One year later: Mother weighed down by questions surrounding son’s death

By: Jessica Strachan | Southfield Sun | Published October 8, 2013

SOUTHFIELD — The charisma faded from her home when Southfield resident Danielle Joe’s only son gasped for his final breath this time last year.

As the one-year anniversary of Xavier’s death passed at the end of September, his mother and 18-year-old sister continue to live in their Oxley Street apartment, where he died as they waited for EMS to arrive while he suffered an acute asthma attack.

In the home, questions linger, as does the memory of a vibrant little boy.

“The house is very different now. … We notice the change every day,” Danielle said just days after she and her family gathered for dinner and to release balloons to the sky with pictures and messages of love to Xavier. “I’m going through the motions, where each day he would have come to me and given me hugs and kisses. It’s been very hard, very different.”

Xavier died Sept. 23, 2012, when he had an asthma attack that wouldn’t subside with his normal routine of treatments. Danielle decided it was urgent enough to call 911 — something she had to do one other time in his life.

“I was put on hold (with the dispatcher); she came back and said, ‘I’m sorry, ma’am. We cannot find an EMS for your son,’” Danielle said, adding that she was placed on hold for several minutes, transferred to different dspatchers and was forced to call back when a unit didn’t arrive after several more minutes passed.

She had resolved to drive him to the hospital with a neighbor, she added, when her son suddenly lost consciousness. Danielle said the details of the last minutes of Xavier’s life are unclear for her, but that her call was placed at 8:15 p.m. and it was approximately 8:35-8:40 p.m. before EMS arrived to find a neighbor performing CPR on Xavier.

He was never resuscitated, according to Danielle, and was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Searching for answers

After the 2012 incident, Southfield Fire Chief Keith Rowley told several media outlets that the department’s units were tied up with a house fire during the time of Xavier’s emergency. He said the average response time for the department is four minutes, though it “took closer to 15 minutes” in Xavier’s case. 

Rowley said an internal investigation would follow, but Danielle said she hasn’t heard anything back.

“It’s been very emotional, tiring and draining for me because I really want to know what happened and why there was a failure with getting the proper help for my son,” she said. “It’s been very hard getting any kind of closure for me and my family.”

When asked if an internal investigation was carried out, Rowley said, “I can’t comment on this at all. I hope they do really well and everything works out really well for the mom, but because of the litigation, I can’t comment.”

As of press time, a lawsuit had not been filed by Danielle, though she has been seeking legal counsel, she said.

Danielle has enlisted the help of Southfield resident LaShawn Young, a licensed paramedic for a private company in southeastern Michigan, who reached out to Danielle last year after hearing about her tragedy on Facebook.

“With my fire and EMS background, I wanted to help out as best as I could. What I’ve been doing is working with Danielle to piece together the puzzle and find out what went wrong so this doesn’t happen to anyone else’s child,” Young said. “I believe this was a complete breakdown of EMS as we know it, and I’ve spent the last year trying to pull together the information. … But everyone seems to be dragging in getting the information, making excuses and just pointing fingers.”

As far as how long it actually took EMS to arrive that day and the extent to which protocol was followed, those details remain unclear.

Danielle and Young say they’ve obtained public records by using the Freedom of Information Act, but they added that it’s still hard to decipher the exact number of minutes that passed between Danielle’s first 911 call to when a unit arrived.

When it comes to protocol in emergency situations, Rowley said Southfield has four life support units: one designated to each corner of the city. When needed, a unit from a different quadrant will respond to an emergency in another part of the city, and if no other units are available, the city has contracts with a private ambulance company, he explained.

He said he could not comment on how many of the four city units were at the house fire the evening of Sept. 23 ­ — unavailable to assist Xavier — but according to Danielle, it was one Southfield ambulance that arrived at her home.

Young said dispatch logs show that a private ambulance was called at one point, but then canceled.

According to Lt. Nick Loussia of the Southfield Police Department, all police officers are also trained in first aid and can respond to emergency situations, if they are in the area.

Protocol dictates that dispatching an officer to a medical situation is determined on a case-by-case basis; if it is a medical emergency, paramedics — not officers — will typically be sent, he said, unless the emergency was in some way caused by, or related to, a criminal act. 

Danielle said Southfield police officers did not arrive to the scene.

She said that among the most disappointing things in coping with her loss is that no one has apologized for her son’s death — which she believes could have been avoided — or claimed any portion of the responsibility.

“My main goal is to find out what happened that night, and my second goal is to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else,” she said.

Southfield Mayor Brenda Lawrence did reach out to extend her personal condolences after the incident, saying a mother losing her son impelled her to pay a personal visit. Lawrence mentioned an internal investigation taking place, but did not have an official comment for this report. 

One unforgettable boy

The community has rallied around Danielle, keeping the memory of the fifth-grader alive and well. 

“They have really been my rock this past year,” Danielle said about the students and staff at Pepper Elementary School in Oak Park. “They are constantly reaching out to me. It’s been very hard on them, too, because Xavier had a lot of friends and was loved by the staff, as well.”

She said they check in on her, allow her to come in for special student programs and even made a Christmas collage of Xavier’s classmates with the inscription, “We love Xavier.”

“They’ve written me letters, letting me know things they used to do with Xavier. Some things I knew — other things I didn’t know about,” she said with a laugh. “He really was a special boy.”

Danielle described Xavier as an outgoing person who would “grab you the moment you meet him.” He loved to sing and dance, she said, and was captivated by Michael Jackson’s music.

He was a kid that loved to study; an honor student with his eyes set on Harvard University and his mind set on being a lawyer. He started reading at age 3 and began learning Mandarin in kindergarten, she added.

A lot of time at home was spent researching with his big sister and enthusiastically playing video games, which was a favorite activity for him. Danielle said a few games purposely left out in the house serve as a now-silent reminder of his passion.

She will remember her son as a kind, giving boy, saying he always helped those in need, she explained. Even in the month before he died, he donated all of his allowance to the homelessness charity of singer KEM.

“He loved to help others in need,” she said. “He was someone that, if you meet him one time, you will never forget him.”

Even at the age of 10, Xavier’s kindness stretched beyond those who met him.

“Xavier had expressed to me that if he were to die, he wanted to donate his organs to help save someone else’s life,” Danielle said. “I honored his wishes.”