Special Needs Child Suffered in State Care – Mom Criticized for Seeking Answers
By TLB Contributing Partner: Terri LaPoint
A mother’s love can make all the difference in the life of a child. Unfortunately, there are times that doctors, including those known as Child Abuse Pediatricians, have the power to enlist law enforcement and Child Protective Services in order to take children away from the love and care of their mothers and fathers, even when the parents are innocent.
Though Nathan Zeller of Mt. Airy, North Carolina, is a special needs child, his family never let that stop them from doing everything they could to provide him with the best quality of life possible.
Despite his physical pain and limitations, Nathan was known to his Mayberry community for his radiant smile and infectious laughter. He enjoyed trips to the beach, vacations to Disney, and outings to the park.
All that has stopped now. Nathan will be 14 on July 5, but there is no Independence Day for him. He spends his days confined to a bed in an institution, and the state of North Carolina has … limited his mother to occasional supervised visits with her son. His smile has vanished, and Nathan’s quality of life is but a small fraction of what it used to be.
Because Joy Zeller never stopped fighting for answers when doctors gave conflicting information, she stands accused of child abuse. A mama bear has been blocked from caring for her cub, and he has been caged away from her.
The Zeller family’s story, while complex, is not uncommon. When doctors miss something important in a patient’s case, or when doctors disagree with each other, the patient and the family are often the ones who pay the price.
Rather than doctors admitting they don’t know everything, they missed something, or they made a mistake, hospitals sometimes blame the parents. Most children’s hospitals in the United States have doctors known as Child Abuse Pediatricians on staff who are called in with such cases. A Child Abuse Pediatrician may then “diagnose” the parent (usually the mother) as having a mental disorder called Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, usually without ever meeting the parent. Most often the label is used as a cover-up for some type of malpractice. (For more information on Child Abuse Pediatricians, see links at end of article.)
Joy Zeller, a respected dental office manager for 20 years, now stands accused by doctors of abusing Nathan and faces criminal charges. The DA has repeatedly offered plea deals to avoid jail time if she will plead guilty, but she has refused to accept them because she maintains that she has done nothing wrong. She says she refuses to plead guilty to something she did not do.
They were due to go to court in June, but the hearing was continued yet again to July 15.
She has, however, advocated for her child, and she never stopped trying to find answers when doctors gave her conflicting information.
Has it become a crime in America to disagree with a doctor? To be sure, there is no law which specifically spells this out, but the effect is the same when doctors have the power to work with law enforcement and Child Protective Services to remove children from their families and have a parent imprisoned for disagreeing with them.
All the while the quality of life for this once joyous boy has significantly deteriorated since the state of North Carolina stepped in and separated mother and child, all “in the best interest of the child.”
Crucial Information Missed from the Beginning
Nathan Zeller was born 7 weeks prematurely on July 5, 2005. He spent a week in the NICU due to vomiting after meals and oxygen desaturation problems. The Zellers were to follow up with a gastroenterologist after taking him home from the hospital.
Before that could happen, Nathan contracted a serious viral infection and was back in the hospital at about 2 weeks of age. The infection traveled to his brain and left him a quadriplegic with brain damage.
The medical team told parents Joy and Ken Zeller that the baby was born with the virus, but that may not be the case. While newborn Nathan was in the NICU, a nurse told the parents she accidentally cut the end of the baby’s finger while she was trimming his nails. She treated with neosporin but left the wound open in order to heal.
According to Joy:
I kept telling all the doctors that the vomiting came first, but all medical personnel tried to convince me that the vomiting was a result of the brain damage.
There were indications of problems from the beginning which were never reported to the family. It was not until late 2015 that Joy got her son’s birth records. Those records reveal that he had a chest x-ray at less than an hour after birth due to reduced oxygen levels. They also show that Nathan vomited his very first meal. There was nothing in the records indicating that he had the virus or brain damage at birth.
When they were able to see a gastroenterologist at Brenner Children’s Hospital in Winston Salem, Dr. Ivor Hill reportedly told the Zellers there was no need to do any testing on Nathan’s digestive system since brain damage was present.
