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Mom of student at Ontario school for blind recalls events leading to teen’s death as inquest begins

With her voice breaking, Andrea Brown told an inquest her son Samuel was fine when she dropped him off at W. Ross Macdonald School for the Blind in Brantford, Ont., in February 2018, but was told days later he was pronounced dead in hospital and an inquest wasn’t needed because “he was a kid with a disability.” 

Brown was the first of 13 expected witnesses at the 10-day inquest that began Monday. Samuel died overnight at Brantford General Hospital on Feb. 9, 2018.

“Samuel was loved and Samuel enjoyed life,” Brown testified.  

The 18-year-old deaf, blind and non-verbal student had been attending W. Ross Macdonald School for the Blind since he was four.  

His family lives in Brampton, Ont. 

Brown testified she had been seeking an inquest for five years because it’s “what is right” and she wants questions answered about her son’s sudden death. 

“When the doctor suggested that we don’t have to do [an autopsy], then it pushed me further to believe we needed to do this,” she said. 

Brown answered questions from inquest counsel Maria Stevens, Ministry of Education counsel Roseanna Ansell-Vaughan and Saron Gebresellassi, the family’s counsel, about Samuel’s health, the care he needed and events leading up to his death.

Stevens told the inquest Samuel was diagnosed with chromosome 6q deletion, developmental delay and deaf-blindness.

Brown said he used a wheelchair most of the time due to him having limited mobility and scoliosis — an  abnormal lateral curvature of the spine that’s often diagnosed in childhood or early adolescence. 

Samuel had to be fed pureed food only and thick juices. He was also said to have experienced aspiration pneumonia a few times, but wasn’t a “sickly” child, according to his mother.

The inquest will examine the circumstances surrounding the death, look at the heightened risks he faced when it came to food and liquid entering his airway, explore safeguards to respond to those risks, and analyze the school’s policies for students with barriers to communicating their needs and symptoms.

He was ‘normal Samuel’ that week, mom recalls

Brown recalled that Samuel would stay at the school overnight from Sunday to Friday and spend the weekends at home with his family.

Brown said that when she dropped Samuel off on Sunday, Feb. 4, he was fine: “The normal Samuel.”

On Thursday evening, she said, she received a call from a male staff member saying Samuel didn’t get up for his supper. When Brown asked if her son was well, she was told he was “agitated and fussy” earlier before going to his bed.

Are you telling me that my son is not with us anymore?– Andrea Brown, Samuel’s mother

Brown said she didn’t know Samuel was unwell then and recalled jokingly telling the staff member maybe they were “working him too hard, that’s why he didn’t get up.”

Stevens told the inquest Samuel had not been feeling well earlier that day, Feb. 8, and was taken to student health services at 12:20 p.m. ET, but had no fever or coughing.

“During a second visit to student health services at 7 p.m., he has a temperature, 30 C, and is given Tylenol,” Stevens said, recalling the reporting that night. 

“The nurse noted chest is clear, breathing is shallow and there’s clear nasal discharge.”

Samuel’s temperature rose to 36.7 C at around 1 a.m., according to Stevens, and was found unresponsive at 6 a.m. and then taken to hospital.

Meanwhile, Brown had called back to ask about her son, but got no answer or callback after leaving a message.

In the morning, on Feb. 9, someone from the school told her that when they went to wake Samuel up, he had been unresponsive. The staffer asked her to come to Brantford General Hospital, around 100 kilometres away from where Brown lived.

Brown said that when staff offered to get her and her husband a taxi to the hospital, she asked, “‘Is this more serious than you’re telling me?'”

The staffer then told her, “‘Mrs. Brown, I said when we went to wake [Samuel] up this morning he was unresponsive.'”

“I, in turn, said, ‘Are you telling me that my son is not with us anymore?'” Brown recalled. The staffer confirmed his death and Brown said she started “bawling.”

Mother told to ‘remember he was a kid with a disability’ 

Brown wiped her cheek with her hand as she spoke Monday about seeing her son at the hospital the next day.

She had asked why an ambulance wasn’t sent earlier to attend to her son that night. Brown said the coroner told her “it must have been too cold” for medical teams to visit Samuel earlier.

She said the coroner said an autopsy wasn’t needed, telling her she “‘must remember he was a kid with a disability.'”

“I said, ‘Yes I remember that because I was the one who gave birth to him,'” she said.

The Browns previously said the investigating coroner produced a report saying their son had died of natural causes. In an attempt to get more answers, the family pushed for an autopsy, which was eventually carried out and concluded that Samuel died of pneumonia — a finding his mother said only deepened the family’s confusion. 

Stevens said an area the inquest will explore is how cause of death statements are framed when disability is a factor.

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