The needless death of a young Ezekiel Stephan

local-input-nineteen-month-old-ezekiel-stephan-was-so-stiff Ezekiel StephanYou might, or perhaps might not be aware that the trial of David Stephan and his wife Collet Stephan is now over and that they were found guilty of “failing to provide their ill son with the necessaries of life“. Ezekiel Stephan, pictured above, tragically contracted meningitis, and his parents then proceeded to try and treat him with remedies that included smoothies with hot peppers, garlic, onions and horseradish.

What went wrong here?

Basically his parents were deeply into what is known as Naturopathy. This is an alternative medicine (hint: the stuff that does not actually work at all) and consists of a cobbled together collection that includes homeopathyherbalism, and acupuncture and of course diets.

But let’s pass over to Orac (better known as Dr David Gorski) to comment upon it within an excellent post …

Naturopathy is quackery, and, like many forms of quackery, it kills. People who trust naturopaths to treat actual serious diseases instead of using real doctors and real medicine dramatically decrease their odds of surviving a serious illness. While competent adults have every right to make that choice, to use fake medicine instead of real medicine, as foolish a choice as that is, making that choice for a child, who is unable to choose for himself, is medical neglect and child abuse. Unfortunately, due to an all-too-prevalent attitude that views children as more or less the property of the parents, leading to far too much deference to parental “rights” when it comes to their choosing quackery for their children, it’s not at all uncommon for children to suffer the consequences of parents choosing naturopathy instead of medicine. I’ve written about such children victimized by quackery, be it naturopathy, faith healing, or other forms of quackery, far more times than I can remember. It’s depressing to contemplate.

The key to perhaps understanding why they were found guilty is this specific incident. As their son became seriously ill that called a nurse who was also a family friend, and this happened …

After a nurse told Collet that Ezekiel’s symptoms suggested he had developed viral meningitis, the couple drove their son into Lethbridge to visit a naturopath, according to the Lethbridge Herald. At the time, Ezekiel had become so stiff that he was unable to sit in his car seat and had to lie on a mattress in the back of the family’s vehicle.

Collet told the RCMP that Exekiel’s condition improved after he took a naturopathic remedy for meningitis, Global reported, but after he took a nap, he stopped breathing. Collet started CPR and David called 911.

What are they and are they not guilty of?

Clearly they did deeply love their son, so you need not consider the idea that they have been found guilty of neglect driven by a lack of compassion, but rather the more specific charge of “failing to provide their ill son with the necessaries of life“.

They were indeed quite delusional when it comes to Naturopathy, and that delusion has now cost them the life of their son, because the idea that these “natural” therapies are in any way effective is just wrong.

What is even more tragic is just how preventable this all was. It was confirmed that it was indeed bacterial meningitis, and that would not have happened if he had been vaccinated, but because his parents are also anti-vax, then Ezekiel did not receive the normal childhood vaccinations. However, the specific question that the jury was asked to consider is this …

Did they fail to respond appropriately to his severe illness.

Let me put that another way, was this mistake entirely down to just the parents?

The Nurse they called did the right thing, she told them what it most probably was and told them to get proper professional medical help. What about the Naturopath? The treatment she dispensed was grade-1 gold plated quackery. A processional acting as she did is clearly a danger to the community, and yet it is the parents on trial, not her.

Have the parents now changed their minds about Naturopathy?

Basically no.

David Stephen has been posting on Facebook just a few hours ago a complete rejection of any responsibility and denies that it was bacterial meningitis and instead claims it was a conspiracy designed to cover up medical incompetence  …

It is disheartening that the majoriety of the trial was performed under the pretence that Ezekiel was “very ill” with bacterial meningitis and a right pleural empyema that in reality, he had neither. This falsified evidence ultimately served as a coverup and the basis for an extremely twisted story, shifting the liability of my son’s death from Alberta Health Services ill equipped ambulance over to my wife and I.

… and yet contrary to his claim, the official autopsy on Ezekiel revealed meningitis.


How should society handle delusional parents who embrace absurd ideas?

As Dr Gorski points out, consenting adults can of course take full responsibility for themselves and opt for quackery, but what then happens when they are parents of children who face life threatening conditions?

There are no easy answers here.

