“What’s wrong?’ he asked, rubbing her back. “What’s wrong, Ahana?” But her body was limp and she was fading away.
He held her in their flat in Killester, Dublin, on that Saturday last month — a place they were getting used to calling home, having arrived from India just weeks before.
“Come on Ahana, tell Papa what is wrong,” he said, as her mother Nalini looked on in despair. Then she started to fall unconscious.
“She was bleeding from the nose and mouth on my arm. There was a ‘click, click, clicking’ noise and that was it — she was gone. The fact her last word was ‘Papa’ haunts me every second of every day,” he now recalls.
It was 4.10pm on December 3. Hours earlier, at around 5am, Ahana returned home from Temple Street Children’s Hospital after her parents were told she had a chest infection. Children’s Health Ireland (CHI) said it cannot comment on individual cases, but has confirmed it is reviewing the care she received.
In reality, Ahana had bacterial infection Strep A and it was killing her.
Mrs Singh performed CPR, but Ahana was not responsive.
“It was hard as a mother for me to do that. I sent Varun out of the room. I thought I could break down at this point or I can have one last shot to save my daughter’s life,” she says.
“I don’t know where the courage came from — but I performed that CPR for 20 minutes. When the paramedics arrived they told us there was nothing they could do. I am a health and safety officer, but the fact is I could not save my own daughter’s life.”
Ahana, who had dreamed of living in Dublin and watched YouTube videos of the city on her father’s phone, was dead exactly two months after arriving in Ireland. She died in front of her parents two weeks before her fifth birthday.
“It happened so quickly and within 10 to 15 minutes she became very ill,” Nalini says. “We were sure it was nothing serious, that it was just flu. It never crossed our minds that it was something that was going to take her life.”
“I told her: ‘We will decorate the Christmas tree,’” Ahana’s father says. “Before that day, I told her it will be fine, it was to be her birthday soon. She was saying: ‘Yes Papa, yes Papa, it will be fine.’”
Soon after her death, gardaí arrived and protocol dictated that the family’s home be sealed off. Mr and Mrs Singh were put up in a hotel for the night.
Their daughter’s body was taken away for investigations, as officers “kept an open mind” as to the circumstances of her death. It would be two days before her parents got to see her again. “She had so much faith in both of us that we were going to make things OK. When she was dead we couldn’t do anything. We couldn’t even hold her,” Nalini says.
The hotel they had to stay in that night was on the beach. Ahana always wanted to visit a beach. They show me a video on their phone of a bird that landed on the window ledge of their room the next morning. They felt it was a sign. In the video, their cries of grief can be heard.
“Please stay strong,” Ahana’s mother calls. “Please flap your wings if you are happy.” And the bird did.
“Thank you very much, thank you very much,” Nalini cries.
“That gives us some strength,” Mrs Singh says, desperate to cling to anything that can bring them comfort as they try to make sense of their loss.
That previous Monday, Ahana had started coughing once every two hours. Her parents put it down to a consequence of the flu season. But as a precaution, they began the process of trying to get registered for a GP — but without success.
“We were waiting for the PPS number and all those things to arrive. When we called some of the GP surgeries we were told they were not taking any new patients, they were full,” Mr Singh says.
The couple did not feel it was “something to worry about at that point” and Ahana went to school. She had started at St Brigid’s Girls NS just three weeks previously. But then, on Thursday, she developed a fever and a high temperature.
“The next day she started complaining about some pain around her neck. That was the first time she had complained about any pain around the neck. She never complained about anything.”
Unable to access a doctor, Mrs Singh found a virtual GP who told her that “you might want to check for meningitis”, so she immediately called a taxi to bring them to Temple Street.
“Ahana vomited in the cab. I was shocked. That was the first time she vomited since birth. In the hospital, she vomited in the hallway and had become very drowsy.”
While Ahana sat on her mother’s lap, her father had to stay outside the emergency room: only one parent was allowed in. All the chairs were occupied, as were the benches. With nowhere to sit, Varun was on his feet for almost six hours, forced to rely on texts from his wife for news of their daughter’s condition.
Inside triage, a nurse gave Mrs Singh two bottles of water to feed a dehydrated Ahana.
“In India, they put on you on a drip if you are dehydrated,” she says. “Sometimes you need that IV drip to bring you to normal. I was hoping that maybe to remove the excess dehydration they would give her a drip or something. But they were asking me to force the fluids down her throat.”
CHI declined to comment on this.
It was six hours before Ahana was seen by a doctor.
“Please ask them to give her some antibiotics — or something,” Mr Singh texted his wife at around midnight, standing yards away. “It must be some sort of infection… this is not normal.”
“They think it’s cold and flu… she is dehydrated. They have not mentioned any need for antibiotics,” she replied.
She recalls a staff member saying to her: “Welcome to Ireland.”
Varun expresses his misgivings about that period in the hospital.
“They had not performed any tests, any X-rays or any blood tests,” he says.
