`Unusual’ death means unusual grief on campus

`Unusual’ death means unusual grief on campus

Peter Gelzinis

When you stop to think about it, what other choice did Charles Oroszko, dean of students at Worcester State College, really have?

Death had suddenly, and rather mysteriously, claimed Jeffery Donohue, a strapping 18-year-old freshman. It was Oroszko’s job to assure a bewildered and anxious student body that fate would not repeat itself . . . COULDnot repeat itself.

“There is no extraordinary risk to you,” Oroszko told the students, many of whom could still see Jeff Donohue’s face and hear his laughter. “It’s the flu. It’s nothing dangerous or unusual. It’s the flu.”

At least that’s what the conventional wisdom suggests. While the flu can certainly make you miserable, it’s not supposed to kill you. The problem with conventional wisdom, of course, is that it can’t really explain why the flu killed a healthy kid like Jeffery Donohue in the space of about a week.

When that happens, the only thing for a man of logic like Dean Charles Oroszko to do is reach for that all-purpose word, “aberration.”

“. . . a deviation from what is usual, normal or right . . .”

What happened in Winthrop yesterday was something of an aberration. A stunned and grieving family followed their 18-year-old son’s casket into a church, accompanied by a bewildered community of relatives and friends. Such things are not supposed to happen. It’s just not the natural order of things.

When an otherwise healthy 18-year-old dies, usually there is the grim rationale of an accident, or perhaps the caprice of violence.

Our roadways are dotted with instant shrines and homemade crosses that memorialize the places where teenage drivers lost control, when a kid who maybe drank too much made a decision to drive too fast.

It was little more than a month ago when 17-year-old Lisa Sparaco of Ipswich made the kind of fateful and tragic decision replicated by thousands of other kids. In a rush to make it home before curfew, she jumped into the back seat of a car driven by a drunken friend.

Lisa Sparaco was killed when the driver, 19-year-old Michelle Sullivan, who had been arrested two weeks earlier on an OUI charge, wrapped her car around a telephone pole. From the depths of her own pain, Sparaco’s mother, Maria Ricci, somehow found the strength and compassion to reach out to Sullivan’s family . . . believing that two lives were lost rather than one.

To be a parent of a teenager is to shudder at such a story. There is always the foolish, initial reaction to place some distance between yourself and the story of such tragedy, to conduct a solitary argument from someplace deep in your parental gut that insists, “No, something that terrible couldn’t happen to us.” All the while you know you’re only engaging in the kind of self-deception that works to keep you sane.

But accidents are one thing. A killer flu is quite another. Like Charles Oroszko said, “It’s the flu. It’s nothing dangerous or unusual.” Sure thousands die each year, but just about all of them, we’re sure, had to fall into some “high-risk” category. Most were old. Some were young. But what they ALLhad in common is that they were sick to begin with.

Jeffery Donohue, at the moment anyway, appears to be one of those very unsettling exceptions. Or what Dean Oroszko calls “an aberration.” In truth, such an “aberration” is every parent’s worst nightmare.

We are left looking for a rationale, some kind of grim logic, a reason, a clue, an explanation that provides some kind of distance. Right now, there is none. Even after the toxicology reports come back, we may be left to wrestle with an answer that leans more toward the vagaries of fate than the pure logic of science. We may never REALLYknow why the flu killed Jeffery Donohue.

Copyright 2003

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