7 thoughts on “The needless death of a young Ezekiel Stephan”

  1. It is disturbing when people post articles like this without having read the entire story of what the evidence revealed at the Stephan trial. While it is true that the “official autopsy” said Ezekiel died of bacterial meningitis, the official autopsy was torn to shreds by the defence witness Dr. Anny Sauvageau, whose opinion was that the child did NOT have bacterial meningitis, only viral. Dr. Sauvageau also stated that in her opinion, the child would almost certainly have survived if the ambulance had been properly equipped. The overwhelming majority of kids with viral meningitis DO survive. This child died because (1) the ambulance dispatcher did not seem to know about a fully equipped ambulance only a few blocks from the child’s home, and (2) the ambulance that the dispatcher DID send had been stripped of some of its equipment the year before by the Alberta government, so it was not equipped to handle children the size of Ezekiel. The ambulance staff had asked for the equipment to be re-stocked, but to no avail. That’s why the paramedic was in tears when the ambulance arrived at the hospital. For over 8 minutes, he had tried to establish an airway for Ezekiel without the proper equipment to allow him to do so. He knew that he had lost his patient because of that lack of equipment. I wish you people would read ALL the evidence—I read Dr. Sauvageau’s report posted online a few days ago, here: —before rushing to condemn the parents. Dr. Sauvageau is the former chief medical examiner for all of Alberta. In other words, she was the boss of Dr. Adiagbo, who had done the autopsy. She is now engaged in a lawsuit against the province of Alberta over her allegations of incompetence and corruption in her former workplace.

    • Two observations …
      – Your link to thinkingmomsrevolution is (if you will forgive me for being so blunt) a site that promotes medical quackery and is not exactly a credible source for anything.
      – If indeed the evidence presented at the trial was “torn to shreds” then why exactly did it not convince the jury and why did they return a guilty verdict.

      That aside, regardless of how you slice or dice it, this is all a tragedy for all concerned.

      • Nobody is denying that it is a tragedy.

        Did you even go to the link provided and look for the PDF copy of the document before condemning the source? It’s a copy of an exhibit presented in court, for crying out loud. How non-credible can it be?

        The jury returned a guilty verdict in part because of all the hooplah created by people like you, who just accepted the crown’s version of the case from the very beginning and started writing all over the place about the dumb parents who tried to cure their kid’s meningitis with maple syrup. That never happened, but it didn’t stop the headline writers from presenting it that way. Can you imagine the jurors thinking “What will my neighbours say if I say these people are innocent?” Everybody wanted to convict because everybody else wanted to convict. You can count the independent voices on this issue on the fingers of one hand.

        For someone who seems to pride himself on skepticism, you’re awfully quick to accept the government’s word for it that their ambulances were not at fault.

        • OK, let”s stick to the facts here. The following is a summary posted by Dr Steve Novella, and he does make a rather good point, in that it is indeed rather odd for the Canadian government to condemn parents for doing what they have implicitly sanctioned.

          The link to his posting is here.


          As is often the case, there are different narratives of what happened, depending on your perspective. It is likely the jury had access to more facts than the public, and so their verdict, which was clearly difficult, needs to be taken seriously. Here are the basic facts as being reported:

          In March of 2012 Ezekiel became ill with flu-like symptoms. His parents report that they thought this was a normal childhood illness and would pass. His mother reported to police that she thought he had croup. They treated him with natural remedies, mostly supplements.

          Of importance is the fact that David Stephan is vice-president of Truehope Nutritional Support Inc., a natural remedies company founded by his father, Anthony Stephan. According to a police interview shortly after Ezekiel’s death, David Stephan said:

          “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.”

          “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.

          Ezekiel was sick for 2½ weeks, during which time his parents treated him only with supplements. According to reports at one point they consulted a neighbor who is a nurse, and who told the parents Ezekiel might have meningitis. At one point Collet Stephan searched online for treatments for meningitis. She also consulted a naturopath, and picked up Echinacea as a treatment.

          Ezekiel’s condition worsened until he became acutely ill, at which point his parents rushed him to the hospital. At that point they were giving him fluids through an eye dropper because he could not eat or drink. Also, he was so stiff from the meningitis that he could not sit in the car and had to be laid flat. Ezekiel was not breathing on arrival at the hospital. He was put on a breathing machine but never recovered, and was pronounced dead five days later.

