Family sent letter to University warning of prior health issues

Motion to revoke student-run discipline system tabled

Graphic by B. Shiva Mayer

Sukaina Mohsin Ali, who died in her residence room on West Campus on April 10, struggled with an eating disorder and depression before she left Karachi, Pakistan to come to Queen’s, the Journal has learned.

Both Ali’s uncle and her cousin said that at the time of Ali’s admission to the University, her family in Karachi sent the University a letter from Ali’s psychiatrist informing the admission office of the first-year student’s struggle with anorexia. “The family did submit a letter at the time of her admission that [said] she suffered from an eating disorder but that it was under her control,” said Armeen Hussain, Ali’s cousin, who lives in Mississauga.

Ali Piyarali, Ali’s uncle who lives in Seattle, forwarded a copy of the psychiatrist’s letter to the Journal.

“She was diagnosed with an eating disorder,” Piyarali said. “It was communicated to the school … the admissions office absolutely knew about it—they had the condition in a letter that was sent to them.”

In a letter addressed “To whom it may concern” and dated June 13, 2005, Shifa Naeem, a Karachi psychiatrist, wrote that Ali didn’t gain weight for three years after a bout with Hepatitis A.

“[H]er talk, mood, thought content, perceptual and cognitive functioning were all well within the normal range. Although her body image was not distorted, a working diagnosis of Anorexia Nervosa was made,” Naeem wrote.

The psychiatrist added that she started to taper down Ali’s medication doses, writing that Ali’s “improved cognitive-behavioural skills will help her cope with future stresses.

“I feel Sukaina is a bright, highly motivated young woman who has clearly shown improvement in overcoming her problem with Anorexia Nervosa and I see no reason why she [cannot] cope with a full-time study schedule at university,” Naeem wrote. “Of course, she would need monitoring by a general physician and counselor.”

Hussain and Piyarali didn’t provide contact information for Ali’s immediate family in Karachi, but spoke on behalf of her family on several occasions when contacted by the Journal.

Although Ali’s family has questioned the University regarding the circumstance surrounding Ali’s death, Piyarali said, they haven’t yet received a satisfactory answer.

“I just don’t understand what has gone on, who knew about the condition when.”

University administration refused to comment on the specific circumstances surrounding Ali’s death, saying only that Ali died of natural causes. Vice-Principal (academic) Patrick Deane said he wasn’t aware of the letter describing Ali’s previous health condition, but said that if it was sent to the registrar’s office as part of Ali’s admission package, it would likely be directed either to health services or student affairs.

Deane said information of a personal nature, such as that pertaining to a student’s health, has become increasingly confidential.

“We’ve become very scrupulous about that information at Canadian universities in recent years, and for good reason,” he said. “The downside of that, though, is that vital information could be sitting in an office somewhere without the right people knowing.

“The danger of that message not getting through to the right people is pretty acute.”

An assistant to University Registrar Joanne Brady refused to release any information regarding Ali’s student record. Janice Deakin, acting dean of student affairs, was unavailable for comment.

Carol Harris, director of Health Counseling and Disability Services, refused to comment, citing patient confidentiality.

Susan Anderson, international student advisor, said she was unaware of the family’s letter or Ali’s condition.

“That kind of personal health information is regarded in Canada as extremely confidential,” she said. “That is not something which people would know.”

Elizabeth Leal Conrad, residence life director, said she was also unaware of the letter and Ali’s condition, but refused to comment any further.

Hussain said Ali visited her family in Pakistan in December, and that she had seemed healthy enough then.

“She looked pretty normal, otherwise they wouldn’t have sent her back,” she said.

Piyarali said he thinks that something must have happened to Ali between January and April to cause her health to deteriorate.

“What are the conditions under which she got to this situation? What was happening around her?” he said.

Rabia Khattak, ArtSci ’08, said she didn’t notice how thin her friend was until after Ali’s death.

“When a person is alive and talking you don’t actually look at how physically sick they could be,” she said. “Then they pass away and [you] realize this is how they look.”

Feriel Kissoon, ArtSci ’06, said she had noticed that Ali looked thinner in the days leading up to her death, but Kissoon had chalked it up to exam stress.

Salwa Shalid, ArtSci ’09, was a friend of Ali’s who said she was concerned about Ali’s health. “She lost a lot of weight [from September to April],” she said. “It was noticeable.” Piyarali said Ali’s family will continue to look into the circumstances surrounding her death in an effort to shed some light on the situation.

“The idea is to get closure on this,” he said. “We are very disappointed, we are very sad—to say the least—about what has happened.”

Piyarali added that he hopes the University can learn from Ali’s death.

“Hopefully it can use the information to … make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Deane said the University will be doing a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding Sukaina’s death, and will be releasing their findings at a later date.

Piyarali said Ali’s death could have been prevented.

“Is it a preventable thing? Absolutely, it’s preventable,” he said. “We are all sort of responsible … everybody around her needs to look at that and say, ‘What could we have done?’”

With files from Brendan Kennedy and Matthew Trevisan

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