It’s almost exactly six years since toddler Ezekiel Stephan died of complications related to meningitis.
It’s been two years since his parents, David and Collet, were convicted in a Lethbridge court of failing to provide the necessaries of life, after they refused to seek medical care for their dying child.
Ezekiel, you see, was the grandson of Anthony Stephan, the founder of Truehope Nutritional Support in Raymond, Alta. For decades, Anthony Stephan has been successfully marketing his vitamin and mineral supplements as a cure-all for depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, ADHD, autism and anxiety. So, of course, when Ezekiel got sick, his parents didn’t take him to a doctor. That would have been seriously “off brand.”
Instead, David Stephan gave him more supplements — and invited the boy’s grandfather over to give Ezekiel a blessing. The judge concluded David Stephan took “no real action” when Ezekiel experienced irregular breathing. And when the toddler stopped breathing altogether? David Stephan’s first reaction was to call his dad. Only later did the couple call 911.
David Stephan was sentenced to four months in jail. He and his wife appealed. So did the Crown, asking for a longer term. Meantime, David Stephan’s been out on bail, unapologetically exploiting his notoriety to sell yet more Truehope. The more he poses as the real victim, the more he blames Big Pharma for conspiring against him, the more vitamin capsules he can hawk — and the more people with serious psychiatric conditions he can gull into taking his magic mineral dust in lieu of their real medicine.
This past weekend, David Stephan was to appear at a big Health and Wellness Expo in Saskatoon, a major event whose sponsors included Sobeys and Flaman Fitness. He was also set to speak at expos in Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg.
Sales talks aren’t new for him. In a recent Facebook post, he says he’s given over 30 public presentation in the last 13 months. Indeed, Rick Thiessen, who runs Health and Wellness Expos of Canada, confirmed to me that Stephan spoke three times at his event in Winnipeg last year, bringing in big crowds.
But Stephan’s appearance as a keynote speaker at this particular event caught the attention of people on Twitter and Facebook. There was such an outcry on social media, both Sobeys and Flaman pulled their sponsorships.
Thiessen calls Stephan “a wonderful person.”
“I like him. He’s had a lot of trials and tribulations in his life.”
Still, Thiessen insists he didn’t know that Stephan, who now lives in Nelson, B.C., had been convicted in the death of his son. He never had any reason, he says, to check his background.
“I’m not a doctor or a lawyer,” he says. “I’m a show producer.”
Thiessen insists he cancelled Stephan’s lecture, and Truehope’s involvement in future events, as soon as he learned all the facts. Without his sponsors, though, he may have to cancel the expos he’d planned for Calgary and Edmonton. He says he’s getting hate mail from around the world.
“I’m the scapegoat here.”
A cautionary tale, perhaps, about the “wellness” game. It’s not medicine; it’s show biz. Of course no one checked to see if Stephan was a convicted criminal, culpable in the death of his child. Like the other exhibitors, Truehope paid to be part of the show. Stephan was an engaging performer who drew a crowd. That was what mattered.
Big Wellness is a multi-trillion-dollar industry. There’s nothing wrong with encouraging people to eat healthier diets, get more exercise, reduce stress. But that’s not how you make millions. You make money by encouraging people to buy speciality foods and supplements, expensive exercise equipment and workout clothes, hot tubs and saunas and organic yoga mats. You exploit people’s fears as they chase the dream of eternal health and youth.
“Science and science-based health care has lost the trust of a certain sector of society,” says Tim Caulfield, the director of the University of Alberta’s Health Law Institute. “Now, we have a naturalism fallacy, that if it’s natural it’s good. And that’s dangerous, because there’s real harm associated with lots of these completely useless therapies. These wellness shows tell us to keep an open mind. But really, they ask us to leave our brains at the door.”
As people go chasing health unicorns, they’d do well to remember the price Ezekiel paid for such magical thinking.
Meantime, David Stephan has a fresh claim to martyrdom, one he’s already leveraging to sell his pills.