David and Natalia Uglow still cannot make sense of their 17-year-old daughter Ana’s needless death. They never will.
Seventeen months ago, they saw off their ‘beautiful, smart, ambitious and incredibly funny’ eldest child on a week-long history trip to the States, organised by her private school.
Natalia, the head of marketing for a legal firm, helped her daughter pack. Ana’s handwritten list of what she was taking is still on her bedside table and the suitcase she took is on her bedroom floor, returned when her schoolmates flew home without her. It remains packed.
‘We can’t even touch it,’ says Natalia, nodding towards the suitcase and a pair of winter boots bought to keep their daughter warm in the harsh New York winter.
Otherwise, the bedroom is as it was the morning Ana left to catch a school bus to the airport with eight other pupils from Bristol Grammar School, where she was a senior prefect.
David and Natalia Uglow still cannot make sense of their 17-year-old daughter Ana’s needless death. They never will. Seventeen months ago, they saw off their ‘beautiful, smart, ambitious and incredibly funny’ eldest child (above) on a week-long history trip to the States, organised by her private school
‘For six or nine months there was the smell of her in here but it’s gone now,’ says David. His words are impossibly sad.
Ana, who was recovering from a miserable cold when she boarded the flight to the States, died of a cardiac arrest on December 19, 2019.
A post-mortem examination revealed her to be suffering with pneumonia and sepsis as a complication of flu. Two days before, Natalia had urged her daughter to ask a teacher to take her to a doctor when she complained that she was feeling dreadful and suspected a chest infection. She never went.
This is the first interview the Uglows — who are also parents to Sophia, now 14 — have given since Ana’s death. They remain consumed by grief and fury. Natalia, who fell in love with her husband after coming from Moscow to the UK to study, says they are ‘ruined’.
‘We still cry every day. Every single day,’ says Natalia. ‘I didn’t want her to go on this trip because of her cold. She was recovering but I am quite cautious as a parent. Now I feel tremendous guilt. She told me she was feeling better but I will never forgive myself, whatever people say, for letting her go . . .’
Natalia (above, with David), the head of marketing for a legal firm, helped her daughter pack. Ana’s handwritten list of what she was taking is still on her bedside table and the suitcase she took is on her bedroom floor, returned when her schoolmates flew home without her. It remains packed
David looks at his wife. ‘She was definitely recovering,’ he says gently, and you know that they have had this conversation many times before.
David, a respected consultant in the development of emerging markets, was in his office tying up loose ends before Christmas when Ana’s headmaster, Jaideep Barot, phoned at 3.11pm on December 19, 2019.
‘He asked, ‘Are you sitting down?’ ‘ says David. ‘I was. He told me Ana was seriously ill. He said her heart had stopped and she’d gone to hospital.’
The headmaster gave David a number to call in the States. After he had made several failed attempts to reach anyone, a complete stranger finally answered the phone at 3.22pm.
‘It was this American lady who was, apparently, a social worker at the hospital. She was talking, talking, talking — telling me that Ana had been found with a lot of blood in the [New York hotel] room and that her heart had stopped. She kept talking. I said: ‘Just tell me, is she alive or dead?’ She started crying.’
The Uglows would later discover their daughter had actually been pronounced dead in hospital 20 minutes earlier, at 10.03am local time. The school had known she was critically ill since 1.41pm UK time.
They would also learn that Ana, an Oxbridge candidate with 12A*s at GCSE and already an A* in Russian at A-level, had woken her teacher, Rory Hambly, the school’s head of history and her form tutor, at 6.15am local time — two hours before she suffered a cardiac arrest in her hotel room — complaining of a racing heart and a terrible pain in her back.
He woke his colleague Ellice Clare, who put a hand on her forehead to check her temperature and felt her pulse. Deciding that she was suffering from anxiety and the pain was due to ‘not having had any dinner and a bad night’s sleep’, they gave her a banana and two painkillers before sending her back to bed at 6.30am.
An hour later, Ana’s roommates woke to find her ‘delirious’ with ‘bulging’ eyes and blood on her pillow from a nosebleed.
They fetched Mr Hambly, who sent them down to breakfast and, astonishingly, sat at the foot of Ana’s bed chatting to her after stripping her bloodied pillows, according to his witness statement.
Ana, who was recovering from a miserable cold when she boarded the flight to the States, died of a cardiac arrest on December 19, 2019. A post-mortem examination revealed her to be suffering with pneumonia and sepsis as a complication of flu. (Above, a young Ana with her little sister Sophia)
He says in his statement that Ana was ‘anxious’ but ‘not very agitated’ until her nose started bleeding again. He sat her up but the ‘foamy’ blood kept coming and there were flecks of froth on her lips.
