FraserJuly 10, 2012
Five months after a Fraser teen’s death, her family and friends reflect
By Nico Rubello
C & G Staff Writer
FRASER — Walking into the hospital, toward the emergency room where her daughter was, the thought never even crossed Barb Arwood’s mind.
Maybe her daughter, Sharon, a Richards Middle School eighth-grader, had fainted at school. She was probably embarrassed. “Don’t let her be embarrassed. Don’t let her be embarrassed,” she prayed.
But dead? The thought didn’t occur to her until she got to the emergency room and saw her son, Derek, Sharon’s older brother, walk out and fall to his knees in the hallway.
“She’s gone,” he said.
After passing through a shield of police officers and nurses, she saw Sharon, 13, lying in a hospital bed. She opened her daughter’s eyes, praying, “Please, God. Please, God. This is not happening.”
The time of death: 2:02 p.m. on Feb. 2, 2012.
Only an hour earlier, Sharon had collapsed while running in her gym class at Richards Middle School in Fraser. Paramedics were on the scene in minutes and rushed her by ambulance to McLaren Medical Center in Mount Clemens.
Faith, family and community
News of Sharon’s passing spread quickly throughout the Fraser community, and an outpouring of support was organized literally overnight.
At school the next day, classmates wore purple, her favorite color. Some made signs and banners in her memory. Condolence letters from her classmates and food from their parents reached the Arwoods’ home.
“The way the students came together was absolutely amazing,” said Richards Middle School Assistant Principal Kris Robinson. “They looked for any way they could reach out and help a friend. If they didn’t know that person real well, it didn’t matter. (If) someone was upset in the hall, there was an arm for that person to lean on. And even in the coming weeks, the kids continued to step up.”
For Barb Arwood, it soon became clear that her faith was going to play a strong role in healing, she said. Talking to her mother, who lives in Guam, for the first time over the phone, her mother urged her, “Now is your time to have faith.”
“I said, ‘Mom, I always have faith,” Barb recalled. “She said, ‘No, now is your time to trust God. Ask God what to do.’”
That night, friends came over to the house and sat with the Arwoods until the early morning hours. Barb didn’t sleep a wink that night.
The next morning, Friday, Feb. 3, she went to St. Athanasius Catholic Church in Roseville, where she spoke with Father Ron Victor. Walking out of the church afterward, a feeling whooshed over her that the whole thing was in the hands of a higher power, she said.
That night, a standing-room-only crowd from the Fraser area filled St. Athanasius Catholic Church in Roseville for a candlelight vigil. They shared hugs, condolences, tears and laughs together while remembering Sharon’s kind heart and contagious smile.
To those who knew her, Sharon could be a quiet girl who hated to be the center of attention, yet was still friendly and sociable to everyone. She kept her room neat and was an A student. She liked taking bike rides, enjoyed spending time with her younger sister, Gloria, and cared for the pet rats she had gotten through Girl Scouts. She also took her Catholic faith seriously, participating in the youth group at St. Athanasius.
Jan Pazuchowski, St. Athanasius’ youth ministry coordinator, remembered Sharon’s dedication to collecting money and canned foods during the youth ministry’s annual collection drive for the needy.
“Being such a young age, it is phenomenal she had that kind of care for people who couldn’t afford it,” Pazuchowski said. “She was always friendly. Honestly, if there was someone who didn’t have a partner, she would volunteer to be their partner. She always looked to the underdog like that.”
“She touched people from every different level. She was friendly with everybody,” she added. “You knew you were accepted by her because she would just smile at you.”
Samantha Russo, a classmate and friend, remembers the good times she had with Sharon: the talks and morning carpool to school, the long bike rides and going swimming. Walking across the pedestrian bridge together, they would stop and wait for the big breeze that followed after a truck passed below.
“Whenever I was with her, I never stopped smiling,” Russo said. “I don’t even remember a time when she wasn’t smiling.”
And even if Sharon was talking about something important, she would follow it up with a joke or quirky statement to end with a smile or laugh, said Samantha’s mother, Kim Russo.
The last time Barb Arwood spoke to Sharon alive, she hugged her and waved her off to school with the promise of chicken tenders for dinner that night.
“That’s what I remember — waving and saying, ‘I love you,’” she said.
Hours later, a police detective was calling her on her cellphone, requesting that she come to the hospital immediately.
“Is she OK? Is she OK?” Barb asked.
He didn’t answer.
From a physical standpoint at least, Sharon seemed in almost every way to be a normal 13-year-old girl, from her French braid to the blue polish on her toenails — both noted in the medical examiner’s autopsy.
