Baby in faith-healing case should have survived, neonatologist testifies

The Oregonian/September 19, 2011

Oregon City -- A pediatrician who specializes in newborns and premature infants testified Monday that David Hickman would have survived if his parents had called for help.

David was born two months prematurely and lived less than nine hours.

The baby's parents, Dale and Shannon Hickman, who belong to an Oregon City church that practices faith healing, prayed for their son and anointed him with oil but did not seek medical intervention. They are charged with second-degree manslaughter.

The Hickmans took "a real and avoidable risk" with their child's life, Dr. Joseph Kaempf, a neonatologist and prosecution witness, said Monday in Clackamas County Circuit Court.

Kaempf said that of the almost 1,100 infants born two months early and treated at Providence St. Vincent Medical Center, 11 died. And none died from respiratory distress, which took David's life.

Kaempf also criticized conclusions reached by the state medical examiner, Dr. Clifford Nelson, who conducted David Hickman's autopsy.

Nelson, who also testified Monday, said the baby suffered from a blood infection and Group B streptococcus, although lab tests did not confirm the presence any deadly bacteria. Nelson said there was evidence that the bacteria was present and could not rule infection out as a cause of death.

Nelson and investigator in his office have been at odds with the district attorney's office over the Hickman death since the day the baby died. Nelson said in court documents that he believes the prosecution of the Hickmans is unwarranted, but Presiding Judge Robert D. Herndon ruled before the trial started that Nelson's personal opinion is irrelevant and inadmissible. Nevertheless, Shannon Hickman's attorney, John Neidig, attempted to ask the medical examiner about his concerns before the prosecution objected.

Defense attorneys continued to develop a theory that a rapidly developing and unforeseen blood infection killed David Hickman within minutes.

Kaempf dismissed Nelson's notion that streptococcus or a blood infection caused the death. Kaempf said David was doomed by his underdeveloped and malfunctioning lungs. As the infant struggled for air, he became weaker and could not get enough oxygen to sustain him, Kaempf said.

"These babies can look good" at birth, "but they can deteriorate rapidly," Kaempf said.

Nelson relied on reports that those present at the birth observed a pink, crying newborn, albeit a small one. Those at the birth were mainly members of the Hickmans' family, and everyone present belonged to the Followers of Christ.

"(Babies) don't look perfect for eight hours than suddenly die," Kaempf said. "It makes no biological sense. It doesn't happen that way."

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