          Dueling narratives

          Those defending the Stephans argue that they did what any parent would do, treat their child as if he had an ordinary illness until it became clear he was seriously ill at which time they sought emergency care. Some blame the Canadian system saying it was difficult to get a doctor’s appointment, and that the ambulance was delayed and did not have the proper equipment to intubate him.

          They also go as far as to argue this is a witch hunt against the natural remedies community.

          Critics of the Stephans argue that they unreasonably and irresponsibly delayed proper medical care for Ezekiel because of their misguided reliance on supplements and natural medicine. Clearly the jury, after hearing all the evidence, concluded that this latter narrative is closer to the truth.

          During my medical education I have been on the receiving end of many parents with sick children, including children who ultimately died of meningitis. We see many children in the emergency room who are just a little sicker than a usual cold, perhaps lasting more than a day or two, or who are cranky or might be dehydrated. We rule out meningitis with a workup even in these mild and potentially early stages, because that is not a diagnosis you can afford to miss.

          A child who is so stiff that they have to be laid flat is way past the point where they should have received definitive medical attention, in my opinion. This suggests that the Stephans waited longer than typical parents, until the severity of Ezekiel’s illness was undeniable.

          Who’s to blame?

          In tragic cases such as this there is often plenty of blame to go around. Clearly Ezekiel’s parents have the primary responsibility for his care, for providing the basic necessities of life, and a jury has now found that they failed to do so.

          The prosecuting attorney had this to say:

          “They definitely, definitely loved their son but as stated in our closing arguments, unfortunately sometimes love just isn’t enough,” Weich said outside court. “Parents still have to follow a standard of care as set by criminal law.”

          The “standard of care” is a critical concept for any modern society. For me, that is what this case (and others like it) is really about.

          The Stephans are also simultaneously victims. They consulted a naturopath, and naturopaths are licensed in Canada (and, unfortunately, in many US states). We have written extensively about naturopaths here, showing that they do not base case on a scientific standard. They use an eclectic variety of dubious and unscientific treatments, from homeopathy to “water cures,” that only seem to have in common that they are not based on scientific evidence.

          Therefore, how much blame does Canada have for licensing a profession of, essentially, fake medical providers? Governments that legitimize such professions are failing in their duty to their citizens in the same manner that the Stephans failed Ezekiel. Ezekiel’s death is therefore on the heads of the naturopathic profession and the Canadian government as well.

          There is also a much more diffuse blame, but still clear, on the entire alternative medicine community. The Stephans did not exist in a vacuum: they are a product of a cultural movement that seeks to legitimize what was considered health fraud just a generation ago. This is what happens when you abandon rigorous science as the basis of a medical standard of care, when you water down that scientific standard, try to subvert the proper functioning of medical science, and lobby for regulations that allow for pseudoscience and just plain bad science in medicine.

          The Stephans are not an anomaly – they are a symptom of the intellectual bankruptcy and deception of the alternative medicine movement.

          I am glad to hear a lawyer talk about the standard of care, but the irony of this statement is not lost on me either. Governments have been slowly abandoning the defense of the standard of care, and in a way it is hypocritical of them to condemn parents for doing what they have implicitly sanctioned.

          Conclusion: Nobody can ignore the basic standard of care

          Given the facts as presented, I agree with the jury for convicting the Stephans. This case sets an important precedent: parents cannot ignore basic standards of care for the children under their charge because of their ideology. It doesn’t matter that you truly believe Echinacea can help with a serious infection (it can’t), you still have a responsibility to provide actual health care to sick children.

          When such tragic cases occur, it is always my hope that they will help advance the discussion about what a standard of care in health care actually means, and everyone’s responsibility for upholding it. The public’s memory is short, however, and the alternative medicine propaganda machine is tireless.

          Unfortunately, Ezekiel probably will not be the last victim of the lies and deceptions of alternative medicine quackery.

          • You still apparently haven’t gone and looked at Dr. Sauvageau’s report. Instead, you simply referred to someone who seems to be equally uninformed about all of the evidence. I don’t know why you are so afraid of reviewing all of the evidence, but there is clearly no point in responding further to you, so this will be my last comment. If you are not skeptical of the findings of the government pathologist whose report conveniently omits any reference to government error, then why bother to call yourself a skeptic? You belong in the camp of the naively credulous. Over and out. Permanently.


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