VANCOUVER — Canada’s high-profile child cancer patient is back in Vancouver’s Children’s Hospital, surrounded by tubes and drips and nurses who come in and out of her closet-sized room nearly every minute. Her parents are by her side, their cellphones ringing with calls from lawyers.
At the centre of all this commotion is a 14-year-old girl with bone cancer. She is also a devout Jehovah’s Witness whose desire to refuse a blood transfusion has landed her in the middle of an intense, high-stakes legal drama that has spanned two provinces.
“I don’t want it,” she said, of the blood transfusion doctors will administer if they believe it’s warranted. “It’s based on God’s word. He told us to abstain from blood and we need to obey his commandments.”
She said her faith informs every decision she makes. “It’s part of my every day,” she said, sitting cross-legged on her hospital bed. “I don’t ever stop thinking about it. Every thing that I do, I apply God’s standard to it. Every decision I make, I apply God’s standards.”
Her voice, which is loud and booming, belies her frail appearance. Months of chemotherapy have turned her skin pale, and only a few wisps of blond hair cover her head. But she is articulate beyond her years, with a quick answer for every question.
Twice she interrupted her father to gently remind him that she was right and he was wrong.
But there is no dispute in this family about matters of faith. All three are devout Jehovah’s Witnesses, a faith which interprets literally a passage from the scriptures that forbids the ingestion of blood.
The girl can’t be named because of publication bans in Ontario and British Columbia that protect her identity.
But in an exclusive interview with The Globe and Mail, the girl talked about her determination to battle cancer in a manner that squares with her faith in God.
“He created us and that’s the least I can do for Him,” she said of her desire to follow the biblical directive refusing blood.
As adults, her parents have the right to refuse a blood transfusion. Her mother pulled out a card from her wallet that says, “No Blood,” which is directed at medical professionals in the event of an accident.
Under no circumstance would either parent ever have a transfusion, they said, even if their lives depended on it. However, their daughter can’t make that decision until she is 18.
That is how her case landed in court. When she was first diagnosed last December, the girl’s oncologist warned the family he had never treated bone cancer without a transfusion. Chemotherapy affects the body’s ability to replace blood cells and transfusions are often required.
As a result, the hospital contacted the B.C. director of Child, Family and Community Service, which eventually obtained a court order allowing doctors to give the girl a transfusion if they believed it was warranted. The girl and her parents fought the order, but it was upheld by a B.C. Supreme Court.
The decision angered the girl and her parents. They said they wanted a second opinion and the family flew to Toronto for an assessment at the Hospital for Sick Children. There they learned of a hospital in New York that has a so-called bloodless program, where the objective is to avoid transfusions.
But an Ontario judge ordered her back to B.C. and refused to hear her request to get treatment in New York.
In refusing the family’s request, the Ontario judge said he considered the family a flight risk. The girl was flown from Toronto to Vancouver.
The girl said she is aware that authorities don’t believe 14 is old enough to make decisions about cancer treatment. She doesn’t agree.
At 14, she argued: “You can have an abortion and get birth-control pills and there’s no law against that.”
She’s also aware that some feel her parents have imposed their beliefs upon her. “Oh no. Far from it,” she said. “It’s totally my decision and they support me. My parents aren’t telling me what to do. From the get-go, it’s been my choice. It’s me. It’s my body.”
As for the B.C. Ministry of Child and Family Development, she adds: “They say they have my best interests at heart. Yet they won’t listen to me.”
The girl’s parents insisted they weren’t fugitives when they flew their daughter to Ontario two weeks ago. The B.C. court order said nothing about jurisdiction, the girl’s mother said. They were simply looking for more medical options.
However, the B.C. ministry is not so convinced. Assistant deputy minister Jeremy Berland described the case as “enormously complicated” and remains concerned that the family could flee.
However, Mr. Berland said the girl’s doctors will do everything they can to avoid a blood transfusion.
The girl said she won’t back down from her desire to refuse blood. And she said she is angry that no judge or bureaucrat has ever asked her opinion.
She said she broke down weeping in a Toronto courtroom last week because she was angry.
“I was mad. No one was listening to what I had to say. That’s stress enough. It was very difficult.”
Her treatment is scheduled to finish in July. After that, she’s looking forward to going home to the Okanagan. She loves swimming and wakeboarding in B.C.’s Interior lakes.
May 10, 2005