Ill teenager looks to U.S. to avoid transfusions

Jehovah's Witness wants chemotherapy, stem-cell transplant

National Post/March 28, 2002
By Joe Paraskevas

Calgary -- Doctors caring for a 16-year-old Jehovah's Witness who has leukemia are considering whether to allow her to go to the United States for treatment that would avoid blood transfusions forbidden by her faith.

The girl, who cannot be named because she is a temporary ward of the province, is being treated at the Alberta Children's Hospital in Calgary.

She applied last week to receive care at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Centre in Los Angeles, under a procedure that combines chemotherapy and taking some of the girl's own stem cells, which are reimplanted to produce healthy blood cells.

"Our position was (the girl) can get at least competent treatment to what she's receiving in Calgary, but without the blood transfusions," said David Gnam, the girl's lawyer.

But the girl's father, who is reconsidering his commitment to the Jehovah's Witness faith and doesn't object to the transfusions his daughter has received, said Mr. Gnam has tried to find physicians to treat his daughter without transfusions before.

"Last Friday, they had three doctors' names," the girl's father said, of the strategy of Mr. Gnam and his team. "Within the space of one day, my lawyer got a letter back from one of the doctors saying because he didn't have all the facts in the case, he was not willing to take my daughter on as a patient."

The girl has been at the centre of a case involving religious rights and health care since mid-February.

Shortly after she was admitted to hospital in Calgary, with a severe form of leukemia, a court denied her application to decline transfusions on the basis of her faith, which forbids its members from receiving another person's blood.

The court ordered that the girl's treatment involving transfusions should continue.

"This is the age group that's most problematic," said Samantha Brennan, a professor of philosophy and specialist in children's rights at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont.

"They can drive. They can marry. She can drop out of school. She can make some earth-shattering decisions, but not this one (about religious rights)."

The girl's mother, a Jehovah's Witness who no longer lives with the girl's father, is opposed to the blood transfusions her daughter received.

Child-welfare officials won temporary custody of the girl in February.

"We took legal custody for the purposes of her getting medical attention," said Mark Kastner, a spokesman for Alberta Children's Services. "We told the court that her medical plan would be based on what doctors at the Children's Hospital thought it would be."

Doctors in Calgary continue to assess the stem-cell plan from Dr. Michael Lill, director of the bone- marrow transplant program at Cedars-Sinai, a spokesman for the Calgary Health Region, said.

"We continue to evaluate all options," said Doug Fraser. "We looked at options from around the world at the request of the Jehovah's Witnesses, prior to the transfusion program beginning. All of them were deemed sub-optimal."

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