His life began under trying circumstances. Now, at the age of 14, his life ended the same way.
For Dennis Lindberg, most of his childhood depended on the kindness of strangers to help him survive. A few weeks ago, he made a decision that ended his life Wednesday night.
The Mount Vernon teenager was diagnosed with leukemia Nov. 8 and since then had been confined to Seattle’s Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center.
– Four Dangers of the Jehovah’s Witness Organization
Doctors say he needed blood transfusions to survive potentially lifesaving cancer treatments. But as a practicing Jehovah’s Witness, Lindberg refused. Despite his age, he had been declared what is known as a “mature minor,” meaning he was considered mature enough to make decisions about his treatment.
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe accepting a blood transfusion violates God’s law.
His aunt, Dianna Mincin, became his legal guardian four years ago after his father, now a recovering addict, was jailed for drug possession.
Mincin is also a Jehovah’s Witness, and supported Dennis’ decision.
The boy’s biological parents did not.
Dennis Lindberg Sr. — Mincin’s brother — and Rachel Wherry flew to Seattle from their home in Boise Tuesday to attend a 9 a.m. hearing, hoping a judge could force the transfusions.
Wednesday morning, after hearing from the parents, the aunt, social workers and the boy’s doctor, Skagit County Superior Court Judge John Meyer denied the plea. He died shortly before 9 p.m. in his hospital bed.
With the transfusions and other treatment, Lindberg had been give a 70 percent chance of surviving the next five years, Meyer said in court, based on what the boy’s doctors told him. Without them, he was likely to die. But his decision in what the judge called a “stunning case, which brings into play issues including, but not confined to, religious freedoms,” was based strictly on facts.
“I don’t believe Dennis’ decision is the result of any coercion. He is mature and understands the consequences of his decision,” Meyer said during Wednesday’s court proceedings.
“I don’t think Dennis is trying to commit suicide. … This isn’t something Dennis just came upon, and he believes with the transfusion he would be unclean and unworthy.”
Parents and classmates of the boy, who had lived with his aunt for the past four years, cried in disbelief at the judge’s decision. Wherry fled the courtroom in tears.
Mincin has repeatedly declined to speak about her nephew’s ordeal. For legal privacy reasons, doctors and officials at Children’s also have declined to speak about the boy’s condition.
On a CaringBridge Web site that has now been deactivated, Mincin’s final journal entry, dated Nov. 22, spoke to those who questioned the decision not to accept blood transfusions. She said that after her nephew made his decision he “relaxed in a way that he has not relaxed since being admitted (to the hospital.) He is at peace.”
“For those reading (about) this journey our family has been on that are not one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, we compassionately understand your confusion and, perhaps, even your anger at the decision that Dennis and his family have made,” Mincin wrote. “We understand that this is an amazing bright young man who has before him 70, maybe 80 years to contribute to this world. While we empathize with your strong feelings, we ask that you attempt to respect Dennis’ fight for what he and his family believe so strongly in.”
The decision may be the final chapter in what has been a lifelong family drama for Lindberg. It is a saga that began when he was a baby born to parents addicted to methamphetamine.
“I was always too scared to ask my mom if she did drugs,” Lindberg wrote in a school essay two years ago about his childhood that was featured in the Skagit Valley Herald.
“I saw a needle in a toilet once, but it didn’t mean anything to me. I knew my mom had low blood pressure, was always pale and had extremely small pinhead pupils. For me, this was just normal.”
The boy’s life was spent constantly moving and he was often left with neighbors for days while his parents were getting high, he told the Herald. He didn’t go to school and couldn’t read. He spent his summers in Mount Vernon with Mincin, who eventually became his guardian after Lindberg Sr. was jailed for drug possession.
Both parents say they have completed drug treatment programs and are sober. They last saw their son in September when he and Mincin visited Boise.
Since his diagnosis, though, access to information about their son’s condition has been restricted. Their only updates had been through the now-defunct Web site profile, which is how they learned about the blood transfusion debate. They contacted Child Protective Services, who appointed a lawyer to each of them and paid to fly the couple to Seattle Tuesday to attend the first hearing.
“My feelings have run the gamut from anger to tears not knowing who to believe and not to believe,” said Lindberg Sr. “My sister has done a good job of raising him for the past four years, but her religious beliefs shouldn’t be imposed on my son. I want my son to live.”
He said not having his son for the past four years weighs heavily on him. He said they gave the boy to his sister so he didn’t suffer while they were getting their lives back on track.
“The decision would have been different had he been with us,” he said. “He’d live through this treatment had we not made the decisions we made.”
Lindberg Sr. said his son was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia, a cancer of the bone marrow that is the most common in children. Most children with this type of leukemia are cured after treatment, which can include blood transfusions, according to The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
Dr. Douglas Diekema, an ethicist at Children’s and director of education at the Treuman Katz Center for Pediatric Bioethics, said the question is whether a 14-year-old really has the maturity to make medical and religious decisions on his own.
“In my mind, if there is a role of the court it would be to test a 14-year-old and see just how intense he is about his decision,” said Diekema. “My approach would be to push it a little further. If he fights you physically, then I’d respect that. But also, are you willing to tie him down every time he needs a transfusion knowing he’ll need treatment for the next three years? You’ll have a hard time finding a provider willing to do that.”
Lindberg Sr. said Wednesday’s ruling shocked him, but after visiting his son later in the day, he decided not to appeal the judge’s decision.
He said doctors told him Wednesday evening that the teenager, who had been unconscious since Tuesday, likely had suffered brain damage.
“We’ll stay in town until the funeral, then we’ll go back to Boise,” he said.