Editor’s Note: This Sunday New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote about Rory Staunton, the son of Irish immigrants and nephew of IrishCentral founder Niall O’Dowd, who died in a New York hospital after a tragic misdiagnosis.
Here is her column.
"The Boy Who Wanted to Fly"
Rory Staunton was always looking up.
As soon as he could walk, he wanted to fly. The exuberant freckle-faced redhead from Sunnyside, Queens, yearned to be up in the romantic night sky where, as the French pilot and poet Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote, the stars are laughing.
His parents told him he’d have to wait until he was 16 to take flying lessons. But it’s hard to tell a determined 5-foot-9, 169-pound 12-year-old what to do.
He dreamed of being the next Captain Sullenberger, practicing on a flight simulator on his computer and studying global routes. He read and reread Sully’s memoir, thrilled to learn that the flier’s hair had once been red. He found a Long Island aviation school that would teach 12-year-olds.
On his 12th birthday, his parents shuddered and let Rory fly with an instructor.
How could you resist that sweet Irish face? Sure, Rory drove his parents nuts, sneaking downstairs late at night to gorge on episodes of “Family Guy,” and pretending to do his homework when he was really devouring political stories in The Times.
“He wasn’t the kid who looked at porn online, he looked at CNN online,” said his uncle, Niall O’Dowd, my friend who publishes several Irish publications in New York.
Rory protected underdogs against schoolyard bullies. He revered Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. And at the Garden School in Jackson Heights, he led a campaign to curb the thoughtless use of the word “retarded.”
“The last conversation I had with him, he got right in the face of my brother, Fergus, the government minister in Ireland with the mining portfolio, about fracking,” Niall recalled. “And he wrote the Swedish ambassador to North Korea asking for an explanation about why North Korea fed their big army while their people were dying of hunger.”
Rory was so roaring with life, it was impossible to believe how quickly life drained out of him. On Wednesday, March 28, he fell while playing in the school gym and scraped his elbow, opening a cut. As Dr. Jerome Groopman wrote in The New Yorker in 2008, the most aggressive superbug bacteria often lurk in gyms and on artificial turf.
The following Sunday, Rory died of septic shock from a strep infection, his parents curled around his body in the hospital bed.
Orlaith and Ciaran Staunton are Irish immigrants who embodied the American dream. Ciaran owns O’Neill’s bar on Third Avenue, where Rory made his first visit at 3 days old, and the Molly Blooms pub in Queens.
Every parent’s nightmare unfolded at warp speed, as the Web site Everyday Health reported and as Jim Dwyer heartbreakingly revealed in Thursday’s Times. Rory might have been saved by a swift dose of antibiotics but instead perished in a perfect storm of false assumptions, overlooked data and overburdened doctors.
Despite the cut, severe leg pain, blotchy skin and other clues pointing to sepsis, Rory’s pediatrician surmised that the vomiting, 102-degree fever, 140 pulse and 36 breaths a minute spelled a stomach bug and sent him to the NYU Langone Medical Center emergency room. Doctors there discharged Rory with an antinausea drug, even though his vital signs were alarming. The lab tests that were ordered came back three hours later showing abnormal production of white blood cells, a sign that infection could be raging, but that red flag was ignored.
“Nobody said anything that night,” his mother told Dwyer. “None of you followed up the next day on that kid, and he’s at home, dying on the couch?”
By Friday, Rory’s body was covered with blue streaks, and a touch made him scream. When Ciaran reached the pediatrician, she advised going back to the E.R. Rory was put in intensive care, where doctors valiantly tried to save his life, even suggesting amputating his nose and toes. But he was turning purple and black.
“For anyone that has carried their son’s or daughter’s coffin, it’s unnatural,” Ciaran told Sean O’Rourke on Friday on RTE, the Irish radio network. “A child who loses a parent becomes an orphan. If a man and wife lose each other, they become widow or widower. It’s so unnatural, there isn’t even a word for families who lose a child.”
Rory’s idol, Sully Sullenberger, was touched and left a message on the child’s tribute page. The hero of the Hudson is now an advocate for applying “lessons learned in blood” in aviation safety to patient safety.
“If something good comes from Rory’s death, it will be that we realize we have a broken system,” he told me. “Patient care is so fragmented. For the most part, medical professionals aren’t taught these human skills that some deride as ‘soft skills.’ So there’s insufficient sharing of information and ineffective communication.
“Some in the medical field look upon these deaths as an unavoidable consequence of giving care. But they’re inexcusable and unthinkable.”
Rory is up there now, with the laughing stars. But even before he got to heaven, he knew, as Saint-Exupéry wrote, that “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on July 15, 2012, on page SR11 of the New York edition with the headline: The Boy Who Wanted to Fly.