HOMER TOWNSHIP – When Andy and Anna Hershberger decided to stop chemotherapy treatments for their daughter, Sarah, and use natural remedies like others in their Amish community had, they didn’t know they would have a court battle on their hands.
In response to this decision, Akron Children’s Hospital, who was treating Sarah, 10, for a rare form of leukemia, went to Medina County Probate Court to ask for limited guardianship of the girl regarding medical decisions. Before this, the hospital had lobbied the county’s Job and Family Services to file neglect charges against the parents, which they refused.
In late July, after a three-day hearing, now-retired Probate Judge John Lohn denied the hospital’s request for guardianship of Sarah.
“The court cannot deprive the parents of their right to make medical decisions for their daughter because there is not a scintilla of evidence showing the parents are unfit. There was no basis in law and no basis in fact to file this action,” Lohn said.
However, the fight continues. John Oberholtzer, Andy and Anna Hershberger’s attorney, said the hospital is appealing the ruling, which will be heard by the Fifth District Court of Appeals in Canton after the Ninth District judges all recused themselves from the case. In most cases, appeals proceedings take over a year to be decided.
“This is an ongoing battle against the Amish,” Oberholtzer said.
In a statement, Akron Children’s Hospital said their mission is to advocate for patients.
“It is and has always been Akron Children’s mission to provide the highest-quality care based on evidence-based treatment protocols and to advocate for the best interests of the children we serve,” the statement said. “Sometimes, disagreements arise over what is in the best interest of a child. In some cases, it is the role of the judiciary to make these difficult decisions.”
Sarah, the third of eight children, lives on a farm with her family, which operates a produce stand in Homer Township. In April, Anna said she first noticed a lump on Sarah’s neck. They then took her to Akron Children’s Hospital, where she was diagnosed with a rare type of lymphoma.
The hospital originally proposed a 27-month long series of treatments, with Sarah also enrolled in a medical study with other children undergoing similar treatment. Doctors said Sarah would have an 85 percent chance of survival after five years by completing the treatment.
After the first phase of treatments, Anna said Sarah appeared to be doing well, with the cancer going into remission But during the beginning of the second phase, she said the treatments were making her daughter miserable and unable to participte in normal activities. Sarah started asking her parents to stop making her go through the treatments due to how the medicines made her feel.
“We didn’t like how sick she gets, how ill she feels,” Anna said.
The family then consulted with other community members about what to do next and decided in June to start pursuing holistic treatments. Helping them with their decision was Alvin Keim, Anna’s uncle and neighbor who has spent years doing research on alternative treatments.
As a whole, the Amish are not opposed to modern medicine, especially when faced with something like cancer, Keim said. He feels doctors sometimes go overboard with treatments, which can have side effects that create other problems. Keim said the short- and long-term effects of chemotherapy, such as possible infertility, organ damage and other unknown factors, cannot be ignored.
“Lymphoma usually responds very well to chemo,” he said. “When they respond well, it is time to stop and work on building the immune system.”
In Sarah’s case, Anna said they are consulting with a wellness center in Ashland that prescribes a customized series of herbs and vitamins. Blood work is also done regularly to see where there are weaknesses. In addition, her daughter is on a strict diet and does not eat any processed foods, flours or sugars.
If they thought Sarah was not doing well, Anna said she and Andy would take her back to the hospital.
“Why should she get chemo if she is doing so good?” she asked.
Keim said there have been several cases in their community where adults have walked away from further cancer treatments and pursued the same course his niece’s family has with positive outcomes. These people have included his son-in-law and mother, so he has seen this path can work.
However, this is the first case he knows of involving a child.
“I saw this case coming for years,” he said. “Our goal was to let us work together.”
Anna said they wanted to continue working with Akron Children’s to monitor Sarah’s condition, but when they proposed quitting treatments and trying the supplements, the doctors demanded they follow the agreed to “planned protocol.”
What shocked the family was when the hospital would not back down, first by going to JFS and then going to court.
“I never thought they would have such as issue over my child,” Anna said.
During the county court proceedings, Sarah was ordered to undergo a seven-hour exam at Akron Children’s and it was found some of the cancer had been eliminated, but that some tumors were still present.
Sarah’s physician, Dr. Prasad Bodas, stated in his testimony he believed she had no chance of surviving her illness without the intense regimen he recommended and that she would die in six months to a year, records show. Delaying or interrupting the treatment increases the likelihood she will not survive, he said.
Sarah also testified during the hearing stating she did not want chemotherapy currently because it made her very sick and also submitted a written statement saying she wanted to run and play and work again.
More recently, she was ordered to undergo another exam as mandated by the appeals court, another all-day ordeal.
Anna said Sarah appears healthy and can now enjoy things she used to, such as playing with her siblings and helping out customers at the produce stand.
“She’s doing as good or better than the other kids,” said Anna.
Normally, Amish people do not believe in going to court to settle disputes or drawing attention to themselves, but Anna and Keim both said they thought making others aware of this could help other people facing similar situations.
“Maybe this would do something positive about the whole situation,” Keim said.
While the last few months have been stressful for everyone, Anna said the family has turned to their faith to help them get through.