Nalini says her daughter was given medicine to stop the vomiting and was told it would “get better”. She says she felt assured “that it was nothing that required an urgent treatment”.
“What could go wrong? Why was she bleeding? We just know [now] it was Strep A but how did it happen and why? Maybe we should have protested more, maybe if she had got an antibiotic things would have been different.”
In response, a spokeswoman for Children’s Health Ireland said it offered its “sincere condolences to the Singh family on the passing of their beloved Ahana”.
“The death of a child is a heart-breaking event for family, friends and loved ones. When a child passes away in, or having been linked to one of our hospitals, the family receive bereavement support from specialist multi-disciplinary teams in Children’s Health Ireland. Families are also linked to bereavement support in the community.
“Children’s Health Ireland cannot comment on individual cases. When a patient or family makes personal information public, this does not relieve the hospital/CHI of its duty to preserve/uphold patient confidentiality at all times.”
However, the spokeswoman added: “A review is under way and CHI is in direct contact with and supporting the family at this time.”
Nalini says they feel a sense of guilt “that we cannot overcome”.
“I should have protected my daughter,” her husband says. “If we hadn’t come here it would not have happened.”
Nalini says she is “no longer able to find the purpose” for her life. “We don’t know how to start the day, we don’t know how to end it.”
“I have lost faith in everything,” Ahana’s father says. “When she died I said to her I will keep us happy, but I don’t know how to be happy. She made us happy. I am not able to laugh, I only cry.”
When Ahana lay in the morgue, her father spent half an hour singing nursery rhymes to her.
“We dreamed about her one day getting married and leaving us, but we never thought she would be leaving us in a coffin to go to a cemetery,” he says.
“I saw her in the morgue, but I could only stay for 10 minutes,” Nalini says. “I thought she was very cold. I feel her more in my heart than in that body. When I touched her I couldn’t get the warmth that I got when I used to hug her. That was not the feeling I wanted to keep for the rest of my life.”
The little girl’s father often thinks of the day she was born and he held her for the first time — December 15, 2017 — at Sahara Hospital, in Lucknow, India.
“I cannot explain that feeling,” he smiles.
Premature by a few weeks, Ahana “came into this world early and left early”, says her mother. “I feel as if she knew she had less time with us and was making the most of it.”
She says she has not just lost a daughter, but her best friend.
“When I had Ahana I felt I had a friend for life. I used to think about mother and daughter going shopping, I thought about those days. Her education, how she would be as an individual, because she was so talented in music, dance, art.”
Instead, she had to plan her funeral thousands of miles away from home. Worse again, she had to do this on her own. Varun soon fell ill with Strep A and he missed both the service and burial.
“I told the doctors I have said my goodbyes,” he said. “I said: ‘You can save my life for my wife — I need to be here for her.’”
Mr Singh, who works for an IT company, got an opportunity to move to Ireland for work. He did it “for Ahana, so she would grow up and have lots of opportunities. She was the one who was most excited about the move,” he says.
They show me another video, of Ahana dancing to busker Sina Dhal singing The Fields of Athenry in Grafton Street, Dublin. “That’s Ahana in the blue jacket,” smiles Nalini. “The crowd were cheering her.”
“Give it up for Ahana!” Dhal says in the video. Now, her mother watches her “air-kissing everyone as if she was some celebrity”.
In the days that followed Ahana’s death, Dhal sent a video message and a version of that song, saying: “Ahana, everyone you have touched you filled with love, happiness and with light.”
She made a mark on her classmates, too. After her death, a rainbow appeared in the sky outside her former classroom at St Brigid’s. Her teacher told her parents that the children gazed out and shouted in unison, “That’s Ahana, that’s Ahana”.
“We once asked her if she had friends in school. She said: ‘I have 100 friends.’”
Sitting on the fireplace of their flat is a picture of a heart in red and pink — painted using the thumbprints of all her friends. The caption reads ‘Beautiful Ahana, from your 100 friends’.
Days before she died, Ahana was given homework to do in which she was asked to draw a picture of someone she would miss if they died.
“She drew me, dad and herself,” Nalini says, “but she wrote her name.”
At home, “Amazon’s Alexa was her best friend” and her favourite song was Legends Never Die. She was looking forward to her birthday. She had a party theme chosen: Princesses and Barbies. She had selected a cake and asked her mother that all her friends attend.
She always wanted to see snow — and on the day of her burial, it snowed.
“We had planned on taking her back home. Then Varun fell sick, so we had to bury her in Ireland. I think it is what she wanted,” Nalini says.
Ahana Singh rests at Dublin’s Glasnevin Cemetery wearing a ‘Happy Birthday’ sash and a ‘Birthday Girl’ badge. Some of her mother’s eyeshadow, with her little fingerprint pressed in the powder, sits inside the coffin, along with the roller skates and Barbie she wanted for her birthday. She is dressed in the pink princess dress that she never got to see.
Her parents visit Ahana’s grave every few days. Now that their daughter’s final resting place is here they say they cannot return to India.
“Ahana decided that we must stay,” her mother says.