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Lead Poisoning, a Heart Transplant and Now a Lot of Questions 

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click to enlarge Ebony as a little girl at the Coronado. - FAMILY PHOTO
  • Ebony as a little girl at the Coronado.

Many children with lead poisoning exhibit no immediate symptoms, and so the toxic effects are given time to take a toll on brain function. In Smith-Thomas' case, the hospital report from September 1985 states that her lead level had been "checked at day care as long ago as 10 months" and there were signs of lead poisoning. "Follow up was poor in the meantime" and the lead level increased. "Symptomatically, the mother reports the patient has been somewhat clumsy and increasingly so over the last several months."

From her own recollection, Thomas-Smith remembers that as she sought attention for her daughter, a physician at first discounted the symptoms. But Thomas-Smith remembers returning to the doctor and insisting that she take another look. That ultimately led to six days of treatment at Cardinal Glennon, from September 6 to September 11, 1985.

Even with early intervention, some lead remains in the body, seeping into the bones where it can linger throughout life.

The family's apartment, inside the old Coronado Hotel, built in the 1920s, was at 3701 Lindell Boulevard. Designed by architect Preston J. Bradshaw along with other significant structures along that boulevard, the hotel fell on hard times in the 1960s and closed. SLU purchased the Coronado in 1964 to use for student housing, renamed it Louis Hall, then closed it in 1986. The once-grand building stood vacant and fell into disrepair until developers Amrit and Amy Gill purchased the property and began reviving it in 2002 with apartments, a restaurant and event spaces.

University officials were asked to see if they could find records relating to Ebony Smith-Thomas' stay there. Debbie Thomas-Smith and her family moved in while she pursued her education as a paralegal at the law school across the street. Looking back, and knowing what she knows now, Thomas-Smith finds it ironic that some professionals at the university's medical school were at the forefront of lead-poisoning mitigation, while other university officials turned a blind eye to her daughter's plight.

"Not just a blind eye," Thomas-Smith says in a recent interview. "The SLU on-campus housing staff treated Ebony's health crisis like their mouths were sewn shut, too."

Maybe still. University President Fred Pestello, a sociologist by training, has through his Twitter feed and other communications taken strong stances regarding matters of racial equity and social justice, but the university had little to say about this instance of lead poisoning or the family's concerns. Jeff Fowler, SLU's vice president of marketing and communications, said he could only state that Thomas-Smith was a student there in 1984 and 1985 but could not confirm her connection to the Coronado/Louis Hall. Nor did the university provide any information about its administration of the Coronado.

Fowler declined to provide any answers to follow-up questions, including: Does the university have any record of lead poisoning having occurred at the Coronado? Will the university check to see if it has any record indicating that lead-paint issues were ever addressed at the Coronado? Would a university official speak to Smith-Thomas and her mother so they could share details to make a record search more effective?

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