Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Case of Eliza Jane, Part 1

In my previous post I wrote that the critics of former AIDS dissident, Christine Maggiore, claimed she was potentially causing the deaths of countless children.  The war came home in the most devastating way possible when Christine's own daughter, Eliza Jane, died at three years old. 

In this two-part article I'll take a closer look at the case of EJ, and share my own experiences in documenting this tragedy and its aftermath.

PART 1: Eliza Jane's Story

After the death of her daughter, Christine Maggiore, a vocal activist in the AIDS dissident movement, was called everything from a child murderer to denialist bitch, and, yes, Andrea Yates. 

Bloggers raged that “she had killed her daughter as surely if she had put a gun to her head”.  One sadistic idiot got hold of a picture of Eliza Jane, blacked out her eyes, and posted it to the web with the caption, "See you in Hell, Mommy!"  Another playful quipped, “I'd ask if I'm a horrible person for laughing my ass off when I read this….”  

(Yes, you are.)

Christine accused her anonymous hecklers of using her daughter as a "crucible" in the war between AIDS dissidents and dogmatists.  Nevertheless, the question remained. Was Christine Maggiore in denial about HIV? Did her daughter die because of it?

Amoxicillin or AIDS?

In 2005, Christine Maggiore and Robin Scovill’s three-year-old daughter, Eliza Jane, developed an ear infection. They gave her Amoxicillin, a common antibiotic. Almost immediately EJ began throwing up and experienced trouble breathing. Her condition worsened throughout the day and that night.  EJ was rushed to the hospital.

Christine told me that that at the hospital ER doctors asked her and Robin a series of questions that might help them explain why an otherwise healthy three-year-old child was dying.

The questions ranged from what chemicals and medicines they had at home, to who had access to EJ, exotic pets, The doctors performed various blood tests, chest scans, and x-rays.  They didn't ask Christine if she was HIV+, and Christine didn't tell them that she was. Four hours after arriving at the hospital, Eliza Jane died.  And Christine and Robin still had no answers. 

They didn't get any until months later, Christine recalled, when someone “tipped off” the Los Angeles coroner’s department as to who she was.  At that point,  Robin said, “a light bulb when off in their heads.”  New tests were performed and the official cause of death determined: Pneumocystis Carinii Pneumonia, or PCP.

An AIDS-defining condition.


The coroner’s report was released to the media before the Christine and Robin had even received a copy. The Los Angeles Times published the front page article, “A Mother’s Denial, A Daughter’s Death” (http://articles.latimes.com/2005/sep/24/local/me-eliza24),  and almost overnight Christine went from grieving mother to villainous AIDS denialist who had gotten what she deserved. 

Christine and Robin were investigated for negligent homicide. Detectives interviewed their friends, neighbors, their pediatricians, and teachers at their son, Charlie’s, school. Fearing that they might lose custody of Charlie, Christine and Robin proactively tested him (and Robin) repeatedly for HIV. All tests came back negative. 

The homicide case was eventually dropped when investigators believed that it would be difficult to prove medical negligence since Christine and Robin clearly had sought regular medical advice from numerous doctors for both of their children since birth.  

Meanwhile Christine and Robin pursued their own theory that it was a fatal reaction to the antibiotic that had taken Eliza Jane's life, not AIDS.  During one of our last interviews, they tried to describe to me what day to day life was like in these darkest of moments:
Robin: Losing EJ…there’s a – it’s like a bomb dropped in the middle of our family---
Christine: --and it goes off every day. It just doesn’t stop.
Robin: There’s no chance to even clean it up right now. We’re just sort of dealing with our ringing ears and the debris of that. And there’s just a hole. That I can’t imagine will ever be filled again.
There was no time to grieve. No time to sit quietly and remember the daughter they had lost. Only a fight that was long from over. 

Coming up in Part 2: Was Christine Maggiore in denial about HIV? 

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