Dennis Lindberg came into his aunt’s care when he was in the 4th grade because his parents struggled with drug addiction and could not provide for him. At thirteen, he was baptized in his aunt’s faith as a Jehovah’s Witness. Just days after he turned fourteen, on November 6, he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
The prognosis was that Dennis had a 75% chance of cure with standard oncology treatment. Consistent with the requirements of his new faith, however, Dennis told his doctors, “I do not want to be treated if the requirement is that I would have to take a blood transfusion.” His aunt, whose custodial rights seem not to have included medical decisionmaking, was adamant that “[t]his is Dennis’s decision.”
The hospital social worker assigned to Dennis’s case assured his aunt that “having just turned 14, [he] could be considered mature enough to make his own decisions.” But hospital psychologists declined to evaluate Dennis’s maturity because they did “not have the tools for such an assessment.” Established hospital policy described the failure to provide a minor with necessary, life-saving care as medical neglect. Hospital ethicists advised that Dennis’s autonomy interests were outweighed by the benefits associated with treatment. And, standard oncology practice norms are that doctors should push back against minors’ lifesaving treatment refusals. Still, Dennis’s doctor agreed with his social worker and aunt, saying, “We owe respect to a 14-year-old[.]” In this view, he was supported by colleagues on staff and by hospital counsel.
A county judge got the case only at the eleventh hour, on an emergency motion filed by Dennis’s parents and Child Protective Services for a declaration of dependency and to compel the necessary transfusion. Although Dennis was degrading rapidly, his doctor testified that if a transfusion were ordered that day, Dennis still had a 70% chance of survival. The judge had no background in the applicable law and no time to research the issues; nevertheless, he denied the motion concluding, “It is time to do what Dennis has decided.” “Seven hours later, at 6 p.m., on Nov. 28, Dennis died.”1