Naturopaths hate it when I draw attention to examples of patient harm resulting from naturopaths failing to uphold medical standards of care. The Ezekiel Stephan case was a prime example of the harm that can come from naturopaths trying to play doctor.
Nineteen-month-old Ezekiel Stephan died in 2012 from bacterial meningitis after his parents sought medical advice from naturopath Tracey Tannis. Per Tannis’s recommendation, Ezekiel’s parents treated him with echinacea. Tannis’s prescription fit right alongside the assortment of natural therapies Ezekiel’s parents had already been giving him. Further details about the case can be read here.
In April 2016 during a highly publicized trial, David and Collet Stephan were found guilty for failing to provide their son with the necessaries of life. They decided to appeal which will be heard next spring.
The Stephan case was devastating for the naturopathic community. In the trial, Collet recalled that Ezekiel was so sick by the time she sought help from Tannis that he was non-responsive and unable to bend his back to sit-up. These are ominous signs of meningitis.
Lexi Vataman, an employee at Tannis’s office, recounted that Tannis recommended Ezekiel take the herb echinacea after Collet called the clinic seeking advice specifically for treating meningitis. While Vataman’s memory of the events have been called into question, she maintains that her testimony is accurate. Tannis later disputed Vataman’s account. Tannis claimed she advised the parents take Ezekiel to the emergency room, in addition to selling the tincture.
Vataman’s testimony highlights a tragic outcome that can be traced back to the deficiency of medical training provided in accredited naturopathic programs in Canada and the United States. Outraged that a naturopathic doctor could provide such paltry medical advice, Canadian physicians wrote an open letter to the College of Naturopathic Doctors in Alberta demanding an investigation into what really happened in Tannis’s office. Amongst other problems in the profession, the letter calls attention to the lack of standards of care in naturopathy. Naturopaths demand all the same rights and privileges of medical doctors. But when it comes to upholding professional standards of patient safety and medical care, naturopaths fail.
In response to the letter, the College for Naturopathic Doctors in Alberta opened an investigation into Tracey Tannis.
My former colleagues are in denial
I received a Facebook message today from a licensed naturopath in Washington. Let’s call her Nanna Birsle. She and I went to Bastyr University together. On Facebook, Birsle has expressed her disdain for me and my opinions multiple times. Now, she has asked me to update my original blog post about Ezekiel to say that the Stephans were found guilty, and therefore, naturopaths are vindicated:
Hey Britt, did u hear that the family of little boy Ezekiel who died of HIB meningitis was charged as guilty. Maybe u should update ur blog about this, and how it’s not the NDs fault, it’s the parent’s fault for not vaccinating him and failure to provide him with medical care. It is in no way the NDs fault just as it’s not the pharmacist fault when a person purchases over the counter medications. For example, if Someone stops in the store to buy Tylenol for their sick child and they go home, and the child ends up dying, are u claiming that it is the persons fault who sold them the Tylenol? Wow that’s pretty ridiculous just like your blog!
This message exemplifies typical patient blaming by naturopaths, and Birsle is obviously mad at me.
I agree with the court’s decision that the parents did not provide their child with adequate medical care. The Stephans attempted to treat Ezekiel’s suspected meningitis for weeks before deciding to visit Tannis. But their guilty verdict says nothing about the role Tannis played in Ezekiel’s death.
Comparing Tannis’s clinic to a store where one can buy over-the-counter products is a ridiculous analogy. Tannis’s clinic was marketed as a medical office. Tannis called herself a doctor. As a patient, or Ezekiel’s mom, it is reasonable to assume that the advice and products offered in a medical setting by a doctor are safe and effective.
Like Tannis, Birsle says she specializes in naturopathic pediatrics. Her practice website is boiler plate. It lists many of the usual bogus naturopathic services, such as IgG food intolerance testing, genetic polymorphism screening, and heavy metal testing. She sells supplements directly out of her office. Her website page on supplement refills pictures products for sale including an echinacea tincture—the same remedy acquired by Ezekiel’s mom from Tracey Tannis.
I would guess that Birsle has also recommended echinacea instead of antibiotics for treating sick children. We were taught this at Bastyr. The reality is that Tannis, by selling an herbal remedy, did exactly as she had been trained to do. Thus, it likely that nothing will come of the investigation into Tannis’s failure to act as a competent medical professional.
Since Tannis knew the child had suspected meningitis, she should have called emergency services. Perhaps Birsle is so upset because the Tannis case forces her to confront a very distributing reality — it could have been her or any other naturopath in Tannis’s position. Naturopaths have no place providing health care to children.
Britt Marie Hermes is a former naturopathic doctor who blogs at Naturopathic Diaries.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com