They tried reflux medications, but they were ineffective.
For years doctors told them projectile vomiting was a normal part of life with a brain damaged child. After Joy became involved with other parents of special needs children, Joy learned that this is not the case. This was not the experience of parents with children with brain damage.
Like clockwork, Nathan would vomit between 6 and 7 minutes after every feeding started. Something else had to be going on, but his doctors at Brenner Children’s Hospital didn’t look for other explanations.
It was not until years later, October of 2015, that Joy Zeller got a second opinion from a doctor in a different hospital. That doctor ran tests which revealed what all his doctors at Brenner allegedly missed or failed to properly diagnose – he has an intestinal malformation that he was likely born with. A section of his intestine narrows and kinks. Every feeding backs up when it reaches that point in his intestines because it is so narrow, causing vomiting, pain, and other problems.
A vital piece of information was missed or avoided which has impacted his health since birth or before. One medical professional told Joy Zeller that even Nathan’s premature birth was likely due to oxygen desaturations in the uterus due to this intestinal malformation. Nathan’s health and treatment has been impacted throughout his life because this malformation failed to be acknowledged.
Making the Best of a Difficult Situation
The Zellers coped as best as they could with Nathan’s medical condition. They tried to make life as positive as possible for Nathan and their other son Will. They had a lot of support from Nathan’s godfather, the family, and the community.
Joy decorated Nathan’s room with Disney characters and superheroes. He had a great view from his bedroom window and a swing made especially for him.
Accommodations were made for him at school, where he was beloved by students and faculty alike.
Nathan even attended his big brother’s ball games, went to the park and went to the movies, and was a familiar face at community events.
Every year for Halloween, his father Ken would build elaborate costumes that would fit around his wheelchair. Their community eagerly anticipated seeing what Nathan’s costume would be that year.
Vacations were a magical time. Nathan got a front-row seat at Disney’s Lion King show at Animal Kingdom. He could not contain his excitement when he met Winnie-the-Pooh. Nathan loved being in the water, and his family made sure his feeding tube and wheelchair didn’t keep him from enjoying the pool and water parks.
Those days have ended for Nathan.
Mom Punished for Seeking Answers
Throughout all the good times, feeding time was always an issue. Joy Zeller says Nathan always became uncomfortable between 6 to 7 minutes after every feeding started. While he was little, he would projectile vomit.
When he was 3 a doctor suggested performing a Nissen Fundoplication surgery and inserting a G-tube feeding tube. The doctor reportedly assured the family that it would fix Nathan’s vomiting problems. It didn’t. It created new problems.
The procedure made it harder for Nathan to burp or vomit. Instead, about 6 to 7 minutes after feedings began, he would be in “excruciating pain,” arching his back, and struggling to breathe.
Joy found that if she were able to rock her son while feeding him very slowly, he did much better. She now theorizes that the motion helped his feedings to go down easier through the narrow part of his intestines. They were also advised to vent the feeding tube. Nonetheless, Nathan still vomited feedings and had issues with oxygen levels dropping during feedings.
Advocating for her son was not always easy. During a hospital admission in 2010, the chief resident at Brenner told the Zellers that his irregular breathing and oxygen levels which were dropping into the 60s were due to enlarged tonsils. Joy’s mother instinct knew there had to be more to it. She repeatedly requested for the chief resident to call Nathan’s gastroenterologist. He refused.
Joy called the doctor’s office herself. Emergency bronchoscopy was performed shortly after which showed that his trachea had collapsed. If Joy had not been persistent, her son likely would not have survived the day.
The chief resident, however, was reportedly furious with her and told her she had embarrassed him by calling Nathan’s doctor. Joy took the opportunity for a teaching moment for the students making rounds with the resident, telling them:
an important lesson in their training was that it was sometimes acceptable to listen to the parents as we were not always wrong.
She reminded the resident:
You are not God. God only operates through your hands and you need to keep a humbleness about you and to always remember that to be a good doctor.
That didn’t set well with him. He reportedly told her she would pay for embarrassing him.
This was the first time Child Protective Services was called on Joy Zeller, who was escorted out of the hospital while her son was in surgery. The allegations were found to be unsubstantiated.
