Medical Sleuth

To prosecutors, it was child abuse - an Amish baby covered in bruises, but Dr. D. Holmes Morton had other ideas

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 1)

Rebecca Smoker, an Amish former schoolteacher who had lost nieces and nephews to GA-1 and now works for Morton’s Clinic for Special Children, vividly remembers the sense of relief that began to spread through the close-knit Amish community. Previous doctors, Smoker recalls, had been “unable to tell parents why their children were dying,” but Morton was able to identify the disease. That was comforting: “If you can say, ‘my baby has this,’ or ‘my baby has that,’ even if it’s an awful thing, you can feel better about it,” says Smoker.

Later in 1987, Morton began driving out from Philadelphia to Lancaster County to manage the care of children with GA-1. Many of the patients who had been previously diagnosed with cerebral palsy were paralyzed beyond repair, but there were some with less advanced paralysis whom Morton was able to help with a new treatment regimen including a restricted-protein diet and, when needed,  hospital care. He also learned, through testing, that some of the affected children’s younger siblings—who had not yet suffered paralysis—had the gene mutation and biochemical abnormalities. If he could manage these children through their earliest years, when they were particularly vulnerable to the effects of GA-1, he believed, as he says now, that he could “alter the likely devastating course of the disease.”

Several of the children came down with respiratory infections in the months that followed. Morton’s strategy—“immediately getting them to a hospital, giving them IV glucose and fluids, anticonvulsants, and reducing their protein intake to get them past the crisis points”—worked, and they escaped without severe injury to their basal ganglia. Morton had gone beyond giving the horror its proper name; he had found ways for Amish parents to help save their other children from the ravages of the disease.

Now, nearly a decade later, Sara Lynn Glick’s death presented Morton with a new challenge. He was determined to figure out what had killed her, to exonerate Elizabeth and Samuel Glick, and to help them retrieve their seven sons from non-Amish foster homes.

Morton’s first clue to what had actually happened to Sara came in a conversation with her mother. “Liz Glick told me that she had to put socks on Sara’s hands, because Sara had been scratching her own face,” Morton says. Such scratching, he knew, was a likely sign of an underlying liver disease. Another clue was that Sara had been born at home, where a midwife had not given her a vitamin K shot—standard procedure for hospital-born babies, who are given the shot to ensure that their blood will clot properly.

Morton concluded that Sara’s death was due not to child abuse but to a combination of genetic disorders: a vitamin K deficiency, coupled with a bile-salt transporter disorder that he had previously found in 14 other Amish children and some of Sara’s cousins.

Convincing the authorities, however, wouldn’t be easy. So Morton called a friend, Philadelphia lawyer Charles P. Hehmeyer. “You’re always looking for good pro bono cases,” Morton remembers telling Hehmeyer. “Well, here’s a doozy.” Together, they went to see the Glicks in Dornsife, where they sat in a candlelit kitchen, long after dark, as Liz Glick asked through tears if she would be going to jail.

Sure of his diagnosis, Morton went—uninvited—to a meeting between doctors and the district attorney’s office at Geisinger Medical Center, hoping to point out that the hospital’s own records would conclusively demonstrate that Sara’s injuries had not come from child abuse. He was shown the door. 

The clinic for Special Children in Strasburg, Pennsylvania, lies only a few hundred miles from Morton’s childhood home in Fayetteville, West Virginia. But for him the journey was long and full of unexpected turns. The second youngest of a coal miner’s four sons, Holmes flunked all of his science classes in high school, sank to the bottom of his class and withdrew before graduation. “I was never an easy person to teach,” he admits. “I was always doubting, questioning, arguing.” He took a job in an engine and boiler room of a freighter on the Great Lakes—“my first encounter,” he says, “with people who were very intelligent but had little higher education.” Focusing on practical shipboard problems and doing plenty of physical labor were a spur to developing his mind: within a few years he passed an examination for a commercial license to operate the boilers, and, then completed his high-school equivalency degree.

Drafted in 1970, Morton spent four years “working the Navy’s boilers”; off duty he read about, and then took correspondence courses in, neurology, math, physics and psychology. After the Navy, he enrolled at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, volunteered at a children’s hospital and set his sights on a medical degree.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus