Dad Sues Harvard Over Son's Suicide

Harvard Responsible for Death of Student?Courtesy Edwards Family
Johnny Edwards and his sister Julie posing for a photo for his 2006 graduation. He was both president and valedictorian of his class at Wellesley High School.

The knock on John Edwards' door came at 5 a.m., Nov. 30, 2007. Two police officers entered his home in Wellesley, Mass., sat down on the couch and uttered the unthinkable.

"They said, 'Did you have a son that went to Harvard?' I said yes, and they said, 'He passed away.'"

Edwards' son, also named John, had committed suicide.

"You just can't believe it. You can't believe it then or the next day. You can't believe it a month from then. Every morning you wake up and say it's just not possible," said Edwards, his voice breaking.

Two years later, what Edwards does believe is that negligence by Harvard, the nurse practitioner and the supervising physician at the University Health Center caused his death. And Edwards has filed a lawsuit.

The younger Edwards was just 11 days shy of his 20th birthday. He was training for the Boston marathon, working on stem cell research and seemingly thriving during his sophomore year at his first choice college. Edwards had always been an overachiever, logging perfect SAT scores and being named both president and valedictorian of his class at Wellesley High School.

Still, in June 2007, Edwards told his father that he had been to see a counselor at the Harvard University Health Services, saying that he wanted to be able to study as much as his fellow students.

"I said, 'that's great, anything I can do to be supportive, please let me know.'" Edwards offered to meet with his son's counselor, but was told it wasn't necessary.

Edwards maintains in his lawsuit that a nurse practitioner -- not a physician -- was responsible for writing the multiple prescriptions for his son, although her work was overseen by a physician. Johnny Edwards had been prescribed Adderall, Wellbutrin and Prozac.

"It seems like every time he came in there, the answer was to pull out a prescription pad," said Edwards.

In addition, the suit contends that the drugs his son received "are associated with an increase in suicidal thoughts." Edwards said he is still trying to find out why his son was ever prescribed a drug like Adderall. Adderall is usually prescribed for ADHD, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a condition Johnny Edwards had never been diagnosed with.

In addition, Edwards maintains the Harvard administration has also refused to answer the most basic questions about his son's last days. For example, Edwards wanted to know when his son last used his pass card to get into his labratory. He's still waiting for that answer.

"I wanted to come in and talk to them and find out what happened and share information so that this kind of thing would never happen again. This is an institution of higher learning that sets the standard in our country, if not the world…but they have no interest in any of that," said Edwards.

In response to an inquiry by Harvard released the following statement.

"We understand how difficult it must be for John Edwards' family to cope with such a tragic loss, but we are confident that the care he received at Harvard University Health Services was thorough and appropriate and he was monitored closely by its physicians and allied health specialists."

While he could not comment directly on John Edwards and has not seen any of his medical records, Paul Doering, a professor of pharmacy at the University of Florida, said that taking Adderall, Wellbutrin and Prozac "didn't sound right" and that the activities of these three drugs "tend to work at cross purposes."

In addition, Doering added that, although the practice of nurse practitioners prescribing drugs is legal in most states, he would "wonder what the person's background and training was."

Colleges Have Been Questioned About Medical Care for Students

This isn't the first time college health centers have come under fire for the standard of care they provide to students. In 1993, Northeastern University's Health Clinic was sued by the parents of a student after she died of leukemia. The student went for repeated visits to the campus health center and was told she had the flu. At trial, testimony showed that nurses, not doctors, were allowed to diagnose patients on the weekends. Northeastern was found not liable.

After Seung-Hui Cho went on a shooting rampage at Virginia Tech in 2007, killing 27 students and five faculty members, the college mental health center was criticized for failing to monitor or take action against Cho, who many had identified as being clearly disturbed.

In 2000, after multiple suicides at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the university was forced to restructure its mental health services.

It's these kinds of cases that make parents like John Edwards furious. "What level of care is given to our kids who go away to school," said Edwards. And, whether a student is 20 minutes away at a local college or 20 hours away, it can be almost impossible to get any information at all.

Courtney Knowles of the JED Foundation, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to reducing college suicides, said parents are often angry and confused at the lack of information afforded to them.

"When you turn 18, you are an adult. Students receive the same privacy and confidentiality rights that any adult receives," said Knowles.

But that can leave students, many of whom are on their own for the first time in their lives, in the hands of a health center that may or may not be providing the best care.

Chad Henderson, the director of health services for the University of Rhode Island, explained that college health centers vary greatly in terms of size and quality. A small junior college, for example, may only have a nurse practitioner on staff and a physician only available on an on-call basis. Other college health centers may be more akin to first class ambulatory care centers.

At URI, Henderson said, the health center sees 97 percent of patients the same day they call. Although it might take up to two weeks to see a psychiatrist, that time frame is faster than patients in the general population.

Henderson added that the scope of care these health centers are expected to provide has also increased over the years, particularly when it comes to mental health services.

"The whole college health community has changed…students have changed," said Henderson. And yet many college health centers face difficulties because the number of providers has not kept pace with demand. In particular, mental health services are often stretched because there "is a shortage of psychiatrists accepting new patients and there are many more students seeking those services" said Henderson.

In the meantime, Edwards is still seeking answers to what he calls the "mystery" of his son's death as he tries to face another holiday season without him.

"We kind of hand over the keys to our kids in some ways when they go off to college -- with that comes an incredible amount of trust…If Harvard did no wrong, why can't they just answer me. Why can't I know?" asked Edwards.

Now it looks like those questions will have to be answered in a court of law.