Meanwhile Nathan continued to have issues with feeding. The G-tube was replaced with a G-J tube. Large amounts of bile were draining from the G-feeding tube and being thrown away daily, which, in turn, affected his electrolyte and sodium levels. Some doctors were very concerned about this, while the gastro doctors didn’t seem concerned.
In January of 2012, Nathan had a grand mal seizure that lasted over five hours and a sudden fever that reached 105 degrees. After that, he began having seizures more frequently.
One of Nathan’s doctors recommended that the bile draining from his G-tube be re-fed to him into his J-tube, the intestinal part of the feeding tube. This seemed to help.
The doctor also reported the gastro team to an advocacy team at Brenner Children’s Hospital. The Zellers did not know at the time that the advocacy team operated under the Risk Management Team.
A hospital risk manager’s job is “to prevent situations that can result in losses or liability.” (Source.) In other words, they look out for the financial bottom line of the hospital, avoiding lawsuits and such. What happens when the best financial interests of a hospital collide with what is best for a child? It appears that the Zellers would soon find out.
The family recognized that the seizures seemed to correlate with feeding times. Several people close to the family as well as previous caregivers have noted that, consistently 6 to 7 minutes after a feeding began, Nathan would begin arching his back and showing signs of discomfort. If Nathan was rocked or if his wheelchair was shaken so he could burp, the symptoms would subside. If not, he would manifest seizure activity.
These things were noted at home by various caregivers, different family members, and Nathan’s godfather, who is a successful, experienced sedation dentist. Doctors at Brenner Children’s Hospital all but ignored the family’s concerns. They told Joy she was crazy when she advocated for doctors to look deeper to help her son.
One doctor even offered to “place Nathan on sedation medication to make [Joy’s] life easier.” She declined.
Nathan was suffering. One doctor told Joy he believed that previous tests had been read incorrectly. He wanted Nathan to be evaluated by a gastroenterologist at an out-of-state hospital in order to get an objective medical opinion. Joy says,
He emphasized if the advocacy team discovered this appointment that all of Nathan’s social records would be sent and the true [medical] opinion would not occur.
Eventually doctors not associated with Brenner discovered that the tests had indeed been read incorrectly. In 2015 a doctor in Baltimore discovered a malformation in which a section of Nathan’s small intestines narrow and kink.
Nathan’s health issues have required numerous hospitalizations over the years. Doctors at Brenner continued to state that Nathan’s oxygen levels did not decrease during feedings, and the seizures were unassociated with feeding times.
Medical records from other doctors show that Brenner was incorrect. There is testimony in records and affidavits which show that other professionals noted oxygen desaturations and other issues, but the information was not charted by hospital staff.
Medical doctrine states that, if it isn’t charted, it didn’t happen. What happens, then, when medical staff fail to chart events that did indeed happen? Who is held accountable when a false narrative is created by failing to chart important information?
There have been numerous occasions where the information from different doctors about Nathan’s condition conflicted. For seeking answers outside of the Brenner system, doctors at Brenner Children’s Hospital accused Joy Zeller of “doctor shopping,” a term used to accuse parents of medical child abuse and involve Child Protective Services.
Joy simply wanted answers for her child:
I kept seeking medical opinions because I was getting conflicting information.
In 2015 a new gastroenterologist at Brenner was reportedly troubled about the seeming lack of concern at the hospital for Nathan’s condition. She referred Nathan to a surgeon and a gastroenterologist at the University of Maryland Hospital, hoping to get an objective evaluation.
Their testing revealed that Nathan did indeed have an intestinal abnormality that was causing feedings to back up, possibly explaining the projectile vomiting that had plagued him and his family since birth.
After this testing, the doctors performed exploratory gastrointestinal surgery. They discovered an intestinal kink and partial intestinal obstruction. The surgeon unkinked the intestine and loosened a ligament that had adhesions in the hope that this would fix the problem. If it didn’t, medical records show that he intended to perform another surgery to remove the section of Nathan’s intestine.
Unfortunately, it did not work. Nathan threw up the very first feeding after the surgery.
