Tuesday, May 11, 1999

Taking up Tyrell's fight
Supporters of the Dueck family say they are in this because they believe in freedom of choice

Jonathon Gatehouse
National Post

Gord Waldner, Saskatoon Starphoenix / The cancer battle waged by Tyrell Dueck, left, has made front-page headlines. He's shown with his father, Tim.

As befitted a pair of fundraising dinners dedicated to freedom of choice, organizers decided to offer buffets rather than set menus.

Tyrell Dueck, the 13-year-old Saskatchewan boy whose fight to seek alternative cancer treatment became an international cause celebre, has been back home and out of the public eye for three weeks, but his case continues to elicit strong responses.

Weekend dinners in Saskatoon and Prince Albert to raise money to help defray the cost of the Grade 8 student's court fight against the Saskatchewan government and month of experimental treatments at a Mexican hospital packed in the supporters, but they also raised concerns.

The dinners, both held in hotel ballrooms, were attended by some 400 people, raising $2,200 towards the Dueck family's more than $30,000 in outstanding bills. The guest of honour could not attend, as Tyrell remains confined to bed at his Martensville home, still fighting the tumour in his left knee.

The Saskatchewan government took the Duecks to court twice last winter to gain control over Tyrell's medical care after the devoutly Christian family expressed its desire to forgo chemotherapy in favour of alternative, nature-based cancer therapies. The boy was finally allowed to travel to Mexico for the treatments after doctors in Saskatoon determined his bone cancer had spread throughout his body and said there was little more they could do for him.

With a disparate collection of evangelical Christians, advocates of alternative medicine, health- food believers, and politicians who promote smaller government adopting Tyrell's fight as their own, suggestions that he's become the "poster boy" for a number of causes abound.

But the people who have come to have a stake in the 13-year-old's battle against cancer and the medical establishment believe they have nothing to apologize for.

"Of course he's a poster boy . . . the media and the court cases have made him that way," Michael Culbert, information director of the American Biologics Hospital in Tijuana, where Tyrell underwent his alternative treatments, said in a telephone interview yesterday. "Does the freedom-of-choice movement expand itself because of that? Of course it does . . . but it's not because we planned it that way."

Mr. Culbert, who travelled to Saskatchewan along with the clinic's medical director to address the fundraisers this past weekend, said the hospital has seen a marked increase in inquiries from Canadians and business since its involvement in Tyrell's case became front-page news in Canada and around the world.

But the extra money the private medical venture has garnered from the publicity is beside the point, he said.

"I have stressed everywhere in Canada that there is no reason on Earth that anyone else should have to travel here to come to our clinic . . . they need freedom of choice in Canada," said Mr. Culbert. "None of these people should have to contemplate going down to a foreign country to save their lives."

For Joseph Bourgault, the volunteer chair of the Tyrell Dueck Cancer Recovery Fund, the story of the Martensville family's court battle against the Saskatchewan Ministry of Social Services over the boy's treatment options is a cautionary tale.

"A lot of people are asleep at the the wheel and don't see what is going on in Canada -- socialism," said Mr. Bourgault, who runs a family-owned agricultural implements manufacturer and a health-food business.

"People have to seek the truth for themselves."

The government should have no place in personal family decisions, he said.

That's a philosophy to which Jim Pankiw, Reform MP for Saskatoon-Humboldt, also subscribes.

"I sympathize with the very unfortunate situation that social services placed this family in," said the former chiropractor, who attended Friday night's dinner in Saskatoon with two Reform caucus colleagues. "In my view, they crossed the line."

Mr. Pankiw said those who support the Duecks' cause come from all walks of life. He estimated 95% of constituents in his riding were outraged by the Saskatchewan government's approach to the boy's case.

"Who should make [treatment] decisions? You and your family, or the bureaucrats and the politicians?" asked Mr. Pankiw.

"Are we living in a Communist state or is it a free country?"

Owen Griffiths, the Saskatoon lawyer who represented the Duecks in their court battles, said media coverage of the family and their supporters has been biased from the beginning.

Suggestions now that people are rushing to cash in on public interest in the boy's story are predictable, he said.

"[The media] seemed to say that everyone was there for a reason other than to support Tyrell," said Mr. Griffiths.

"They say everyone has an ulterior motive . . . It's just not true."

The lawyer, who has taken a sabbatical from his practice to write a book based on the case, The Power and the Glory -- the true story of Tyrell Dueck's battle with cancer and the state, said many ordinary people have been deeply touched by the family's faith and courage.

"I guess Tyrell has become a rallying point because he turned out to be a courageous young man with a strong, quiet confidence in his God," he said.

Part of the proceeds of Mr. Griffiths' book will go to Tyrell's recovery fund.

Mr. Griffiths said he and the family have been touched by the outpouring of generosity and concern from ordinary Canadians and believers in the cause.

Some have sent $5 or $10 bills along with notes of support; other have made larger donations, and one Ottawa advocacy organization, for example, paid the family's air fare to Mexico.

Yvonne Dueck, Tyrell's mother, said the continued scrutiny of the family and their activities is taking its toll. What seems to be lost is compassion for Tyrell's continued struggle against the disease, she said.

"It's a little unfair. People seem to be failing to see that we were told to go home by the doctors at the cancer centre . . . that there was nothing more they could do for Tyrell," said Mrs. Dueck. "We're supposed to defend our every move and action, when they gave us absolutely no hope.

"We've been accused of loving our son to death, or loving him so much that we would let him die. I don't understand it."

Mrs. Dueck said Tyrell continues to make progress, but has been in a fair amount of pain since his return from Mexico.

A Saskatoon physician is working with the family to control the pain and monitor the boy's condition, with a view to having Tyrell travel to Ottawa for more experimental cancer therapy in the coming months.

"It's almost like a wait-and-see game," said Mrs. Dueck. "These things don't happen overnight."

Mrs. Dueck said the family isn't trying to convince anyone else to follow their example, they only want to be left in peace to deal with a family medical crisis in their own way.

"You feel like shaking someone and saying 'Look, I'm not out here to promote this as the only way to go,' " she said. "All it was, was just a choice . . . It's hard to build something up and really easy to tear it down."

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