A Matter of Life and Death 

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The recent death of a young girl in a treatment facility in Colorado using a radical "rebirthing" ritual brings to light many questions reflecting several viewpoints, not the least of which is the assignment of responsibility.

This disturbed child, born in North Carolina and shuffled from foster home to foster home, eventually found a place with a single woman of independent means. The 10-year-old girl had been diagnosed with attachment disorder, a diagnosis more usually reserved for children from war-torn countries who have witnessed family members butchered.

This particular child had a history of instability, having spent time with one foster family after another. Grateful though children may be for a new beginning, the amount of distrust held for the outside world must be beyond imagination.

The treatment program in Colorado was a "last resort." Parents took their children there after exhaustive medical and therapeutic interventions had failed to address the pressing issues before them. Parents paid several thousand dollars for a two-week treatment program, hoping that afterward their children would be free of uncontrollable rage. The program had been rated as excellent, though one wonders how that was measured.

The primary practitioner had facilitated five "rebirthing" rituals before this incident. After asking the child whether she wanted to be "born" to her foster mother, and having her answer in the affirmative, the practitioner and helpers wrapped the child completely in a sheet, stacked pillows around her, then applied pressure as she was encouraged to "escape." A sort of baptism ritual of purification and renaming. Instead, she suffocated.

And so what is it that drives a foster mother, or anyone else for that matter, to seek cutting-edge, seemingly bizarre modalities? Can you imagine the level of her frustration? Nowhere to turn. Medical and therapeutic interventions failing. A dismal future projected. All these elements combining to drive otherwise sane people into seeking alternative treatments without fully understanding their context.

In today's marketplace, alternative, integrative and complementary treatments are a dime a dozen. Few modalities are able to provide a foundational context with measured outcomes. Cancer patients by the droves, for example, are seeking alternative treatments in foreign countries, and for good reason. Some of the treatments work.

Unfortunately, the medical industry is painfully slow to recognize the age-old wisdom presented. Tibetan medicine, for example, can diagnose illness as well as any Western technological diagnostic tool, and without bodily invasion. Is our medical industry interested? Ask them. Ask the schools of medicine what they are teaching and the insurance industry what it is reimbursing.

In a recent public television broadcast, investigative reporter Bill Moyers examined the hospitals of China, which routinely have the latest technology alongside alternative treatments. So what's preventing us, here, in this land of milk and honey, from doing the same? Perhaps it is the milk and honey.

But there is another side to this. In the drive to find solutions at any cost, the basic ingredient of common sense seems to be missing. The efficacy of such radical treatments can and should be called into question. Practitioners of alternative treatments can and should substantiate the basis of their practices, their history and demonstrated outcomes. And not necessarily because they are called into question by some licensure board, but because it simply is the right thing to do. Seekers can and should find answers to their questions and know to request references.

In this death, responsibility can be placed in a myriad of ways: a distraught foster mother beside herself with anguish. A failing medical and therapeutic community. A practitioner unable to separate her boundaries from the call to "fix." A legal system deciding where to lay blame and make restitution for this nightmare.

As frustration climbs, the desire for a solution at any cost increases proportionally. Oftentimes it becomes the job of a family member or friend to intervene, sit everyone down and design a sound interdisciplinary approach. The lesson for all of us is to not wait until the situation is out of control.

Julie Lapham, Ph.D., is a former director of Virginia Common Cause. She is a social ethicist, community builder and Holotropic Breathwork practitioner. She can be reached by telephone: (704) 708-4901 or by e-mail: jlapham@juno.com

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.


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