‘I saw it in her eyes. I saw her eyes just go and she passed out,’ he says in his statement. It was about 8.15am local time. ‘That moment was the first time that I thought things were more serious,’ he says.
He dialled 911. Paramedics record that they received a call at 8.19am local time. Ana never regained consciousness. Her final words had been to ask her teacher if she could call her mother. He told her to rest.
‘If there was a word for anguish, desperation and anger multiplied by a million, it would probably describe how I felt when I found out that Ana had asked to speak to me but was told not to . . .’ Natalia breaks down in tears.
Natalia was at lunch in Bristol with her management team when she learnt her daughter was dead. The restaurant was noisy, so she didn’t hear her phone and checked it when they left to head back to the office.
If there was a word for anguish, desperation and anger multiplied by a million, it would probably describe how I felt when I found out that Ana had asked to speak to me but was told not to…
‘I knew something terrible had happened because I had loads of missed calls from Dave and he rarely phones me. I called him. He said, ‘Kotenka [his nickname for Natalia that means cat in Russian], Anastasia [their daughter’s full name] died.’ I was screaming, ‘No, no, no. It can’t be.’ It was horrible, horrible. I began walking. My colleagues wanted to help me. I said, ‘Leave me alone. I want to be alone.’
‘They followed me as I walked home. We live 20 minutes away from that restaurant. My heart was bang, bang, bang. I was completely out of breath. Sophia was at home. I told her immediately. She said: ‘How? It’s just not possible. It’s not possible.’ Then she started crying.
‘I phoned the school emergency number several times [a mobile that had been taken on the trip] and nobody answered. I kept trying.’
Eventually, an American woman answered. Natalia still has no idea who she was. Natalia explained who she was and asked whether they were sure that nothing could be done for her daughter.
‘I asked, ‘Are you sure you can’t save her?’ She said, ‘no’, says Natalia. ‘I asked what had happened. She said, ‘All I can say is she felt very ill at the Empire State Building [which the group had visited the evening before].’ We didn’t even know about that.
‘She said she had been taken back to the hotel. She had chest pains and heart palpitations and when she woke up there was a lot of blood.
‘Basically, she said: ‘It’s rare that a young girl dies like that.’ I just put the phone down. We didn’t know any more about exactly what had happened to Ana until four months and eight days later, when we received the police report.’
Natalia was at lunch in Bristol with her management team when she learnt her daughter was dead. The restaurant was noisy, so she didn’t hear her phone and checked it when they left to head back to the office. ‘I knew something terrible had happened because I had loads of missed calls from Dave and he rarely phones me,’ she said
For the Uglows, the lack of information was bewildering — and torturous. When they asked the headmaster for further detail about their precious child’s death, they were told he couldn’t help them on that because he was ‘part of the legal process’.
‘We had snippets of information from Ana’s friends, so we were trying to guess what had happened. We thought maybe she had some sort of undiagnosed heart condition. Until we had the autopsy report that’s what we hoped. That would have been easier.’
They learnt how Ana’s miserable cold had worsened during the school trip — so much so that on the Monday, three days before her death, she sat on a bench rather than tour an African American museum in Washington because she wasn’t feeling ‘great’.
The following day, on the train from Washington to Philadelphia, she called her mother to say she was feeling worse and wondered whether she had a chest infection. [Experts would state at the inquest that they believed she now had pneumonia.] Natalia told her to ask the teachers to take her to see a doctor.
According to statements taken as part of the investigation into Ana’s death, Ellice Clare suggested she should wait to see how she was feeling when they arrived in New York later that day.
Ana was given two paracetamol and at 4.09pm UK time, Natalia received a text from her daughter saying she was feeling a bit better.
That evening in New York, she fell asleep at a basketball game and was sick during the night at her hotel, although the teachers say they were unaware of this. Then on Wednesday, December 18 — the day before her death — she asked if she could stay at the hotel to rest but was encouraged to join a walking tour of Harlem.
That afternoon she explored New York with a friend, visiting Tiffany’s and buying a Christmas present for her sister. The trip exhausted her.
Statements from other pupils reveal that they persuaded her to join them in the evening for the visit to the Empire State Building. She phoned her mother before she left.
