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Allergic Girl’s Death: “Everything Went Wrong”

[1]Sylvain Lefort can’t get the scene out of his mind. It is the evening of September 16, 2010. One moment, he is with other parents, sitting at a desk in a Montreal classroom as his daughter’s Grade 1 teacher reviews how the first few weeks of school have gone.

The next, he is racing down a nondescript hallway to an office where 6-year-old Megann lies, unmoving. Her skin is white and her lips, dark blue.

“There was nothing, none of that spark. She died before my eyes,” he says.

Now, more than a year after Megann Ayotte Lefort’s death, the child’s father is determined to make sure that something similar does not happen to any other child.

Lefort is angry that Quebec doesn’t have mandatory school procedures to ensure that teachers and other school staff are trained and ready to deal with asthma and anaphylaxis emergencies. And he is upset that the only party singled out in a coroner’s report about Megann’s death, which was recently released, was the Montreal fire department. (This is because there had been a failure that night to check that a piece of equipment on the fire truck – a pediatric ventilator – was working.)

For Lefort, the findings in Coroner Hélène Lord’s report are not enough. To him, the decision to not even mention the school’s anaphylaxis and asthma protocols, never mind to ask for a review of the staff’s knowledge of emergency procedures and the use of life-saving tools like the epinephrine auto-injector, seems tantamount to saying that what happened was OK.

“She could have lived,” says Lefort who, in the emotional aftermath of Megann’s death lost his job a caretaker at a condo building and has been making ends meet by working at a car wash. “The school was well aware of Megann’s allergies (to dairy products) and her asthma. There was a ventilator always on hand. I’m sure there was an EpiPen. Everything about that night was wrong. Everything.”

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No one disputes that his daughter had a history of severe asthma and anaphylaxis to dairy. Megann’s asthma triggers included molds, cats and cigarette smoke; when she was younger, she had been hospitalized 13 times for severe bronchospasm – as the coroner’s report notes.

Lefort says he read in the police and coroner’s reports that: his daughter had complained of chest pains in the weeks before her death and that Josée Ayotte, Megann’s mother, had chalked that up to pressure from going back to school. Megann had already had two doses of Ventolin that day for her asthma and had merely nibbled on a submarine sandwich her mom bought for her for supper before dropping her off at 6:15 p.m. at the school’s daycare.

Next Page: Many Questions Arise


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[3]He knows that one of the two teachers in charge at the daycare claims to have pointed out to Ayotte red blotches on Megann’s face (the suggestion is that these might be allergic hives as she came through the door). But he finds those claims, which Megann’s mother disputes, self-serving and wrong.

Around 6:20 p.m., the coroner writes that the little girl began to cry and ask for her father. Unable to calm her, the teachers sat her down with the other children to watch  a movie. She began to have breathing problems and called out for her mother. Around 6:40 – 25 minutes after Megann first began to cry – the teachers gave her two doses of Ventolin from her asthma inhaler. That didn’t work. About 20 minutes later, they brought her into an office to try to calm her but that didn’t work, either.

Five minutes later – about 45 minutes after the little girl began to show signs of distress – one of the teachers went to find her parents.

“She came into the classroom and said, ‘Excuse me, but I believe your daughter isn’t breathing,’” recalls Lefort. When the couple, who have been estranged since before their daughter was born, got to the office, Ayotte tried to give her another dose of Ventolin and cried out for someone to call 911.

Firefighters were first on the scene and began cardio-pulmonary resuscitation. But, as the coroner noted, their pediatric ventilator wasn’t working; although paramedics managed to revive her enough to rush her to the emergency department of a local hospital, little Megann was pronounced dead at 8:20 p.m.

The tragedy raises all sorts of questions, including why 911 wasn’t called earlier and whether or not there was an epinephrine auto-injector on site (Lefort says there was) in case the breathing issues the girl was having were a sign of anaphylaxis, related to the food she’d eaten. Nor is it clear what kind of training and reinforcement staff at Sainte-Germaine-Cousin school have had to deal with such emergencies.

Right now, it doesn’t look like there are to be any easy answers. School principal Caroline Petrucci said she cannot comment on the case and referred Allergic Living to Christiane St. Onge, an official with the local school board.

For her part, St. Onge maintains that no definitive reason was given for Megann’s death, despite the coroner’s conclusion that it was from a severe anaphylactic and/or asthmatic reaction. She noted that the school was officially closed for the night, that its daycare had been specially opened to accommodate parents who couldn’t afford child care during the parent-teacher meetings.

“The parents were on the premises,” she said. “They made the decisions. (Megann’s care) was not managed by the school.”

When it was pointed out that the timeline in the coroner’s report doesn’t have Lefort and Ayotte being informed of their daughter’s situation until about 40 minutes have passed, she repeated that they were on the premises.

Next Page: Need Seen for a School Law

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Karen Eck, who heads the Ottawa Anaphylaxis Support Group and has two children at risk of anaphylaxis in school in Quebec’s Gatineau region, says it all makes her want to go see her sons’ teachers to review how they would act if faced with a student having a possible anaphylactic or asthmatic episode.

“I’ve heard enough stories all across Canada where the people in charge are hesitant to follow procedures in place,” she says from her home. “People need to know there is a whole range of symptoms and you don’t wait to see major ones. You act.”

Education is key, Eck stresses. Continuing education reinforces the lesson that you shouldn’t hesitate to inject a food-allergic child with an epinephrine auto-injector at the slightest sign of a problem – since even a few minutes can mean the difference between life and death.

Diane Dubord, the new managing director of the Quebec Food Allergies Association, did not want to comment about Megann’s case in particular because the first she heard of it was from a story in La Presse, the Montreal newspaper. But she did say that her mandate is to push the provincial government to make it mandatory for all schools and daycares to have asthma and anaphylaxis action plans in place, much like Sabrina’s Law in Ontario. That legislation is named for 13-year-old Sabrina Shannon, a girl who had a fatal anaphylactic reaction at her high school in 2003.

“Right now, there’s a protocol [in Quebec] but it’s not obligatory,” she says. “We need to get the government on side. There was a tragic outcome in Megann’s case. If the government does not budge, if someone else has to die – well, we have our work cut out for us.”

Meantime, Lefort is a bereft father obsessed. He is scheduled to meet with a lawyer to discuss a lawsuit and he wants the public to know that Megann had two parents who loved her very much. Even though he can’t bring back the smiling little girl he was teaching to play soccer, he wants to prevent something like this from ever happening again.

“In my head, I have so many questions and no one has answered them,” he says. “That’s what I find hardest.”

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