‘I can’t forgive the cruel bully who killed my son’: In her only interview, the mother of severely allergic boy, 13, who died after another pupil threw cheese at him shares her regret at not hugging him that day and telling him how much she loved him
- Rina Cheema said her son Karan, who died in July, 2017, was her ‘soulmate’
- She believes the boy who flicked the cheese should have been charged with manslaughter and punished
- The mother went to extraordinary lengths to protect her son from allergens
The last time Rina Cheema spoke to her son, he had just wolfed down the breakfast she had carefully prepared for him and was about to set off for school.
Karan, 13, stepped out of the front door of the family home calling out, ‘see you later!’
Rina was upstairs getting dressed for work and called back to say goodbye. It is one of her greatest regrets that she didn’t hug him that day and tell him how much she loved him.
Hours later, amid panic-stricken scenes at his nearby school, Year 8 pupil Karan collapsed after suffering a severe allergic reaction caused by a piece of cheese ‘flicked’ at him by another pupil. He died ten days later at Great Ormond Street Hospital.
Devoted: ‘Karan was full of life,’ Rina says. ‘And so, so precious to his family. I still can’t believe that he is gone’
‘How could something like this have happened at school?’ says Rina, speaking for the first time about Karan’s death in an exclusive interview with the Mail at the end of his inquest. ‘It’s the one place where he should have been safe.’
The 53-year-old divorced accountant is still reeling from the loss of her son in July 2017. Speaking for the first time of the tragic events leading up to her son’s collapse and of her feelings towards the pupil whose mindless actions ultimately led to the death of her only child, she describes Karan as ‘my soulmate’.
She is still struggling to comprehend how her world was ripped apart by a moment of childishness.
Karanbir Cheema, known as Karan, was 13 when he died in July 2017, 10 days after he fell unconscious after the cheese was flicked at his neck while on a break at his school in Greenford, West London
The cheese thrown at Karan, no bigger than half the size of a Post-It note, caused an ‘extraordinary reaction’ after coming into contact with his skin, one which an expert at the inquest described as ‘unprecedented’ in medical circles.
One of the most tense moments during the four-day hearing at St Pancras Coroner’s Court came when the boy, who is now 15 and cannot be identified, apologised while giving evidence from behind a curtain. ‘I just want to say that I didn’t mean any harm. I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what I did,’ he said.
But Rina cannot bring herself to forgive him.
She and Karan’s father, Amarjeet, divorced when their son was just six months old.Karan, she says, was ‘everything to me. As a mother, how can I forgive? Karan was my only child, my absolute world.
‘I’ve been left with nothing because of this boy’s sheer stupidity. He should have been charged with manslaughter and punished.’
At home in Perivale, West London, her son’s bedroom remains as it was when he left it that final morning, right down to the last dirty sock on the floor.
Aside from his chronic allergies, he was a normal teen, passionate about Manchester United and a fan of the Marvel Movies. He was funny and outgoing and loved making YouTube videos, including ones about his allergies.
It is the evenings and weekends, when she returns to a house full of memories, that hurt the most.
‘It’s the silence,’ she says. ‘Karan was full of life and always laughing. We were always talking and chatting or watching films together.
William Perkin Church of England High School in Greenford, West London, did not properly educate pupils about the ‘grave consequences’ of his allergies, according to Senior coroner Mary Hassell
‘He was adored by his cousins and his uncles and aunts. He was so, so precious to us. I still can’t believe that he is gone.’
Karan was just three months old when he first experienced an adverse reaction to cow’s milk. Aged two, he suffered a massive reaction to wheat after eating a Twiglet and went into anaphylactic shock but was saved by paramedics who administered two EpiPens (adrenaline injections to counter anaphylaxis).
‘I got him back that time,’ says Rina, who carried an emergency EpiPen in a bag for Karan from that moment on.
Over the years that followed she went to extraordinary lengths to manage her son’s condition.
