Wednesday, August 12, 1998
Macon, Georgia

Macon boy, 3, collapses at school, dies at hospital

By Matthew I Pinzur and Michael Cass

Antoine Ortega was born far too early, and he died the same way Tuesday during his second day at a Bibb County School.

The boy, born three months prematurely, breathed through a trachea tube in this throat. The tube dislodged during recess at the Butler Pre-K Center about 11am, police said, and the boy - who would have turned 4 on Friday - began to suffocate.

Teachers rushed him inside for treatment and called an ambulance, but he died about noon, shortly after arriving at The Medical Center of Central Georgia.

Antoine was playing alone, and there was no one nearby who could have disturbed the tube, police and school officials said.

"It's really sad, but sometimes God calls them." Said Macom police detective Lt. Jimmy Barbee.

Bibb County school system spokesman Laurence Mink said the boy's teacher, Gloria R. Johnson, saw nothing unusual while Antoine and his classmates played.

"We have talked to the teacher, and she has assured us that the child was always in her sight, and at no time did anyone pull the tube out," Mink said.

Efforts Tuesday night to reach Johnson were unsuccessful.

When Johnson saw that Antoine was having trouble breathing, she rushed to his side, Barbee said. He climbed down from playground equipment on his own but then collapsed. Johnson carried the boy inside, where a physical therapist began treating him while paramedics were called, police said.

The breathing tube had been displaced, but it was not hanging out, police side. School therapists could not reinsert the tube, but paramedics evidently did, because it was back in place when the child arrived at the Medical Center, Barbee said.

What is still not clear is exactly how the tube became dislodged. Antoine's father Eduardo Ortega, said his son knew not to lay with the tube, know how to clear it out if it clogged and know how to get help from an adult if he couldn't help himself. The tube had never shaken loose before, he said.

"He'll fall, trip, slide and every thing, and the trach won't come out," Ortega said. "It only comes out when someone takes it out." 

Ortega said a school representative called him and his wife Monday, after Antoine's first day. School workers were concerned about a classmate who was fascinated by the tube, and they wanted to reassure the parents that they would keep the two separated.

Barbee said that was exactly what happened, and the classmate was nowhere near Antoine.

Macon police detective Capt. Henry Gibson agreed, saying police had no reason to believe there was any foul play. 

"This is not a criminal case," he said." "There's no crime here as far as we can see."

Police are required to investigate the death of any child younger that 18.

And although Bibb County Coroner Ed Bond said he doesn't anticipate an inquest, he will schedule one if the family, a physician or court asks for it.

The Butler Center services 84 children, including 50 with special needs. Mink said he didn't know how many children were at recess Tuesday afternoon, but he said the center's staff is "well-trained to deal with emergencies."

A woman who answered the phone Tuesday afternoon at the Butler Center referred calls to Mink.

Ortega and his wife, Cassandra, want to know how such a tragedy could happen at a school designed for young children with disabilities.

"They're supposed to be trained," he said, "They don't do their job right."

Bond, though, said the boy got "very immediate help," including CPR. 

But members of the Ortega family, shattered by Antoine's death, are convinced that someone must be to blame.

"They didn't take care of him and now he's gone," Helen Smith, Antoine's grandmother, said between sobs.

His father said that boy favored sausage pizza and the children's show "Blue's Clues." But most importantly, he was full of love.

"The first thing he'd do when you came in the door is give you a hug or a kiss. He left me with a broken space in my heart." 

The boy weighed just 2 pounds, 13 ounces at birth. He was kept alive during summer 1994 with a ventilator, which left his trachea clogged with scar tissue.

As he got older, his trachea would have grown with the rest of his young body. When it got wide enough, he could have learned to breathe normally.

Now his parents realize that day will never come. The bed he shared with them every night will seem a little bit larger, but a lot more empty.

"I guess we'll be sleeping by ourselves tonight," Ortega said.

This terrible incident illustrates how vital it is for a child with a tracheostomy to have a 1:1 nurse (or at least a trained individual) with them at all times.

The article focuses mostly on why the trach tube came out.  However, whether it was pulled out by the child or another child, or got caught on some playground equipment is not the issue.  Trach tubes can accidentally come out.  This is not necessarily an emergency situation, unless the adult caring for the child is not adequately trained or does not have the necessary equipment on hand.

Please be sure that your child with a trach is safe at school, at home and anywhere else they may go 24-7.