'Extreme Makeover' family's health claims disputed

May 20, 2011 - 6:45 PM

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The ABC show "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" tore down a family's mold-filled house in Las Vegas and built a new one so their two ill daughters would have a healthier place to live.

However, doctors in Oregon later told state child welfare authorities the girls were not as sick as their mother Terri Cerda claimed, and that she impulsively sought treatment for immune-deficiency problems the girls didn't have, The Oregonian reported this week.

The details emerged during a court hearing in Clackamas County Circuit Court involving the children that was held after the state of Oregon took custody of them in February. A judge eventually decided to return the girls, ages 8 and 10, to their mother, who returned to Nevada in March. The girls' father is awaiting a transfer back to Nevada.

In court and during an interview with The Oregonian after the hearing, Terri Cerda said the girls had a history of fevers, infections and respiratory and gastrointestinal problems — all consistent with immune deficiency.

The newspaper covered the hearing but records were later sealed and unavailable for review by The Associated Press. Attorney Mikel Miller, who represents Chuck and Terri Cerda, has not returned telephone calls from the AP.

ABC filmed the "Extreme Makeover" episode in early 2009 and said the couple's home in Las Vegas was "threatening the lives of their two daughters." Meanwhile, Cerda became involved with the Immune Deficiency Foundation, and posted a YouTube video in May 2009.

"Our house is a veritable hospital," she said in the video. "We have IV poles, we have immunoglobin, we have breathing machines, we have oxygen tanks."

ABC referred calls seeking comment to Endemol USA, the production company behind "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." An Endemol spokeswoman said Friday the company had no comment on the situation.

During the hearing, Dr. Thomas Valvano of the Oregon Health and Science University testified that the girls' mother had a pattern of describing symptoms that did not appear to have any medical basis, and consistently provided incomplete or inaccurate medical information to doctors in Oregon.

He also said Cerda jumped from doctor to doctor, switching when a physician challenged her assertion that the girls were chronically ill.

Valvano told the media-relations staff at the Oregon Health and Science University that he would not answer questions about the case from the AP.

No doctors took the stand in defense of the Cerdas. After the hearing, Terri Cerda presented the newspaper with several pages of letters, treatment recommendations and lab analysis, which she said were not permitted as evidence in court.

The documents appeared to show pediatricians from hospitals in California and Arkansas confirmed the children have either primary immune deficiency disease or specific polysaccharide antibody deficiency, each of which could have put the children in danger of death from common infections.

The medical care was costly. The newspaper reported that in 2008, before the TV show aired, the Cerdas filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Their debts totaled $233,000, with almost half of the amount for unpaid medical bills.

Dr. Sapna Parker, another doctor who testified, said she angered Cerda when she told her one of her girls was not in mortal danger from breathing issues and a cough.

"The story always came from their mother, and it seemed unusual to me that they were not appearing ill," Parker said.

Clackamas County Circuit Judge Susie L. Norby rejected Terri Cerda's defense, but found the girls' father, Chuck Cerda, to be a capable parent, and the girls were returned to both parents.

Norby also allowed the Oregon Department of Human Services to notify Nevada's child welfare agency about the case.