Thursday, April 2, 2009

A Mother's Loss: Unsettled Details Lead to Search for Answers

By Patricia Adams

In an exclusive interview with The Forum, Aaishah Francis, mother of 13-year-old Al-Haarith Atthahabi, expresses her grief and doubts over the events surrounding her sons death from after playing basketball at MS 210 last week.

“He was always here by 2:35. I could be out, but I knew he’d always be there.” On March 11 he wasn’t home at 2:35. He still wasn’t home at 3:00. In an interview with The Forum at her home, Aaishah Francis explained what happened on the day her 13-year-old son, Al-Haarith Atthahabi, didn’t come home from MS 210.

“I was so anxious all morning about him. It’s hard to explain. I wanted to tell him before he left he should come right home after school but I didn’t catch him in time. He was very self-sufficient. If he needed me he would come to ask.”

Aaishah said that by 3 o’clock she was very anxious about why Haarith wasn’t home. The phone rang at, what she says, was about five minutes past three. It was her 12-year-old son, Dihyah. He told her to “come to the school quick, something’s happened to Haarith.”

She ran downstairs to ask a neighbor about babysitting for Haarith’s brother, but the woman had to work. While Aaishah dressed the youngest of her four sons, the phone rang again. “This time it was another child,” she said. It was a friend of Haarith’s, Mark. “He said that I had to come to the school now. That Haarith had collapsed and he was on the ground. I knew it was bad.”

“I ran up to the school. I couldn’t find my key. I just left the doors open and ran with the baby.” When Aaishah got to the schoolyard, she said she remembers a lot of people standing all around. She watched a fire truck pull through at the playground. “I ran through the schoolyard. I screamed for Haarith because I saw my son on the floor. I saw the fireman with a bag. That’s all I saw, they were pumping the bag. And then I think I blacked out.”

She remembers screaming and a teacher asking what school he goes to. “He goes here. He’s at 210 in the eighth grade. What are you talking about? He’s here.” Aaishah says that the woman told her to stay back. “Let them work,” she said referring to emergency personnel. “Stay back over here. Don’t go there. Don’t go over there.”

By this time Dihyoh had come to his mother’s side at the schoolyard. She handed off his younger brother. “I told him to hold the baby,” Aaishah said. “I was flipping because I had never seen my son in my life like that. He’s never had issues in terms of medical conditions. I remember that I said he’s dead. He’s dead. He’s dead.” Aaishah says she will never forget the strength of the feeling she had at that moment.

Later, Aaishah learned that it was Rosalyn Manning, the school’s principal, who she said held her back at the schoolyard. “She said to me “Don’t go over there. They’re working on him. Just pray.” Aaishah said, “Pray? He’s dead. I just wanted to see my dead son. I know it sounds morbid but that’s it. I could tell it wasn’t working on him. All I saw was the air thing. He was not hooked up to anything to put oxygen over his brain to try and stop the brain from being damaged. I watched enough ER for that.”

Aaishah says she doesn’t really know how many emergency personnel were there. “They weren’t going to let me go to the ambulance either but I went past them and just got in.” She asked repeatedly if her son was breathing but Aaishah Francis could get no answers. “The ambulance driver told me if you make a big scene we’re not going to be able to keep you with us. You have to calm down.” But according to the boy’s mother, no one was doing anything. She said she overheard EMT’s say they were waiting for the paramedics. “I said why are we waiting for the paramedics. Then they shocked him once. And we started to drive to the hospital.”

At the hospital, Al-Haarith was taken by a team in one direction, while his mother was moved to a room near the emergency room. “There were people all around again. Traffic cops, school safety, someone the Department of Ed sent down. They were all there and then the doctor came. He told me they could not save my son.”

Since leaving the hospital, Aaishah is troubled by the fact that she feels there are many things unresolved. “The school sent a few people down to the funeral service for my son but I have never really been contacted or spoken to about what actually happened on that day.” There are many questions that remain unanswered about what happened on the basketball court after Al-Haarith first fell to the ground.

According to Rosalyn Allman-Manning, the school’s principal, “As soon as we got the word we ran to the scene with the Automatic External Defibrillator (AED). We heard the fire engines when we got to the schoolyard. At the time a staff member was doing CPR. I was with the mother,” Manning said. “It was a matter of putting the pads on. He was shocked by the fire department.” Manning admitted trying to keep Aaishah away from her son and said that she was following orders of the EMS workers who told her to keep the mother away.

When asked when Ms. Manning expected that Aaishah would be called in to finally discuss the events surrounding the tragic death, Manning responded, “Oh sometime after spring break.” Now Al-Haarith’s mother will have to wait more than three weeks to perhaps get the answers to some of the questions she seeks.

But what Rosalyn Manning could not explain were allegations raised by staff, faculty and students about another disturbing issue that has arisen in the aftermath of the tragedy. In the days following Al-Haarith’s death, a crisis team came to the school in order to counsel children who were experiencing difficulty over the loss of their friend and classmate.

Some teachers had prepared their students by telling them that Al-Haarith had suffered a tragic death but in the end had passed very quickly and with little or no suffering. But according to many at a session held in the school library, there was a quite different account of Al-Haarith’s death by a Department of Education representative.

“This man came in about twenty minutes or so after the session started,” one faculty member said. “He said he was with Security or something at the DOE.” According to the teacher, who refused to speak on the record, the rep told the more than 50-60 kids in the library and at least a dozen teachers that their “friend Al was a real fighter. I was there at the hospital with his mother all night and he really put up a fight.”

One of the teachers also present said she could not believe what she was hearing. “We had just made these kids feel better and this guy comes in and makes them think their friend struggled to live and lost his fight.” And others had comments. Students questioned their teachers as to why they had been told Al died quickly. Any faculty or staff who was in the room and willing to speak all did so anonymously because of a fear of retribution by school administration or the DoE itself.

“To say that happened," said Manning, "is absolutely incredulous. I can’t imagine why anyone would say anything like that." But Manning admits she was not even in the room when the statements allegedly took place.

According to the official death certificate issued, Al-Haarith was pronounced Dead on Arrival (DOA) Jamaica Hospital at 4:11 p.m. There was no fight by Al-Haarith at the hospital. Aaishah explained, “he died of Sudden Cardiac Death (SCD). He was dead before he got there,” said Aaishah, “He did not die in the hospital…he was dead at that school.”

“As a mom my thing was if he was in pain. Did he hurt? I have to explain to my children what happened.”

The cause of death is still listed as pending the autopsy results, however Aaishah says the medical examiner explained it would be listed as natural causes because it was a cardiac incident. She also said she was told at the hospital that his heart had never started again and that he never had a pulse. How could he fight? That boy was out before twenty seconds. His friend told me he clutched his chest, gasped and went right down to the ground.”

As we go to press, The Forum was waiting for a call back from the press office at the Department of Education to identify the man who allegedly fabricated the facts about what occurred at the hospital. A reply is also being sought from the DOE as to why the principal sent a letter home to parents and guardians saying that Al-Haarith died in the hospital.

“I can’t bring my son back. But I can find out if everything that should have been done to save him was done. I have another child in this school. Although this is a rare occurrence, I never want to hear about another mother that has to face the death of their child.”

In the weeks to come The Forum will continue to follow this story with reports and developments. Next week we will examine the differences between the two types of ambulances that respond to 911 calls and how the units dispatched and the response times have been affected, if at all, by the recent loss of ambulance tours with the closure of two Queens hospitals.

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