Manuel Fuentes-Panneton was born on July 18, 2014, at Charles-LeMoyne Hospital, on Montreal’s south shore.
Twenty-one months later, he was gone — his death, unexplained.
“He was a big boy. He had really no known health issues. He had a check-up a week prior to his passing,” Philippe Panneton, Manuel’s father, told Global News.
“He was super healthy, super active, hitting all his milestones ahead of time.”
It was April 26, 2016.
Panneton recalls waking up early that morning — about 4:30 a.m. — as his wife got up to nurse their newborn daughter.
“I looked at the video monitor set up in Manny’s room and he was fine. We could hear him breathing and see him in his bed and he looked OK,” he said.
He went back to sleep and when his alarm went off a little while later, resumed his daily routine — making coffee and breakfast before getting his son ready for the day.
“It was the worst thing I could have imagined. I have a hard time describing what it’s like. Emotionally, I don’t have the words to describe it.”
“You grow up knowing you’ll have to bury loved ones … but you’re never equipped to lose a child.”
Unknown cause of death
Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood (SUDC) is the unexpected death of a child aged 12 months and older.
Though an autopsy is performed, the child and family’s medical history is reviewed and the home is examined, the cause remains a mystery — similar to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
Dr. Aurore Côté from the Montreal Children’s Hospital explains SUDC and SIDS are not disorders — they simply mean no one knows what caused an infant or child to die.
“It means nothing was found to explain the death,” she told Global News, adding that in the last 10 to 15 years the aim has been to look at genes.
“SIDS and SUDC are the sudden death of somebody that was healthy and no one was able to find the cause.”
Research is currently being done to determine if children who suddenly pass away suffered from a seizure or a seizure disorder.
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“Still, in 2018, we don’t know. The deaths are unexplained, but there’s always a lot of investigation done,” Côté told Global News.
“What scientists do is they gather information on the circumstances of the death, even if we didn’t find the cause in the autopsy — are there factors that are always found or found in many of those kids?”
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She explained unexpected deaths can occur at any age — from neo-natal to old age — but there is a “peak of death” between the ages of four and five months, which is why more research has been done on that age group.
“The highlight of the last five years is looking at genes more and more,” Côté said.
“We’re in the infancy of looking at genes — or maybe the toddler age — and it’s going to get more and more sophisticated and be more precise.”
Limited research in Canada
Limited information is known in Canada — contrary to the U.S., where statistics show SUDC is the fifth leading cause of death among children between the ages of one and four.
“One reason is that the incidences of it are pretty low,” explained Emily Isaak, executive director of Baby’s Breath, a non-profit organization that provides support, education and advocacy for sudden and unexpected infant deaths.
“In Canada, we don’t have great statistics on it, but when you refer to the SUDC Foundation [in the U.S.], 400 children die a year of it.”
She explains that, because that number seems so “small,” investigators are hesitant to declare SUDC as a cause of death.
“‘Undetermined cause of death’ is a diagnosis of exclusion. It’s basically saying, they’ve done their investigation and autopsy and they can’t pinpoint a cause,” Isaak told Global News.
“It’s a really broad spectrum. You’re not necessarily looking at anything in particular. It makes it challenging to research. They really have no idea what it is.”
She said this is a problem because grieving parents don’t always know where to turn.
“In Canada, we don’t have a great continuum of care when it comes to SIDS and SUDC. They’re basically told ‘so sorry for your loss,’ and they’re sent home with very little,” Isaak said.
“They’re told, ‘We’re sorry, we don’t know why your baby died,’ and they’re sent home. They don’t know if they did something wrong, if they missed a sign. You can’t even imagine the amount of guilt and sadness.”
The Fuentes-Panneton family only received the autopsy report from Manuel’s death this year — 21 months later.
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“We had a seven-week-old daughter, so we needed to be OK. We tried not to think about it while we were taking care of her. We spent so much time away from our daughter when she was napping just, being sad for ourselves,” he said.
“Now, we know a lot of parents who have lost children. It’s a really crappy club, but there’s a lot of us in it,” he said.
Panneton said he’s not sure if the pain of losing his son will ever go away.
“Even now, for me, the hardest part is going and getting my daughter to give her breakfast, same as I did with my son,” he told Global News.
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“Every time I see that closed door, I get that moment of PTSD. I know she’s OK, but I still have that apprehension.”
“I think you learn to live with it. It’s always going to hurt, but you learn to figure out how to deal with the pain.”
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