‘She told me she’d pushed herself to go shopping because she really wanted to go to Tiffany’s and get a present for Sophia because she wanted ‘to make her happy’. Those were her exact words,’ says Natalia. ‘Ana loved clothes but she didn’t get anything for herself. My guess now is she didn’t have the energy to try anything on. From what we’ve read since, that’s when she really went downhill.’
The Uglows (above) would learn that Ana, an Oxbridge candidate with 12A*s at GCSE and already an A* in Russian at A-level, had woken her teacher, Rory Hambly, the school’s head of history and her form tutor, at 6.15am local time — two hours before she suffered a cardiac arrest in her hotel room — complaining of a racing heart and a terrible pain in her back
That phone call was to be Ana’s last conversation with her family. Her mother texted her the next morning ‘How are you today?’ Her father texted too: ‘Hello Nastya, how are you today? Lublu [love you in Russian] Papa.’ Neither of the texts was ever read.
The Uglows now know from the expert reports at the inquest that sepsis set in around midnight.
‘When we were told that, we thought: ‘Gosh, she was so unlucky it happened at night. If it had happened during the day, maybe somebody would have spotted something,’ ‘ says Natalia.
‘So the most painful thing for us was to learn in the report that she went to get help from her teachers at 6.15am. Her phone records show that about midnight she was searching for causes of back pain — and at 6am she was searching for symptoms of a heart attack.
‘She told the teachers her heart was racing. They said they thought it was anxiety. Who has anxiety at 6am for no reason? She wasn’t a nutcase. She was a fit, healthy girl.’
Natalia’s fury as a mother is understandable. Two of three medical experts, including one of the world’s leading microbiologists, Professor Andrew Lever, advised at the five-day inquest that, had Ana received urgent medical attention at 6.15am, she would, on the balance of probability, have survived.
However, a third disagreed, telling the inquest that Ana would have needed to go to hospital at least six hours prior to the time of her death to have prevented a fatal outcome. As the Avon coroner, Maria Voison, pointed out in her summing up, it is easy to be wise with the benefit of hindsight.
Reaching a narrative conclusion, she said she couldn’t find any gross failures by either teacher in this case and made no criticisms of them. She did advise that she was writing to all schools to raise awareness of sepsis.
The Uglows vehemently disagree. They now intend to take civil action against the school in the High Court. ‘This isn’t about sepsis. This is about taking responsibility,’ says David.
Following the post-mortem examination, Ana’s body was returned to the United Kingdom on Christmas Eve.
‘On Christmas Day we saw her for the first time,’ says Natalia. ‘We’d had to choose clothes for her to wear. Sophia helped. We picked some nice boots, black tights, a close-fitting skirt over the knee and a silky shirt that was black and sand colour. She had some earrings and a necklace I’d bought her from Japan.
‘We spent Christmas Day holding our dead daughter’s hand and went to see her twice a week after that, until they told us: ‘Look, it’s not a good idea any more.’
‘Sophia never went. She didn’t go to the funeral, either — although we don’t say words like ‘funeral’. We find it too painful.’
Ana was buried in a peaceful churchyard in Charlcombe, Bath, on August 19, 2020, the day after what would have been her 18th birthday. The funeral was delayed first by investigations into her death and then by the pandemic. Her parents will join her there in the years to come. Natalia says that if it weren’t for the fact she has Sophia, she would be lying beside her now.
‘Every mother and father loves their daughter and says they’re special but Ana honestly was. She was probably the most special person I’ve ever met,’ says Natalia. ‘The fact she’s physically not here is with you all the time.
‘Once, months afterwards, Dave was trying to help Sophia with some physics homework. Because it’s not his strength, he had to focus so he forgot for a moment. Then it hit him like a . . .’ she shakes her head. ‘He just ran out of the room crying.
‘We’ve gone through everything, thinking ‘what if’. Like if we’d bought a more expensive house, would we have had to economise a bit more so she wouldn’t have been on that trip?
‘I believe 100 per cent it wouldn’t have happened if she had been with us. We told her to ask the teachers to take her to the doctor’s. I will always feel guilty for not phoning them to insist they took her.
‘I offered to phone. Ana didn’t want me to. She wasn’t five years old. She didn’t need Mummy to say, ‘Can you take my little Ana . . .’ ‘
David continues as she weeps: ‘We don’t want money from the civil case. But a civil action is the only way to determine liability, so we have to do it.
‘The problem is, because nobody has been held responsible for what happened, the guilt falls back on us for having let her go and for not having followed up on her going to the doctor.’
Natalia interrupts: ‘I just want her here.’