He continued to be on IV fluids only, no feedings, in anticipation of the surgery to remove the abnormal section of his intestine. Before the second surgery could happen, the Risk Management team at Brenner allegedly learned that Nathan was in Maryland, and all plans for the surgery abruptly ended. Nathan was suddenly discharged and sent back home to North Carolina.
Other than the feeding after the first surgery, Nathan had no food in his system for almost two weeks in Maryland. There is no record of the hospital weighing him before discharge.
The family was forced to follow up at Brenner. Nathan had lost weight, and Joy was blamed for the weight loss. The doctor required that Nathan be hospitalized at Brenner Children’s Hospital in late November 2015.
During that hospitalization, one of his doctors prescribed a new seizure medicine. A neurologist later told Joy that the medicine was “the worst choice” for Nathan and was causing him to lose protein and electrolytes.
Brenner Children’s Hospital again called Child Protective Services while Nathan was hospitalized, alleging that Joy was causing him to lose weight.
Surry County social workers discovered that they were not getting entirely truthful information from Brenner. When the social worker made an unannounced visit to Nathan’s hospital room to check on his safety, he found Nathan struggling to breathe, with oxygen levels dropping. Brenner had assured him that these things were not happening. Joy had been painted by the hospital staff as crazy and an “inaccurate historian.”
The social worker also discovered a bag of Nathan’s shirts reeking of vomit, even though the hospital staff insisted that Nathan was not vomiting.
The social worker questioned whether or not he was getting accurate information from Brenner concerning the possibility of Nathan having medical issues leading to Nathan’s weight loss. The medical records from Baltimore confirmed what Joy had told him, but they conflicted with Brenner’s account.
In July 2016, the investigation by Surry County Department of Social Services concluded:
The investigation into the alleged incident of (X) abuse, (X) neglect and/or ( ) dependency was unsubstantiated.
The case was closed.
If One County Closes a Case, Just Call Another County
Apparently undeterred, Brenner Children’s Hospital contacted the Child Protective Services of a different county – Wilkes County. Child Abuse Pediatrician Adam Zolotor of UNC School of Medicine in Chapel Hill wrote a report accusing Joy Zeller of Medical Child Abuse, which is simply the newer term for Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSBP), a mental disorder in which a parent makes a child sick in order to get attention.
Dr. Zolotor made his report without ever once meeting or speaking with Joy Zeller.
Numerous medical and legal experts have pointed out that a diagnosis of MSBP is fraught with problems. Many of the indicators of MSBP or Medical Child Abuse are the same qualities involved with any medically fragile child or a child with medical problems that doctors cannot figure out how to solve.
For more information on problems with false diagnoses of MSBP, see:
Wilkes County Child Protective Services seized custody of Nathan on September 27, 2016, based on allegations that his mother was causing him to lose weight and failing to follow the medical advice of doctors at Brenner Children’s Hospital.
Nathan Declines Rapidly in State Custody
Nathan spent the next two and a half months in Brenner Hospital, with only rare supervised visits from his parents permitted. When they were able to visit, they found that Nathan was being fed too fast through his G-J feeding tube in an apparent effort to make him gain weight quickly.
Note: this is a common complaint from parents of children with feeding tubes who are taken by CPS. Faster feedings are forced into the children, even though going faster causes more pain for the child, and in Nathan’s case leads to issues such as oxygen desaturation and seizures. This author witnessed this with Nathan as well as with Nhyariah Mack at Emory Hospital in Georgia. See her story:
In December, CPS and Brenner Hospital transferred Nathan to a facility four hours away from his home. Over the course of the next six months, Nathan went back and forth between the facility and Brenner due to contracting pneumonia eight times. He never had pneumonia in his family’s care.
A radiologist eventually diagnosed aspiration pneumonia. This may well have been from Nathan being fed too quickly and the feeding backing up.
In April 2017, Nathan was hospitalized because his left leg was broken and required surgery. In June, he was again admitted because his right leg was broken. Joy noted that his left elbow was swollen, but no one would tell them what was wrong with his elbow. He also had pneumonia during both hospitalizations.
