Tuberculosis sufferer dies in quarantine

The Oklahoman/May 31, 2002
By Jim Killackey

Tulsa -- A 24-year-old woman who refused treatment for tuberculosis because of her religious convictions has died, ending an 11-month quarantine of her Tulsa home. "We can't make anyone take medicine," said Janice Sheehan, manager of communicable diseases for the Tulsa City-County Health Department.

Maria Rebecca Rossiwall, 24, is the sixth Oklahoman to die this year from tuberculosis, a contagious lung and throat disease.

Statewide, 14 people died of tuberculosis last year.

Rossiwall was a member of the Church of Christ, Scientist, also known as the Christian Science Church. "She did not have medical treatment, but she had Christian Science treatment through prayer," Rossiwall's mother, Jane Dunn of Tulsa, said. She referred all additional inquiries about her daughter to John Hueffner, 51, a Christian Science "practitioner" who had counseled Rossiwall for several months.

"I prayed for her and with her," Hueffner said in an interview from Dallas, where he lives. He is the sole member of the Christian Science Committee on Publication for Texas. "She was an adult and no one coerced her into doing anything. She was a spiritually minded woman -- an excellent, loving person," Hueffner said.

Rossiwall's April 21 death was investigated by the state medical examiner's office, which listed the cause of death as progressive pulmonary tuberculosis. The woman weighed 95 pounds when she died at her home.

A Tulsa City-County Health Department "isolation order" or quarantine was issued July 1, 2001. The length of the quarantine was believed to be unprecedented. "It's highly unusual to be isolated to a home for such a long time period for an infectious disease," a spokeswoman for the state Health Department said. While not officially confirming Rossiwall as the tuberculosis victim, Sheehan said the woman "chose not to take treatments ... and she was confined to the home." The woman was supposed to stay in the house, or contact local health officials if she left the residence and could spread the disease.

Tuberculosis, commonly referred to as TB, is "a disease that can almost always be cured with medicine," according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hueffner said Rossiwall was a student from Austria who had been traveling in the United States when she was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Rossiwall "was no danger to anybody," said Virginia Dunn, her grandmother. Relatives didn't enter the home during the quarantine. Rossiwall would make occasional car trips around the Tulsa area, but the woman didn't leave the vehicle or come into contact with any outsiders, Virginia Dunn said.

Both Virginia and Jane Dunn are members of the Church of Christ, Scientist. No stipulations of the quarantine were broken, Virginia Dunn said.

Hueffner said he spoke and prayed over the telephone this year with Rossiwall on an almost daily basis. He said he is employed -- at $20 for a ministerial session -- by individuals seeking his guidance and prayers. Rossiwall was charged a smaller fee, he said. "She believed -- and worked from the standpoint -- that life is eternal and God is all powerful," Hueffner said. "She believed that we live and breathe in a mental realm. She wasn't concerned or afraid of death. She believed there is no death." Her tuberculosis, Hueffner said, simply was "something to be worked out mentally ... with God. We rely upon God and prayer for healing"

Sheehan said TB remains a serious health threat. "People have to remember that TB is still here -- and it's very contagious," she said. In March, a tuberculosis outbreak in southwestern Oklahoma infected 100 people. In February, three cases of tuberculosis were confirmed in Rogers County in eastern Oklahoma, prompting testing of 1,700 schoolchildren in the Oologah- Talala School District.

So far this year, there have been 63 reported cases of tuberculosis statewide, five of those in Tulsa County. Tuberculosis is spread through airborne droplets that can be released when an infected person coughs, sneezes or speaks.

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