Born into the Christian Science Church, Rita and Doug Swan were raised to doubt medicine. So they relied solely on Christian Science to treat their 15-month-old son, Matthew, when he developed his fourth raging fever.
"I grew up thinking it worked, seeing healings or what I thought were healings," Rita Swan said.
As their son lay dying in front of them, those beliefs won out over their basic parental instincts to do everything they could for him.
"From our viewpoint, from our background, it was very risky to go to medicine, especially since our entire support system would be gone," Doug Swan said.
Two weeks later, Matthew died of advanced meningitis.
Now, more than 20 years after their son's death, the Swans run one of the nation's best organized and most vocal child-advocacy groups: Children's Healthcare is a Legal Duty, or "Child."
With the help of 400 Child members in 48 states, the Swans are trying to change state laws that give parents a legal defense if they withhold medical care from their children based on their religious beliefs. Their main adversary is the Christian Science Church.
The effort is a legacy to their son.
Today, the Swans live southeast of Sioux City, Iowa, on five acres surrounded by cornfields. Doug Swan, 59, is a professor of mathematics and civil rights at Morningside College. Rita Swan, 55, runs Child out of a closet-sized office off the family room in their split-level home.
They were living in Detroit in 1977 when Matthew developed the high fever. They called a Christian Science practitioner to pray for their son.
"The practitioner told me that fever was caused by fear and that my fear was causing this," Rita Swan said. "I needed to overcome my fear, and he would get over it."
The practitioner told the Swans not to pray because their prayers were interfering with her ability to heal Matthew. Then she addressed the boy, Rita Swan recounts: "She said, 'Matthew, you can't be sick. God is your life. There is no disease in the kingdom of God.' " She also told Matthew he would not be subject to his parents' doubts and fears.
Rita Swan said they wanted to go to the hospital but were afraid it would be worse for their son.
"Christian Science won't give you prayer treatments if you go to see a doctor," Rita Swan said. "That's a very terrifying prospect. For us it was a way of life, not just a Sunday-morning religion. It seemed safe to us, in the vacuum of information, to stick with what we knew."
After seven days, Matthew was convulsing and screaming with pain. He could barely move. Rita Swan said the urge to take him to the doctor was overwhelming. The practitioner suggested that Matthew may have a broken bone in his neck. The Swans decided to get a neck X-ray.
Christian Science makes exceptions for some medical treatments. Members can wear eyeglasses and go to the dentist, and doctors often set broken bones and help patients during childbirth. Church members can take pain medications. All these remedies are considered temporary aids so that Christian Scientists can focus on the root of the problem, church officials said.
At St. Johns Hospital, Matthew was diagnosed with meningitis. The doctors urged emergency surgery to relieve the pressure on his brain, but they were not sure they could save him. The Swans were reluctant to allow treatment, so they called their practitioner. They say she refused to come to the hospital.
"Our church had deserted us; so we consented to the surgery," Rita said. A Catholic priest sat with them while they waited.
After a week of intensive care, Matthew Swan died.
Although they blame the church, Doug Swan takes most of the responsibility for Matthew's death. A therapist told him they did the safest thing, they followed their faith.
In 1980, the Swans filed a wrongful death suit against the Christian Science Church. It was dismissed on First Amendment grounds. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear their case on appeal.