Pre-teen and teenager deaths are rare in New York City. Out of nearly a million city residents ages 10-19, just 226 died in 2011, the most recent data year. That’s barely more than two deaths per 10,000. Sliced a bit differently, only four to five New Yorkers age 10-19 die each week.
With this backdrop, the news this morning of the death of one of five young teens whom a driver plowed into last week in Maspeth, Queens, leads naturally to speculation that the crash was a contributing factor. Yet 13-year-old Michael Gomez apparently wasn’t among the grievously injured — he was said to have suffered only a “swollen arm” when Francis Aung Lu drove his Honda Pilot SUV across the curb and onto the sidewalk as the teens walked to school — and he was discharged from the hospital several hours after the crash. Michael’s death last Sunday, three days later, couldn’t have been related to the crash. Or could it?
I think that from a statistical standpoint, the conclusion is inescapable that the September 12 crash contributed directly to Michael’s death on September 15. It’s a matter of simple statistics, resting on the actuarial fact, hinted above, that a city teen chosen at random has less than a one in 200,000 chance of dying in a given week.
Some published accounts are attributing Michael’s death to asthma. The Post, citing “law-enforcement sources,” reported that Michael “died after suffering a severe asthma attack.” The paper added, “Michael suffered only minor injuries and was taken to Elmhurst Hospital before being released that same day. But on Sunday, he suffered an asthma attack and was rushed back to Elmhurst Hospital, where he later died, sources said.”
There’s no reason to question that account. Yet the fact that Michael’s asthma flared to fatal proportions just three days after he was vehicularly assaulted lies far beyond the realm of ordinary coincidence. “Deaths due to asthma are rare among children,” says the American Lung Association, noting that in 2009, only 157 children under 15 died from asthma in the United States. For comparison, the entire U.S. resident population under age 15 is 61 million, of whom 9.5 percent, or nearly 6 million, currently have asthma. A death rate due to asthma of 157 per 6 million equates to less than 1 death per 38,000 per year, or 1 in 2,000,000 per week. Translated: A child under 15 who has asthma but is otherwise chosen at random has a one in two million chance of dying from asthma in a given week.
Michael may have been “chosen at random” as a victim of the SUV, but once he was injured and experienced the further trauma of seeing two schoolmates pinned under the vehicle, he moved to a different statistical orbit, one in which asthma attacks would necessarily be both more likely and more severe.
I never met Michael or the Gomez family, and I don’t know if after the crash he woke with nightmares or slept like a baby. What I do know is that before Mr. Aung Lu got behind the wheel of his Honda Pilot last Thursday, a statistician would have given Michael a 99.9995 percent chance of living another week, based on the 1 in 200,000 proportion noted above, and an even higher probability of not experiencing a fatal asthma attack.
At some point, the NYC Medical Examiner will issue an official finding on Michael Gomez’s death. Perhaps it will offer post-traumatic stress as a trigger to the fatal asthma attack, perhaps not. Almost certainly, the cause will be given not as vehicular injury but as chronic lower respiratory disease, a category that includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema along with asthma. Of NYC’s 226 pre-teen and teenager deaths in 2011 noted above, ten were classified as CLRD. That’s one every five weeks among nearly a million kids and young people. For the one-tenth who have asthma, the weekly death frequency is one per 500,000.
The only clear statistical link, then, is between the Honda on the sidewalk and Michael in a casket. As I see the numbers, that link is nearly as strong as if the driver had killed the 13-year-old on the spot.