During a meeting with doctors at Brenner, the Zellers wanted to find out why their son kept getting broken bones. He never had any broken bones under their care. It became apparent to the Zellers during the meeting that the doctors at Brenner were trying to frame this as being a direct result of malnutrition from their allegations of Joy “starving” Nathan.
Joy says she and Ken were shocked when a doctor blurted out that he was “man enough” to tell them that their son’s elbow was also dislocated. This was information the other doctors did not want revealed. They wanted to send Nathan back to the facility but this doctor refused to go along with the rest of the medical team. Joy says they never saw that particular doctor again.
The beds at the facility did not have side bars, so it is possible that Nathan rolled off of the bed.
Nathan was kept laying in a bed in Brenner Children’s Hospital from June 2017 until November 2018. His parents were only permitted to visit him under supervision. Meanwhile, social workers and doctors assured the court that Nathan was “doing great.”
He obviously was not “doing great.” Nathan started swelling, but doctors smiled and called it “healthy weight gain.” The swelling grew progressively worse over a six-week period, accompanied by fever which Joy secretly measured with a thermometer she brought from home. The Zellers were told they were imagining the fever.
Ken and Joy showed up unannounced for a visit in late August 2017 to find their son in very bad shape. Doctors said he had a stomach abscess and required emergency surgery. It was not a stomach abscess. Joy reports that he was septic from the infection:
He had developed a pancreatic cyst that had grown so large and had been there so long that it had grown into the wall of the stomach.
Those Who Know the Family Say Nathan Was Well-Cared for and Loved
Real News Spark has copies of numerous affidavits and sworn testimony from caregivers, friends, family, and community members who have witnessed the love and care that Nathan received at home. They attest that doctors have missed things and blamed the parents. There are medical records from doctors which verify the things Joy has stated. Yet these records and testimonies have reportedly not been considered by the courts.
One nurse involved in Nathan’s care for almost four years before he was taken by CPS risked her career to state in an affidavit that Joy provided “appropriate care” for her son. She writes:
I repeatedly saw him smile and try to talk to Joy and she would interact with him in a loving and positive way. I found Joy to be like most mothers of special needs children; tired, stressed out about having good consistent caregivers, and frustrated that they are not listened to with respect and attention to what they are saying about their own child….
As a professional … it is my hope that the medical community will open their mind to hearing Joy – REALLY HEARING her. And looking to see if they might have a new avenue to travel. It is my hope that Joy will be reunited with her son – as his mother and responsible caregiver.
In November of 2018, Nathan was placed into a residential care center. His health has declined so drastically since he has been in state care that, short of a miracle, he may never be able to come home. His mother no longer has the home that was designed perfectly for him. She has spent well over $100,000 on attorneys, yet has not been able to say a word in her defense in court.
Custody was returned to Nathan’s father Ken Zeller in December of 2018, but his placement remains at the residential care center, per CPS. Joy was denied reunification with her son because she does not agree with the plan of care by doctors at Brenner and continues to question their treatment of her son. She is only permitted weekly two-hour supervised visits with Nathan at the facility, and she is forbidden to have a voice in his medical care.
They are doing the best they can to keep Nathan from aspirating with the current feeding regiment insisted upon by Brenner doctors.There are no grounds, however, for termination of her parental rights. Court documents clearly state:
Termination of parental rights is not in the best interests of the minor child because no grounds exist and an adoptive placement has not been identified. [Emphasis added by Real News Spark.]
They are doing the best they can to keep Nathan from aspirating with the current feeding regiment insisted upon by Brenner doctors.By all accounts, Nathan’s treatment is unquestionably better in his current facility than it was in the previous healthcare facilities, but two years in state custody took its toll on his health. The Zellers report that the the current facility is working hard to manage the consequences of the deterioration that had already occurred.
They are doing the best they can to keep Nathan from aspirating with the current feeding regiment insisted upon by Brenner doctors.
The Nathan that exists now and the Nathan that [was before] are two different people. Nathan’s quality of life has taken a massive step back beyond what mere words can adequately describe….
