People hold vigil for baby Joseph Maraachli outside Children's Hospital in London, ON on Feb. 21, 2011.
Credits: DEREK RUTTAN/THE LONDON FREE PRESS/QMI AGENCY
LONDON, ON – Doctors at a London hospital that fought to remove a baby in a vegetative state from life-support received thousands of death threats and one even required 24-hour protective security, documents show.
The saga of Baby Joseph may have been the most publicized in the history of London hospitals, drawing intense interest and media coverage from around the globe.
But one key aspect of the story remained hidden until now — the threats made to London health-care workers involved in Baby Joseph's care.
"May the flesh rot on your bones where you stand for this horrific act. Your only relief will come from placing your duly and federally registered firearm to your temple and squeezing," reads an e-mail.
It is just one of thousands sent last year to physicians, staff and administrators who stood behind the effort of a London doctor to remove Joseph Maraachli from life-support — against his parents' wishes — because he believed the infant was in a vegetative state from which he couldn't recover.
Vestiges of that threat remain. Every infant and child patient in the hospital now is fitted with an electronic anklet. If someone tried to move that child to another floor, alarms would sound and doors automatically lock.
London Health Sciences Centre records obtained by QMI Agency show the hidden horror faced every day by nurses, doctors and other hospital staff.
At the centre of that storm was a doctor whose name QMI Agency is not disclosing, out of concern he might be the target of violence.
That concern was shared by hospital officials so worried about the doctor's safety, so fearful he or his family might be the target for a fanatical sniper, they assigned security to follow him 24-7 — something they didn't disclose at the time because disclosure might risk that security.
The doctor still is so traumatized 19 months later that when asked about the experience, he began to shake, hospital officials said Wednesday.
Among the more menacing e-mails was one sent to the administrator who became the hospital spokesperson on the controversial case. Vice-president Laurie Gould, she was told to hold a gun to her head and kill herself.
The threat and others like it left Gould recalling how some abortion doctors had been gunned down in the US, and wondering who might be lurking in the dark.
The fear was most apparent after Gould finished her workdays, and she had to walk from the hospital to her car at night.
"I was most afraid. I was always looking over my shoulder," she said. "I was alone in the dark, walking to the car, knowing my face was the one on TV."
But most of her concern was for the staff and patients in the hospital's pediatric critical care unit, which was the first to feel the onslaught of anger over Baby Joseph. Staff there subjected to what Gould described as harassing phone calls.
That staff continued to provide critical care is a testament to their dedication, Gould said.
London police were called to investigate some of the more threatening messages. Security guards were placed just inside and outside the pediatric critical care until Joseph was moved Match 13, 2011, to a St. Louis, Mo., hospital.
The protesters who gathered with signs for prayer vigils for Joseph on the perimeter of the hospital were peaceful and Gould believes most who sent angry e-mails had no intention of hurting anyone themselves.
But with thousands of e-mails from around the world, many from evangelicals in the U.S., there was no way to know who was a threat.
"It was fear of the unknown," Gould said.
Joseph had a neurological disorder that had claimed the life of an older sibling. He was placed on a breathing tube in October 2010 by London doctors who later concluded the humane thing to do was remove the infant from life-support — something Joseph's family opposed.
Ontario's Consent and Capacity Board sided with the doctors, as did a London judge, triggering a six-week fight between the hospital and right-to-life activists, many veterans of similar fight in the US.
Baby Joseph Timeline:
Jan. 22, 2010: Joseph Maraachli was born in Windsor, Ont., appearing healthy.
May 31: Joseph suffered seizures and spent a month at Michigan Children's Hospital in Detroit.
Oct. 17: Joseph stopped breathing and was taken to the Children's Hospital in London. Doctors concluded he was in a vegetative state from which he would not recover. His parents objected to removing him from life-support.
Jan. 31, 2011: Ontario's Consent and Capacity Board ordered Joseph's parents to consent to removing life-support. They appealed the ruling.
Feb. 17: A London judge ruled the board's decision was reasonable.
March 13: Joseph moved to a hospital in St. Louis, Mo., and later underwent a tracheotomy.
April 22: Joseph returned to his family home in Windsor.
Sept. 27: Joseph died in Windsor.