FRESNO — A court order requiring a 15-year-old Hmong girl with ovarian cancer to undergo chemotherapy has been lifted by authorities hoping to persuade the girl to return home.
Lee Lor, a small 10th-grader, ran away from home in late October after the Juvenile Court here--over the strong protests of her parents and Hmong community leaders--ordered the cancer treatments.
"We asked the court to remove the order because it was proving to be a major stumbling block," said Dr. Stephen Stephenson, a pediatric oncologist at Valley Children's Hospital, where the girl was treated.
"We want Lee to know that she can come home any time and there will be no pressure to resume treatment. She can be in total control."
Her doctors had urged the treatments as a necessary follow-up to the removal of a large ovarian tumor. Without the chemical regimen, they said, her chances of survival would drop from 80% to 10%.
Fearing that the treatments would make her bald and infertile, Lee filled her backpack with Hmong herbal medicines and disappeared. Last week, according to family members, she sent her parents a letter from an undisclosed location, possibly out of state.
"She told them she was living with a bunch of girls at a house," said Paula Vang, a family spokeswoman. "She said she is real healthy and doing fine and has no pain whatsoever."
The unusual case has unleashed passionate feelings among the tens of thousands of Hmong refugees who have settled in the San Joaquin Valley, and pitted their 16th-Century tribal customs against modern American medicine.
When the police first removed the girl from her parents' custody for an initial round of chemotherapy, they were pelted with stones and had to wrest a knife from the father, who threatened to kill himself.
Lee's parents, like most Hmong who came here from the mountains of Laos, argue that they have the right to seek herbal and spiritual remedies for their daughter before opting for Western medicine--procedures that they believe desecrate the soul and block reincarnation.
Fertility in particular is a highly charged issue in the Hmong community, where the average family, such as the Lors', numbers nine children. Any medical procedure that might impair Lee's ability to conceive children would mark her as an outcast among Hmong, who sometimes marry at 12 years old.
Ernest Velasquez, head of Fresno County social services, which originally sought the court order imposing treatment for the girl, said the case was never easy. "We were ambivalent from the outset," he said. "What do you do with a 15-year-old who refuses?"
Authorities question whether Lee ran away or if the Hmong community is hiding her in the belief that she does not have cancer and that doctors were simply using her as a guinea pig.
But the Lors insist that they have no way of reaching Lee. They said they are thinking of buying an ad in Hmong newspapers informing their daughter that the order has been lifted.
"They are worried," said Mike Chan, a liaison between the Lors and their attorney. "They want Lee to know that she can come home any time."