A month after a Wofford College sophomore's on-campus death, questions remain about the cause of the tragic death and whether it was preventable.
Spartanburg County Coroner Rusty Clevenger expects his pathologist to render an opinion this week on the toxicology analysis and autopsy of 20-year-old Randall Heffron, a Mount Pleasant native who died Sept. 10.
The medical exam will determine not only if Heffron died at least in some part due to alcohol consumption, but will also shed light on whether correct assumptions were made about Heffron's condition — and if those assumptions contributed to his death.
Heffron, a sophomore tennis player, was reportedly eating pizza with his friends inside a dorm room on campus around midnight when he left for the bathroom nearby, apparently in distress. When friends thought they heard him vomiting, they made their way to the bathroom, just as Heffron fell to the floor.
Little more than an hour later, Heffron was pronounced dead at Spartanburg Regional Medical Center.
Robin Heffron, Randall's mother, said doctors told her at the hospital that a piece of pizza, roughly the diameter of a quarter and little more than an inch long, had become lodged in her son's throat, obstructing his airway.
Laura Corbin, spokeswoman for Wofford, also confirmed that doctors had indicated that food had become deeply lodged in Heffron's throat.
"All emergency measures taken both on campus and at the hospital were unsuccessful in dislodging the obstruction," Corbin said.
But the 911 call and dispatch log obtained by Patch through a Freedom of Information Act request indicates that EMS personnel arrived on scene to treat not a choking patient, but a case of overconsumption of alcohol.
Robin Heffron said she was told by those who were at the scene that her son had lost consciousness in the bathroom sometime after midnight and before 12:15 a.m.
By 12:27 a.m., campus security had arrived on scene and dialed 911, when campus security officer Matt Gibson stepped outside Shipp Residence Hall to make the call.
"I have a sick student, he's passed out and I need em' (EMS) here now," Gibson said.
"He is breathing ma'am, but like I said, he is very pale and very low… breath," Gibson said during a rapid exchange as the operator asked him questions about Heffron's condition.
"He's been drinking obviously all day like i said, and uh, the alcohol has played an effect on him," Gibson added. "He's already vomited several times already. It's definitely alcohol pois- … alcohol-related," he said near the end of the call.
Heffron's mother believes that assumption affected the treatment he received.
"I feel it was preventable in the sense of preparedness of first-response personnel and awareness in knowing the signs of choking versus alcohol poisoning, and how to render care to a person who is unconscious from losing his airway," she said.
"There were crucial minutes when assumptions were made and treatment rendered that did not include the possibility of choking even though food was present."
Dispatch log and corresponding radio communications show EMS arrived on scene at 12:33 a.m., arriving at the patient soon after. Its next communication with the 911 call center was at 12:40 a.m., when technicians reported that Heffron had gone into cardiac arrest. No radio communication or 911 audio received by Patch references treatment for an obstructed airway. (Read: College Emergency Procedures Vary Statewide)
Lisa Oliphant, spokesperson for Spartanburg Regional, said the hospital could not make any information available about Heffron's treatment.
"We can't confirm any treatment given," Oliphant said
Robin Heffron said she fully expects toxicology to reveal that her son had in fact been drinking, but believes the assumption that her son suffered from an acute alcohol-related illness very well may have distracted roommates, campus security and EMS personnel from treating the airway obstruction.
At roughly 11 p.m. — about an hour before the incident — Robin received a phone call and a text from her son, whom she said did not sound impaired.
"It is unfortunate that the culture on college campuses is that if a student is in distress on Friday night, then it must be alcohol poisoning," she said. "This culture was detrimental to Randall. It needs to change to reduce the chance of death resulting from medical emergencies on all college campuses. I hope to find a way to affect positive change in this area in memory of Randall and for all students."
Read more on Randall Heffron and his death.
Corbin said the college will not comment further on the Heffron case until the coroner releases his report. It was not made clear if the school provides students with instructions on which scenarios warrant calls to resident assistants, campus security or 911.
"Anyone on campus can call 911 anytime an emergency is perceived," Corbin said.
In Heffron's case, roommates called security, which later prompted a 911 call. Six minutes passed after the 911 call until EMS arrived at Wofford College, and 13 minutes after that call, Heffron went into cardiac arrest, according to radio traffic — meaning the patient may have not been seen by a medical professional for as many as 15 to 20 minutes from the time his roommates followed him to the dormitory's bathroom.
All the while, Spartanburg Regional Medical Center stands less than one mile away from the school.
For Robin Heffron, whether or not a direct call to 911 or even a car ride down the road to the hospital would have saved her son will forever remain a mystery.
Despite her questions over both the timeliness and appropriateness of her son's medical treatment, Robin Heffron said she refuses to directly place blame on any party.
"I accept that I may never fully know or understand the truth regarding the last hour of Randall’s life. To dwell on that hour or even that night does not bring honor to Randall. He was a bright light to many and a source of joy to me and his family, especially his brother, Walker," she said. "I want to focus on watching the seeds that he planted through his compassion for others grow in the many lives he touched. He loved Wofford College. I want to see his legacy of love continued through the endowed scholarship set up there.
"He loved Charleston and I want to feel his memory there through the scholarship at his alma mater Bishop England. We deeply appreciate and are grateful for all the love and support that we have received since this tragedy from the Wofford family, the community in Charleston and throughout the state. My faith is strong. Nothing on this earth compares to the promise of seeing Randall again one day," she said.