Karan suffered allergies to dairy, wheat, gluten, eggs and nuts and suffered from asthma and eczema. Rina took painstaking care over her son’s diet, using a separate grill, microwave and fridge for him. On their last morning together, she gave him specially prepared flapjacks and oat milk.
Karan was equally vigilant about what he ate and very vocal about the allergies he suffered.
‘It was the first thing he told anyone when he met them,’ says Rina. ‘Everyone at school knew about it. Whenever we went to restaurants he would ask to speak to the manager and explain his condition.
‘He was very confident like that. We never took any chances. One of his favourite treats was going to Nando’s for dinner and we never had any problems.’
As well as making sure she always carried an EpiPen, she gave one to the school, along with antihistamine medicine, a spare asthma pump and hydrocortisone cream, to be kept in a personal medical box in the school office.
Rina said: ‘I’ve been left with nothing because of this boy’s sheer stupidity. He should have been charged with manslaughter and punished’
‘I did everything I could to keep him safe,’ she says. ‘But you can’t be with your child all the time.’ She says she finds it hard to forgive her son’s school, William Perkin C of E, for not doing the same.
The events of that tragic day — June 28, 2017 — are etched in Rina’s mind, starting with an incident of childish stupidity, when a pupil eating a baguette gave a piece of cheese to another boy.
The boy, who had previously been reprimanded for throwing food at other pupils, then flicked the cheese at Karan. He said in court that he knew he was allergic to bread, but didn’t know about his dairy allergy. ‘I think it landed on the left side of his neck,’ he said. ‘Karan told me: ‘I’m allergic to cheese.’ I apologised after that.’
The student responsible was arrested on suspicion of attempted murder and interviewed by police but never faced charges and was later expelled from school.
He said he didn’t know that Karan’s allergies were ‘that serious’ and thought he would ‘get a rash or have a fever or something similar to that’ when he flicked the cheese at him.
Rina is deeply troubled by the account, not least because Karan was wearing a buttoned-up shirt and tie that day. She questions how a small piece of cheese could have caused such catastrophic damage if it had merely lightly touched his neck. Forensic tests conducted by the police revealed traces of cheese on Karan’s shirt collar. But a photo taken in hospital shows just how swollen his lips and tongue were.
She says a consultant paediatrician at Great Ormond Street told her that ‘never in her 30-year career had she seen someone suffer such a reaction just from being touched by a piece of cheese.’
Paediatric allergy consultant Dr Adam Fox told Karan’s inquest his reaction was ‘unprecedented’. Police who visited the hospital to swab Karan’s mouth for evidence were unable to get access because of all the tubes keeping him alive.
Immediately after the cheese was thrown at him, Karan approached a teacher on lunch duty and told him what had happened and that he was allergic to cheese. The incident was initially treated as a minor misdemeanour rather than a medical emergency.
Karan was told to fill out an incident form. Given his allergies, Rina is appalled that this little piece of bureaucracy was considered more important than checking that her son was physically well.
‘Valuable time was lost right from the start,’ she says. ‘Schools have a duty of care to their pupils and that is not being fully addressed.’ In the school welfare room, Karan was handed the form, but administrator Bonny Campbell, who was first-aid trained, soon became ‘alarmed’ about his symptoms and called in another staff member.
The first Rina knew of the crisis was when a staff member rang her mobile at 11.33am.
‘She asked if she could give Karan some Piriton because he’d come into contact with something he was allergic to. ‘I said, ‘yes, give it him.’ After the call ended, Rina immediately tried to call back.
‘My mother’s instinct told me something was wrong,’ she says. ‘The line was engaged. Then they called me and asked me to come straight to the school.’
From that moment, Karan deteriorated quickly. According to evidence, it took just under ten minutes for him to go from ‘absolutely fine’ to unconscious.