To know Nathan went to other facilities that have records documenting he has difficulty with his feedings, oxygen desaturation and seizures and for Joy to be blamed for all his weight loss is unbelievable to me.
Dr. James H. Wells, DDS
They Need a Miracle, and Justice
Brenner Children’s Hospital, Child Protective Services, and law enforcement say that Joy Zeller has harmed her son by seeking medical opinions outside of the Brenner system and by disagreeing with some of the Brenner doctors. They stepped in and took Nathan away from his mother, accusing her of criminal behavior, in the name of Nathan’s “best interest,” at considerable expense to taxpayers.
Is Nathan really better off under state supervision than he was at home with his family?
Nathan’s big brother Will has been hit hard by the things that have happened to his little brother. He writes:
You have an innocent child that hasn’t done anything wrong, been given a situation he can’t control, and we just want someone to at least attempt to help him …not asking for a miracle or anything. Just will anyone try and help fix his medical problems? That’s all Mom wants someone to do, too, just someone help him with what he is struggling with.
He says that the hospital has spent time, money, and resources:
hiding, not doing what they should – everything … except help Nathan.
Joy still faces criminal charges of child abuse. She continues to refuse every plea deal that the DA offers her because she maintains her innocence. Like many parents accused by Child Protective Services and Child Abuse Pediatricians, she does not want to plead guilty to something she didn’t do.
The state has continued her court hearings numerous times. The evidence in Joy Zeller’s favor has yet to be heard by a judge. Her advocates believe that the charges against her should be dismissed, and they have made many calls to legislators on her behalf, to no avail.
Nathan Zeller has two major needs at this time:
He needs an objective, unbiased evaluation of his medical condition. At one time, he had a referral to Dr. Samuel Nurko, director of the Center for Motility and Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders at Boston Children’s Hospital. He is the doctor featured in the Jennifer Garner movie, “Miracles from Heaven.” Nathan had an appointment set up with Dr. Nurko, but it never happened because of CPS involvement.
He needs his mother in his life. When he was in his mother’s care, he laughed and smiled often despite his medical conditions. Even when he was in the hospital, his mother and other family members were by his side. For more than two years, he has been deprived of the care and support of his mother while he has been in a hospital/institutional setting. Without his mother, his smile has faded.
Nathan’s Story Is Bigger than One Family
What has happened to Nathan has happened to many other children, here, in the United States of America. The Liberty Beacon and other independent media sources have covered hundreds of such stories. Parents and lawmakers are beginning to wake up to see the nightmare that could literally happen to any family anywhere.
It is not enough to simply bring awareness, though that is the first step. There must be a shift in our thinking, first to recognize that this can, and does, happen to innocent families. Then, we must work together, advocate, pray, and change laws and the bureaucracy, so that Nathan and hundreds of thousands of other children are no longer subjected to a broken system that destroys them in the name of their “best interest.”
Joy Zeller writes:
I do not think God would allow Nathan to suffer through all the pain since being taken into custody, of both his legs being broken, a dislocated elbow, double digit cases of aspiration pneumonia, and an emergency pancreatic surgery from being septic without there being a much bigger plan.
Joy Zeller says that she hopes her family’s story will help other families to avoid the nightmare they have suffered.
Without a miracle, Nathan will never come home. But miracles still happen today. Let us join with the Zeller family to pray for a miracle and for justice.
God, we ask you for a miracle for Nathan Zeller and his family. We thank you for this precious child and ask for You to heal his body. This is not too hard for You.
Soften the hearts of all the doctors and the other people who have power in his life to really SEE him and to see the love that his mother and family have for him. We ask that you would cause them to have compassion on this sweet boy and want to find out what is really wrong and fix it.
We ask for favor in the courts for Joy Zeller. Let the truth be heard and let real justice prevail.
We know that Your heart is a heart of love, truth, mercy, justice, and hope. This family stands in desperate need of those things right now. Please wrap Your arms of love around them and let them sense Your presence. And cause the hearts of those who hear their story to be stirred to help them and all the others who are suffering at the hands of injustice. In the mighty name of Jesus, we pray. Amen.
For more information on Child Abuse Pediatricians, see related articles:
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