Concern lingers over child's death Officials attempt to quell parents' fears

March 05, 1998|By Erika D. Peterman | Erika D. Peterman,SUN STAFF

It's a scenario no parent wants to face: When your young child's friend or classmate dies, how do you help the child sort through the confusion and sadness that follow?

Like many parents with children at Worthington Elementary School in Ellicott City, Sandra Caffes wondered how her son, Jamie, would react to the news that his second-grade classmate, 8-year-old Steven Chilton, died over the weekend. But thanks in part to the intervention of school counselors, she said, Jamie seemed to be fine.

"I think the crisis team handled it very well. I don't think he had an abundance of questions," Caffes said. "I think, basically, children are very resilient."

Students, teachers and parents still are grappling with Steven's sudden death Sunday night, which doctors believe resulted from a strep infection or a meningococcal infection, which can lead to meningitis.

As doctors wait for the final test results, school officials are trying to address parents' lingering health concerns.

Last night, about 50 Worthington parents met for more than an hour with school staff and Howard County Health Department officials, including Dr. Willa Brown, director of the department's Bureau of Personal Health. Parents wanted to know how to keep their children from getting similar illnesses and what precautions the school was taking to protect students.

Though health officials expect to learn conclusive test results soon, they said it is possible they may never know what specifically killed Steven because the bacterium may not be present in the blood sample being tested.

Some parents asked why the school did not shut down after getting word of the fatal illness. But literature given to parents points out that many healthy people carry the meningococci in their noses and throats and can spread the germ to other people. It is not known why the bacterium makes some people ill and not others.

Steven was reported healthy at school on Friday, but on Saturday he was feeling ill, officials said last night.

Earlier yesterday, Worthington Principal Fran Donaldson said a number of children at the school have been put on medication by their physicians as a preventive measure. Though parents are still concerned, the number of telephone calls to the school has abated since Tuesday, she said.

"They're not calling like they did [Tuesday]," Donaldson said. "I know a number are still concerned."

Dr. Brown said parents should be aware of any symptoms that could be indicators of the meningococcus bacterium, such as high fever; nausea and vomiting; severe headache; stiffness and NTC pain in the neck, shoulders and back; and skin rashes. If the child develops a fever, parents should consult with a doctor, she said.

"You cover the things you can cover and you watch out for the worst case," Brown said.

Underlying the health concerns is the dilemma of talking with young children about death. School psychologists and crisis counselors have advised parents to let their children talk about their feelings and assure them that crying or feeling sad are acceptable. When a peer dies, it is also natural for children to wonder whether something will happen to them as well, child experts say.

Steven's schoolmates continue to miss and talk about him, and it will take some time for them to deal with his death, Donaldson said. The students have been talking about a way to permanently remember their young friend.

Pub Date: 3/05/98

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