invited Terrie Meynders, who had been her birth attendant — and who is a registered nurse — to the acreage in Cardston County, in the southwestern corner of Alberta, where the Stephans lived with Ezekiel and their other son Ezra, who was four.
Collet Stephan was also 20 weeks pregnant with their third child at the time.
"To her experience, she said he does look like he's showing signs of meningitis," she told Bulford.
In her testimony on March 8, Meynders said she told Ezekiel's mother she should consult a physician.
Meningitis is an inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord, and can be caused by a fungus, a virus, or by bacteria, which is the more dangerous variety of the disease.
Acute bacterial meningitis must be treated immediately with intravenous antibiotics and corticosteroids, according to the Mayo Clinic website.
Alberta Health recommends parents have their children vaccinated with meningococcal conjugate at four months and 12 months of age to protect against meningitis. On April 14, David Stephan testified that his son had never been taken to a medical doctor.
Couple turned to natural remedies
"So I went online and researched meningitis … and it looked like he had about 95 per cent of those, the symptoms of a viral meningitis," Ezekiel's mother told the officer.
"And the recommendations on the medical websites, as well as the natural websites, was boosting the immune system."
Ezekiel's father told the officer his wife concluded the toddler likely had viral meningitis — not fungal or the more serious bacterial variants — because the boy had already been unwell for several days.
"Bacterial, you have a very short window to work with. And so she ruled that out," he said.
Under cross-examination by Crown counsel on April 15, Collet Stephan told court her traumatized condition might have led her to exaggerate in her description of the toddler's symptoms in the day leading up to his death.
In his interview with Bulford, Ezekiel's father said he and his wife agreed they needed to get the boy back on a regimen of natural antivirals.
"And so let's get back on top of it, let's get nutrition into him, and let's also get this stuff in there that's going to wipe it out," he said.
"When it comes to the natural stuff, we were doing our due diligence, making sure that we were covering it from every angle that we could."
Let's also get this stuff in there that's going to wipe it out.- David Stephan on need for natural antivirals
The father told Bulford he believed taking Ezekiel to a physician sooner would not have helped.
"She found out Monday afternoon that it was meningitis, not a whole lot they can do for that until they can discover what [type] it is, and to discover what it is, they have to do a spinal tap," he said.
"I don't think anyone would have caught that unless he was under 24-hour supervision of a doctor."
The mother told the officer she immediately started giving Ezekiel natural antibiotics and anti-inflammatories, along with a product called Total Reload, "which is filled with electrolytes, vitamins … and amino acids that are already a broke-down form of protein," she said.
"And so we started getting that into him immediately and he started to improve very quickly."
Total Reload is one of several natural supplement products sold by Truehope Nutritional Support Inc.
Truehope fought a long legal battle with Health Canada over whether it was selling Empowerplus — a product the company claims successfully manages mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder — without a drug identification number. In 2006 an Alberta judge ruled against Ottawa's attempt to block its sale.
On March 13, Ezekiel's mother performed a medical test on him called Brudzinski's sign of meningitis — where a patient's severe neck stiffness causes their hips and knees to flex when the neck is flexed — which she had learned from the website, WebMD.
The test seemed to be another indication he had meningitis, she told the officer.
Later that day, with Ezekiel so stiff he had to be placed on a mattress in the family truck instead of a baby seat, the Stephans drove to Lethbridge, where they needed to have some papers signed by a lawyer.
Naturopathic doctor recommends immune booster
They also visited the office of naturopath Tracey Tannis (Pike) to pick up a product she had recommended called Blast, "that's filled with lots of homeopathics, natural antibiotics and an immune booster," the mother said to Bulford.
In her testimony on March 17, Tannis confirmed her secretary had taken a call from a woman who said a nurse suspected her toddler had meningitis. Tannis told court that she instructed her secretary to tell the woman to take the child to a hospital immediately.
Ezekiel's condition seemed to improve as they drove back to Raymond, his father told Bulford.
"I actually fell asleep beside him and I woke up to him, you know, playing with my lip," he said.
Ezekiel seemed to be doing fine at that point, the father said.
The toddler's mother told Bulford they gave Ezekiel more fluids, plus a mixture of electrolytes and the Truehope product Empowerplus as soon as they got home.
"It had obviously a profound effect on him, and he was doing great, he ended up going right to sleep and it was a completely relaxed sleep, he was no longer arching his back," the father told the officer.
Collet Stephan told Bulford she was confident enough that Ezekiel was getting better that she let her husband convince her to go to her church event that evening.
The father told the officer he gave Ezekiel more fluids when he woke up a few times during his nap.
He said he noticed the boy was still having trouble breathing and decided letting him sleep more would help.
"He'll rest it off, and he's just struggling while he's awake or something," he said.
The toddler's condition had worsened again by the time his mother came home.
"And I came into the room and all of a sudden his breathing wasn't normal, he was definitely struggling for more breath, it was hard for him to breathe," she said.
Ezekiel stops breathing
As David Stephan called his father for help, Ezekiel stopped breathing.
The mother performed CPR, which got the boy breathing again, but just briefly.
"So I turned him on his side and he started coughing up a bunch of phlegm, mucus … and when that happened [David] got on the phone immediately to 911 to tell them that our son wasn't breathing," she said.
"As my husband was on the phone with 911, he was going to get an ambulance to come," she said.
At that point, Ezekiel started breathing again, both parents told the officer in their separate interviews.
"And so I was still on the phone with 911, and I said, 'OK, he's breathing again, OK, what we're going to do is we're just going to pack him up in our car,'" the father said.
"And we're going to drive him to the hospital, and that way we get him to the hospital in a shorter time than having the ambulance come from the hospital and pick him up," he said.
But about two minutes into the drive, Ezekiel again stopped breathing, his mother told the officer.
Her husband called 911 again to arrange to meet an ambulance.
'He was blue'
"So that was about 10 minutes before we met up with the ambulance and he was blue by the time we met up with the ambulance and so then they took him from there," she said.
According to a physician's report prepared after his death, Ezekiel was rushed to the hospital in Cardston, where he was intubated and given epinephrine and atropine until he regained circulation.
He was then taken to the emergency room in Lethbridge, along with the Cardston doctor, where they were met by a pediatric intensive-care transport team that took Ezekiel to Calgary in a helicopter, says the report by Dr. Jenn D'Mello.
Ezekiel's father told the officer he and his wife felt certain their actions up to that night had been prudent.
"If this comes into question of whether this is a case of negligence or not, of course I would say no, I would say it's completely the opposite. We've gone above and beyond where he has received exceptional care," he said.
"We figured we would hit it hard right now — this is Monday afternoon … if he continues to get worse, we're taking him to the hospital, obviously. And so, that was the game plan."
"With how severe his symptoms were, which they were not severe, we would have never guessed … otherwise we wouldn't be here today. I mean nobody would wish this upon themselves, or anybody else, watching their kid die."
At the Alberta Children's Hospital, Ezekiel was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis and neurological dysfunction, according to the official death report by Dr. Jonathan Gamble.
He was put on antibiotics and kept cool for 36 hours "in the hopes of having an optimal neurological outcome," says Gamble's report.
However, over the next two days, Ezekiel showed no signs of neurological function. He was initially declared brain dead by doctors on March 15.
"March 18, 2012, on discussion with the parents, a final medical assessment was done of Ezekiel determining that there was still no neurological function and life-sustaining therapies were discontinued," the death report says.
"It is felt that Ezekiel died after a cardiac arrest secondary to what was likely a hypoxic event because of his overwhelming bacterial meningitis."