Mother of girl who died from asthma attack: “We do not understand the dangers of air pollution”

Ella and her mother Rosamund. Pic: Rosamund Adoo Kissi-Debrah

The mother of a nine-year-old girl who died from a chronic asthma attack has said people still do not understand the dangers of air pollution.

In a heartfelt statement at the inquest today into the death of Ella Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, her mother, Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, told Southwark Coroner’s Court her daughter Ella was “a joy” and “the centre of our world”. 

Ella died in February 2013 aged just nine. In the three years before she died, Ella, an asthma sufferer sustained multiple seizures and was in hospital 27 times. An inquest is investigating whether illegal levels of air pollution in the family’s home borough of Lewisham may have contributed to her death.

Ella lived all her life about 25 metres from the South Circular road in Lewisham. Kissi-Debrah told the court there was permanent traffic by her house, and car fumes were a constant in Ella’s daily patterns of travel to and from her pre-school, primary school and extracurricular activities.

Walking Ella to school became a “process of elimination” to work out which routes exacerbated her asthma the least. Kissi-Debrah said gridlocked traffic meant there was no point sitting on a bus.

But in the seven years since her death, Kissi-Debrah thinks that people are still not aware of the dangers. “[The information] is there, but it is not getting to the people that it needs to be gotten to,” she said.

“Whenever there’s a spike in air pollution about 1,000 people go to hospital for heart attacks and asthma attacks. That tells me [local authorities] still do not understand how dangerous air pollution is.”

Despite her severe asthma, Ella was a healthy child who loved swimming gymnastics and playing musical instruments. She excelled at school and was “incredibly driven”, with dreams of becoming an RAF pilot, Kissi-Debrah said.

Ella’s diagnosis

Ella’s health problems began when she told her mother “I can’t walk anymore” when climbing the stairs of a monument during October half-term in 2010. 

The doctor gave Ella antibiotics and an asthma inhaler, but her condition deteriorated quickly. At just six years old, Ella had to be placed in a medically induced coma for three days to try and stabilise her condition.

“It got to the point we were just waiting for the next [seizure] to happen,” Kissi-Debrah said. By the summer of 2012, Ella was classified as disabled and her mother often had to carry her by piggyback.

Kissi-Debrah said that she and doctors were “looking in completely the wrong direction” for the cause of her daughter’s breathing difficulties at the time. There was “no rhyme or reason” for the episodes, she told the court.

Kissi-Debrah said “moving would have been the first thing” the family would have done if they had known the risks air pollution posed to Ella.

But her family had never even had the conversation about moving with doctors because they had not been informed of the dangers.

Ella’s final days

Ella was seen by consultants at six different hospitals in the years before her death, and was sleeping in her mother’s bed so she could help administer her asthma pump during the night.

She said that on one occasion Ella went “blue and really stiff” in the night and needed emergency resuscitation, but was discharged from hospital fewer than 24 hours later. “[The hospital] couldn’t explain it, it just didn’t make any sense,” Kissi-Debrah said.

Kissi-Debrah revealed the last thing she ever read to her daughter was extracts of Beethoven’s love letters as a Valentine’s Day treat. On the night of February 14, Kissi-Debrah said Ella was “screaming” as she left her with paramedics, as she got her other two children into the ambulance to go to the hospital.

Describing the efforts of doctors to resuscitate Ella on the night of her death, Kissi-Debrah broke down as she said: “They tried and they tried and they tried…the consultant came in and I begged her.” She died on February 15 2013.

No time to lose

Kissi-Debrah said environmentalists understood the problems of air pollution but among the general population, “there’s a lot of education to be had.” She is now aware of the many air pollution monitoring websites, but believes most parents are not. “There are 1.1 million children with asthma in this country, I am not convinced that if you did a survey with most of the parents that they would know about these websites.”

Measures introduced to improve air quality would have been too slow to help her daughter, Kissi-Debrah added. “People look at things in the long term, so they make decisions and say things like ‘this will improve the air in about six or 12 months,’” she said.

“What they do not realise is that if you have someone who is severely asthmatic, they do not have the time to wait.”

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