Luke Ramone Harper (8) from Clonlara Road, Ringsend suffered fatal brain injuries after being overcome by helium after he placed a balloon in the shape of the figure “8” that had been bought for his birthday party a week earlier over his head.
The young boy was pronounced dead at Temple Street Children’s Hospital in Dublin on April 2 last year.
His mother, Hilary McSweeney, told an inquest at Dublin District Coroner’s Court on Friday that Luke had been playing upstairs the previous afternoon and watching YouTube videos.
Ms McSweeney said her son, who had autism and had been diagnosed with ADHD, had not responded when she called him and his sister, Ella, to come down for dinner shortly before 5pm.
She described discovering him lying face down on the ground upstairs in an unresponsive state with a balloon completely over his head.
Ms McSweeney said the balloon had been floating in the sitting room for the previous week after his birthday party and was partially deflated.
She said her son’s body was limp as she pulled the balloon off his face and rushed him outside in the back garden to get fresh air.
The inquest heard she and Luke’s father, Martin Harper, gave their son chest compressions while they waited for emergency services to arrive.
Ms McSweeney said she knew that Luke was “in trouble” by the amount of time paramedics had spent working on him in the garden before taking him by ambulance to hospital.
While in hospital, she heard that he had suffered a cardiac arrest.
“It was obvious his brain was very badly damaged and he was on life support,” Ms McSweeney recalled. “I knew Luke was dead at that point and the machine was keeping him alive.”
After being informed by doctors the following day that it was time to say goodbye, Ms McSweeney said they took mementos of Luke through his hair, handprint and footprint.
She recounted how she lay on her son’s bed with his favourite blanket and teddy bear and surrounded by his family as he passed away. He was formally pronounced dead at 3.52pm on April 2, 2021.
“I felt numb, heartbroken and in a pain you can’t imagine,” she told the inquest.
Describing Luke, she said he was an excellent son who was “full of confidence and full of loving”.
In response to queries from the coroner, Cróna Gallagher, Ms McSweeney said her son had always had helium balloons for his birthday parties but there had never been a similar incident or any attempt to put a balloon over his head.
“It was a complete freak accident,” she remarked.
Mr Harper said his son would have been totally unaware that helium was sometimes inhaled by older children because of the way it changes their voice.
He said the family believed that Luke was just trying to reinflate the balloon and he “blacked out”.
A post-mortem found Luke died as a result of a lack of oxygen to the brain due to a cardiac arrest which had been caused by the inhalation of helium from a partially-deflated balloon.
Dr Gallagher said he would have suffered rapid and severe brain damage in what was “an insurmountable injury.”
The coroner said Luke was likely to have lost consciousness very quickly after inhaling the helium as there was no evidence that he had tried to take the balloon off his head or seek help from others.
Dr Gallagher said the evidence indicated it was the gas and not the balloon which was responsible for the tragedy.
The coroner said she was reluctant to make any recommendations in the case as it would suggest the accident might have been predictable.
“This case could not have been predicted. It was so unusual and so unfortunate,” she remarked.
However, Dr Gallagher said people did not realise how dangerous helium could be and only a very small amount of the gas could do damage.
At the same time, she stressed that she was not suggesting that people should not have helium balloons at parties and other celebrations.
Based on the evidence, Dr Gallagher returned a verdict of accidental death.
Offering condolences to Luke’s family, she said there was no death as tragic as that of a child in such circumstances.
Speaking after the hearing, the boy’s parents said they were anxious for other families to be aware of the potential danger of helium balloons, particularly with younger children.
“When finished with them, people should just make sure to dispose of them correctly,” said Mr Harper.