It seems unimaginable. An 8-year-old autistic boy is diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He is treated, goes into remission and is given an 85 percent to 90 percent chance of survival. But his mom must continue a "five-phase" regimen of chemotherapy at home.
His mom was supposed to pick up medications, administer them and bring her son back to the hospital for follow-up treatments.
It might seem hard to believe, but in court papers filed in Salem District Court prosecutors charge that's what Kristen Labrie of Salem, Mass., failed to do for her son, Jeremy Fraser.
According to court documents, the boy's cancer has returned, and doctors said his chances of survival are now more like 10 percent. Jeremy's dad, Eric Fraser, told reporters Monday that Jeremy might not make it to his ninth birthday, just weeks away.
Labrie, 36, was arraigned on child endangerment charges Monday, pleaded not guilty and was released on her own recognizance after being ordered to have no contact with her son until further notice. The Salem News reported Labrie responded by saying "That's OK, his dad doesn't let me see him anyway."
Fraser described his son as an Elmo fanatic who also loved NASCAR. "He's a real peach. You couldn't ask for a more lovable little boy," he said.
Jeremy was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in October 2006, his father said. Jeremy was being treated at Massachusetts General Hospital and Fraser said doctors there told him that his son had a 92 percent cure rate.
Fraser admitted that he'd had little contact with Jeremy from March 2007 until February 2008 because, he said, his ex-wife "refused to co-parent" and he was forced to cut off ties.
Fraser said he continued to get weekly progress reports on Jeremy from Jeremy's special education school, so he didn't think anything was wrong, that is, until he got a call from his son's doctor. Jeremy was back in the hospital.
"The doctor told me she had called the pharmacy, and they said there was no record of Kristen picking up any medication, and she missed four chemo appointments and rescheduled 12 others, delaying his treatment," said Fraser. Some of this information is also contained in the police report.
According to court papers, Dr. Alison Friedmann, Jeremy's oncologist at Massachusetts General, was surprised to see the boy back in the hospital so soon after he'd gone into remission.
Fraser said Friedmann told him that should not have happened if Jeremy had been taking his medications. Massachusetts General then got the Department of Social Services involved, according to court documents.
A spokeswoman from DSS would say only that DSS had investigated the family in 2005, but that the case was closed. The agency acknowledged it was involved in this latest situation but declined to comment because the matter is now a criminal one.
As far as childhood cancers go, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma is "highly curable," according to Dr. Gary Kupler, section head of the Division of Pediatrics at Yale University School of Medicine. Kupler said he was not familiar with the specifics of the Fraser case, but he did say that the "best chance possible of a long-term cure" is to continue to treat patients for anywhere from a few months to a year or two after remission and that stopping treatment after the initial phase is "not recommended."
Dr. Kara Kelly, an associate professor of clinical pediatrics at Columbia University Medical Center, also said she did not have firsthand knowledge of the Fraser case, but Kelly explained that interrupting a course of cancer therapy is likely to "favor the resistance of more cells. You would have a much higher rate of lymphoma growing and coming back."
In her practice, Kelly has also experienced some parents "having a pattern of not showing up for appointments" and refusing or avoiding treatment protocols. "I think it's sometimes not being able to face reality. Parents sometimes are young or overwhelmed with financial issues," said Kelly.
More often than not, a phone call to social services serves to get the parents back on track. "You really hope going to social services is a last resort because I can't think of anything worse for a child going through chemotherapy than to have a parent taken away from them," said Kelly.