Connecting Two Obituaries

Miss Grace Olivia Fields, the daughter of David and Tracy Fields of Lakeland, died Tuesday (Dec. 18, 2001) in Lakeland. She was 3 months old.

Mrs. Paula C. Burcham passed away Thursday, Oct. 1, 2009 in Jacksonville due to complications from cancer.

Although the obituaries seem unrelated, the two are forever connected.

Grace Fields died in 2001 while under the watch of daycare operator Paula Burcham. At first Sudden Infant Death Syndrome was suspected. Some days later, the medical examiner’s report indicated the cause of Fields’ death to be an overdose of diphenhydramine. Burcham then admitted she had mixed Benadryl into the baby’s formula.

On September 12, 2002 a Polk County grand jury indictment indicated that “Burcham gave Grace diphenhydramine, an active ingredient in Benadryl, “without lawful justification.”

According to Tracy Fields, Burcham had given the over-the-counter medication without her permission. At that time, the labels on Benadryl stated to get a doctor’s permission before administering the drug to children under the age of six.

Tracy Fields, a neonatal nurse, was quoted by the Ledger after the indictment, “”Just because it’s over-the-counter doesn’t mean it’s safe,” Fields said. “I’d like to see it out of all children’s medicine.”

During the long trial, one Lakeland parent wrote to the Ledger,

Sadly, the real issue is the cold medication. It was indicated in earlier news articles that Tracy Fields’ real cause was to make public the overuse of this drug. From my own experiences having children from 25 to 10, I could not even count the times that well-meaning friends and relatives have advised me for many years to give Benadryl to my kids when they are sick or fussy or just won’t sleep. – Beverly Fox

In May 2003, Burcham accepted a deal with prosecutors to plead no contest to a manslaughter charge. She agreed never again to baby-sit anyone under six, except for family members. The prosecutors agreed to seek to cap her prison sentence at eight years, with no more than seven years probation.

Amid speculation about Burcham’s likely sentence, members of both families stated the obvious: This is a case with no winners, where everyone involved is hurting because of Grace’s death. – The Ledger

At her sentencing hearing, Burcham’s lawyer argued that the overdose wasn’t intentional and could have happened to any parent. Circuit Judge Dick Prince noted that Burcham had failed to inform paramedics she had administered the drug. Polk County Medical Examiner Stephen Nelson testified that it was questionable that knowledge of the drug use would have allowed paramedics to save the life of Fields.

According to the report, paramedics and an emergency room doctor found a pulse in Grace. Given that and testimony about an antidote that could have been administered, the judge called Burcham’s decision to withhold information that could have saved Grace’s life “absolutely intolerable.” – The Ledger

Prince keyed on the failure to notify and stated that “Burcham’s decision robbed Grace of the chance to survive.” He then ruled Burcham to serve the full eight years negotiated under the plea agreement.

After the sentencing, an AP report centered on the use of over-the-counter drug related deaths in daycare centers. (Sitter Not Alone in Drugging Babies)

Friends of Burcham also wrote to The Ledger to express their support: Paula Burcham Trustworthy, Sitter Did Not Sedate Babies, and Two Suspected Child Sedation.

Burcham went to jail. In December 2003, Tracy Fields filed suit against Burcham, the makers of Benadryl and its generic equivalent, and the drug store that sold the medication. She also sued Polk County, the Polk County Health Department, and the Florida Department of Children & Families (FDCF).

According to the Ledger report, Fields’ suit stated “County and DCF officials acted irresponsibly by not investigating or shutting down Burcham’s day care, which they knew was unlicensed.” Over the next months, the drug store, FDCF, the makers of Benadryl, and Burcham were dismissed from the suit. In October 2004, a judge removed the last defendant from the suit.

It was the last time Lakelanders would read of Grace Fields and Paula Burcham.

Grace Fields obituary

September 13, 2002: Ex-Day Care Operator Indicted in Child’s Death

May 22, 2003 Woman Pleads No Contest in Death

August 15, 2003: Caregiver Faces Judgment

August 16, 2003: Baby Sitter Sentenced to 8 Years for Infant’s Death

August 23, 2003 Sitter Not Alone in Drugging Babies

August 28, 2003: Paula Burcham Trustworthy

September 4, 2003: Sitter Did Not Sedate Babies

September 18, 2004: BENADRYL REMOVED FROM CIVIL LAWSUIT

December 21, 2003: Mother Files Suit in Infant’s Death

September 9, 2003: Two Suspected Child Sedation

September 23, 2003: Baby Sitter’s Jail Time Doesn’t Help Publicize Problem

October 23, 2004: MOTHER IN BABY’S DEATH CASE APPEALS RULING

Paula Burcham’s Obituary