Rina is still tormented by the thought of Karan’s panic in his final conscious moments. He clawed at his neck so much he made his skin bleed. He ripped off his shirt, screamed and flung himself around the room. He thumped his chest with his fist while telling staff: ‘I’m going to die.’
She is furious, too, about the mistakes made. An ambulance was called but the crucial word ‘anaphylaxis’ was not mentioned. The EpiPen in Karan’s personal medical box was out of date, due to an administrative error by the school, and may have been less potent.
A senior paramedic thought Karan was having an asthma attack and wasn’t made aware of his allergy until they got to hospital.
The first EpiPen failed to take effect but while there were other pens in medical boxes belonging to other pupils, staff claimed they would not have given Karan one that belonged to another student for fear another child might be left without their own medication. Rina raced to the school to see four ambulances parked outside. When she walked in she saw her son lying on his back on a table, being given CPR by paramedics.
‘I felt this overwhelming sense of horror,’ she says. She insists that when she frantically asked what had happened, she was told, ‘someone put cheese on his face’.
She travelled with Karan in an ambulance to Northwick Park Hospital in Harrow where he was stabilised before being transferred that evening to Great Ormond Street.
Karan (pictured in a family photo) was also severely allergic to wheat, gluten, eggs and nuts and suffered from asthma and atopic eczema
Within days, Rina was told her son was brain dead. It took several more for her to accept that nothing could be done for him and to give her consent for his life support to be switched off. ‘I didn’t want to give up on him,’ she says. ‘I was desperately hoping something could be done. It was agony.’
Ever since that moment, she has questioned what might have been done to save him. At Karan’s inquest, coroner Mary Hassell asked the same, amid concerns about the way schools manage children with severe food allergies when the UK is facing some of the highest prevalence rates of allergic conditions in the world.
Karan was one of three children to collapse at school and subsequently die between 2016 and 2017, an alarming figure given that, on average, the total number of deaths per year of both adults and children across the entire country rarely rises above ten.
Nasar Ahmed, a 14-year-old pupil at Bow School in East London, suffered an anaphylactic reaction to tandoori chicken served for lunch in November 2017.
And in March 2018, nine-year-old Ismaeel Ashraf, who had a dairy allergy, collapsed and died after eating fish fingers and chips for lunch at his school.
Karan died just weeks after Mary Hassell, who also presided over Nasar Ahmed’s inquest, issued a ‘Prevention of Future Deaths’ report, warning other lives were at risk ‘unless action is taken’.
She will now issue another report, calling for standardised allergy action plans in schools and more national awareness of allergies and the necessity of administering EpiPens immediately.
The law changed in October 2017, allowing schools to buy in EpiPens to keep for emergency use, although they are not legally required to do so. Staff are allowed to administer the adrenaline injectors to any child who has been assessed as being at risk of anaphylaxis.
Giving a narrative verdict at the end of his inquest, the coroner criticised the healthcare provision at Karan’s school: ‘The care plan had never been considered by the school and it contained insufficient detail and instruction.’
A statement released yesterday by Twyford C of E Academies Trust said Karan’s death has ‘highlighted the significant challenges for school in managing students with the most severe medical needs.’
The school, which said it now holds two spare EpiPens, said there was ‘a lack of clarity and consistency in guidance provided to schools’.
Since Karan’s death, school nurses have been reinstated in the area’s secondary schools.
According to statistics released by Allergy UK, there was a 615 per cent increase in the rate of UK hospitalisations due to anaphylaxis in the 20 years to 2012.
The causes of the staggering increase are not fully understood but experts blame it on multiple factors including a trend for delaying weaning in babies and changes in gut bacteria resulting from over-zealous standards of hygiene.
Rina believes that until drastic action is taken by schools, the risk of future deaths is all too real.
‘I can’t get Karan back,’ she says, ‘but I don’t want any other parent to go through what I’m going through. Children with allergies shouldn’t have to be afraid to go to school. When you send your child off to school you do not expect it to be the last goodbye.’
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