The cause of death, the autopsy concluded, was most likely a ventricular cardiac arrhythmia, an over-firing of the electrical system in the heart’s lower chambers, which had caused “sudden cardiac death.” In other words, there were no structural abnormalities, but a hereditary, underlying heart condition was likely to blame.
Like most people, Barb Arwood hadn’t given much thought to cardiac health prior to Sharon’s death. Sharon had passed annual sports physicals with flying colors, and in the past, she had played volleyball. There was just no warning, she said.
Now, Barb has many unanswered questions.
“I want to know how often this is happening; how many kids it’s affecting,” she said. “By next year, on (the anniversary of Sharon’s death), I hope to have a lot more answers.”
According to the Michigan Department of Community Health, there were 3,134 sudden cardiac deaths between 1999 and 2009 among people ages 1 to 39 years old. Of that, 200, or 6.3 percent, occurred among children 14 years old or younger.
Dr. Lalitha Rudraiah, a cardiologist from Henry Ford Macomb Hospital, said electrocardiograms, or ECGs, may be used to detect an arrhythmia.
But nothing in medicine is 100 percent. Arrhythmias may not be present all the time, Rudraiah said, so an ECG may not detect one.
Arrhythmias like Sharon had unfortunately can be missed, as they have no warning signs, and the only presenting symptom was sudden cardiac death, she added.
Because she didn’t show any prior symptoms, like shortness of breath or fainting during exercise, for instance, there’s wasn’t any reason to get an ECG, Rudraiah said.
Now, doctors can recommend that her family members get a heart screening.
Even though ECGs may not work all the time, Rob Arwood said any available precaution is a good thing.
“You can’t be too careful,” he added.
While the Arwoods still have questions about the physical reasons for their daughter’s death, Barb Arwood said that from a spiritual standpoint at least, she is satisfied with a simple explanation: Her job on Earth was done.
“I just wish God would have told me when it was done,” Barb Arwood added. “I’m at peace with her death. … We know where she’s at.”
Out at St. John’s Memorial Gardens in Fraser, Sharon’s gravesite is an oasis of purple. She grins from a school picture positioned next to purple flowers.
Visiting the gravesite has become almost a daily affair for the Arwoods.
For Rob Arwood, the memories come frequently.
“I don’t know if it becomes any less frequent over the course of time, but it just kind of pops up when it pops up,” he said. “We were so much alike. … I miss talking to her. We liked the same things. … We both had the same kind of weird sense of humor.”
They both liked music, baseball, ice cream and the same kinds of comedy movies, he said.
And, he added, it’s difficult to deal with the thought that she died so young.
“I feel like I lost out on a lot of good years, a lot of good times,” Rob Arwood said. “This came completely out of the blue. It’s like getting hit by Mike Tyson. There’s no recovering from it.”
On June 5, a group of Richards Middle School students, teachers and administrators from Fraser Public Schools gathered on the school’s front lawn as the end-of-the-day hubbub cleared. School was nearly out for the summer.
The crowd swelled as the students were joined by Fraser Public Schools Superintendent Dave Richards, officials from Richards and other Fraser schools, pastors, police officers, paramedics, parents and the Arwoods, including Rob and Barb Arwood, Derek, younger sister Gloria, an aunt, and grandmother Sharon.
All gathered around a pink-leaved flowering crabapple tree that had recently been planted in Sharon’s memory.
At a time when most eighth-graders were celebrating the end of their middle school days, the event touched a note of somberness at Richards. Many students were teary-eyed. Some wore light purple shirts with Sharon’s picture and the phrase “An Angel in Disguise” printed on the front; it was Barb’s nickname for Sharon when she was born.
The students cried, but they also laughed when they shared fond memories of their classmate.
“She made those around her smile,” said one tearful girl.
Then the students put private messages to Sharon in a small, wooden box that was buried at the base of the tree.
“I think the big, driving force behind (the memorial) was that Sharon was just an important part of our building,” said Richards Principal Jessica Carrier. “She was our student. She was ingrained in our children’s lives. I don’t think we would have been able to end the year without doing something to commemorate her. I mean, she was such a positive impact on our student body.”
Barb Arwood also spoke at the memorial service.
“At the very second the Lord took Sharon home, for my family and for many of you, it was a very sad day. Today it’s a different story,” she told the crowd. “You at Richards Middle School, Sharon’s friends and the city of Fraser are here to tell me and my family that you will never forget my daughter, and we thank you for that.
“Thank you for taking time, because I know time is a very precious thing.”
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