My Heart Just Expanded… Needless, Accidental Death

What Do These Women Have in Common?

In the German fairy tale, by the Brothers Grim, the King’s son recites the classic line, “Rapunzel, Rapunzel let down your (golden) hair” as there was no other way for him to climb the tower to find his enchanted lady.

‘Such a charming children’s story, such a fairy tale…. ‘Too bad it was to be a premonition for disaster and a true 2011 tragic accident waiting to happen…. This is the story of a brilliant young woman who had the promise of a very fulfilling life in front of her. However, she was struck down in the cruelest of ways – medieval almost…

Sources including the Boston news, the Huffington Post and the New Haven Register have their versions of this sad and usual story with many facets.

Twenty-two year old Michele Dufault(second photo) was a physics and astronomy major at Yale University, originally from Schiuate, Massachusetts. Michele was described by family members as, “a living saint,” “simply brilliant, “a wonderful, wonderful kid who should be celebrated,” “a true intellectual.” A headmaster of her former Noble and Greenough School in Dedham , Mass stated: “She was distinctly humble, seemingly unaffected by her prodigious talent and academic attainments.”

On April 14, 2011, the Huffington Post reported that Michelle intended to work in the field of oceanography upon graduating. She played the saxophone in the Yale band. She also loved sports.

Michele was a meticulous researcher, according to one of her housemates, Merlyn Deng. Interestingly, her friends related that Michele “approached every aspect of her life like a scientist.” As an example, Merlyn and her friend, Alice discussed the fact that Michelle struggled to wake up every morning at 7 a.m. during her sophomore year. She problem solved this by purchasing an “enormous alarm clock” and experimented by placing it in different locations to effectively wake her up. Ultimately, Michelle settled for placement under her mattress where she felt the vibrations to help her to wake up each morning.

[Note: The Ladyjustice method- a noisy alarm clock placed strategically across the room so that LJ has to get out of bed to shut it off quickly…and not disturb the neighbors – at 5 am, not 7 am!]

Michele’s friends say she was content to discuss her achievements in science even though her discussions were “way over their heads.” But they would reply, “That’s really cool”… and she was satisfied.
Her thesis was a work in progress and concerned whether liquid helium could be used to find dark matter. [Those of us who are “physics –ly challenged” can only wonder what that means…]

She apparently had a zest for life that was very appealing to all. But it was not to be….

A Few Things Didn’t Add Up

Michele’s body was found by other students who were working in the building which housed the chemistry lab and machine shop. Her hair became caught in a fast spinning lathe – the weapon causing her death. According to the Connecticut Medical Examiner, her official cause of death was “accidental asphyxia by neck compression.”

Small metal working lathe. (New World Encyclopedia)

1) Michele reportedly had taken a safety course in the past that included instructions to tie back long hair. (Michelle’s brown hair was below shoulder length);

2) Michele assisted in writing a 60 page best practices manual for the lab/machine shop;

3) Yale’s chemistry department website claimed to have a “state of the art” machine shop” for students and staff to construct or modify research instruments.” But, OSHA found that the lathe used by Michele was built in 1962 – 49 years old and lacked an emergency stop button which would have shut off the power. In addition, the lathe had no physical guards to protect the machine’s operator;

4) No written warnings were posted; Mandatory surveys of use of personal protective equipment were not completed, nor was there documentation;

5) Safety inspections that were completed, did not include machine safeguarding;

6) “No Jurisdiction”- The U, S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration claimed that “it lacked jurisdiction to monitor this lab and machine shop because it had no employer-employee relationship.”

[ LJ- Really?? Highly skilled undergraduate students with professors and perhaps graduate student assistants monitoring actions during regular hours do not constitute enough of an employer-employee relationship for OSHA??
So, jurisdiction and the seriousness of the many safety violations doesn’t count even when someone asphyxiates herself?]

7) According to an OSHA letter obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, normally a fine would have been imposed on Yale University ….if jurisdiction existed because lack of machine safeguarding is considered a serious violation, as reported by Robert Kowalski, OSHA’s area director.

OSHA Recommendation

a) Establishing specific hours of operation for the chemistry lab and machine shop;
b) Ensuring that students don’t work alone;
c) Implementation of a formal training program

[Where, pray tell me , is the recommendation of the replacement of the 49 year old piece of equipment without an emergency stop? This type of recommendation is curiously missing from all of the articles reviewed. Do we need to take up a collection in Michelle’s memory?]

Such recommendations are not much comfort for Michelle’s family and friends, no doubt!

Coulda’, woulda,’ shoulda….

Pattern of Conduct and Common Sense

What we know about Michele, irrespective of her personality and scholarly status is:

She was always studying with few exceptions according to her friends;

She appeared to be a “night owl” as evidenced by her friends recounting her struggle to get up by 7 am;

She was found dead about 2:30 am by other students;

Her enthusiasm for her work was paramount and that others clearly had “no idea what she was talking about” said Merlyn Deng…. But their appreciation and support was enough for Michelle.

Ladyjustice remembers a handful of “brilliant scholars “in her seven consecutive years of academic undergraduate and graduate studies spanning three different settings.

You know the type….

The ‘man scholar” was a guy wearing a tweed coat and bow tie. He didn’t care that his clothes didn’t match. He didn’t sleep or eat much. He didn’t care for the usual “earthly concerns.” The women scholars were similar, in that they weren’t high fashion, no makeup. They were driven only by the project at hand and be damned with the rest of the world. If you didn’t share their vision to the same intensity, they could care less…
Please forgive this blogger, if she appears to “blame the victim” momentarily. However, another common characteristic was that for all of their brilliance, at times, such scholars seemed to lack basic common sense. After all, their brains were obviously hard wired differently than the rest of us….

If LJ may speculate a bit further…. Michele Default did have other interests which, at times, grounded her to the everyday world, such as a love of sports and playing saxophone in the band….

However, it’s not hard to imagine Michele busily focusing on her scientific work last April in the wee hours of the morning while others slept… She may have worked for several hours and skipped dinner in order to complete an experiment in a work area that may have been occupied by other students earlier in the day. (Police and the medical examiner could not determine the exact time of death or the events immediately prior to it.)

She was tired… She lacked nourishment….She was not concentrating on safety first! She did not use the common sense she should have possessed.

But, make no mistake, the major fault lies with a renown University who played fast and loose with its standards and monitoring procedures….and maybe held one too many faculty dinners instead of investing in real state of the art equipment deserving of this brilliant scholar. A modern lathe could have saved her life!

The fast spinning lathe guaranteed a quick but probably terrifying death. We are heartbroken for Michele and her family… a death so undeserved…. Coulda’, Woulda’, Shoulda..

Accidental Death Statistics

Data from the National Vital Statistics Report, Volume 50, No. 15, September 16, 2002, death statistical tables are cold … and revealing.

1)The total number of deaths reported (in the most recent report available- 9 years ago) in Michelle’s age range (15-24 years) was 14,113 or 14.4%;

2) Motor vehicle deaths comprised the highest number at 10,560 or

3) Poisoning & Noxious Substances was the third highest incidence and accounted for 1, 160 accidental deaths or 8.2%.

Michele’s death didn’t appear to fit any category listed. But, perhaps it would have been jotted down in the statistical column labeled, “Unspecified Non-transport Accidents” which included 648 deaths at the time, ranking at 4.6%. We all know after reading this story, that Michelle was far more than a “statistic on a page” and she had the potential for greatness!

Ladyjustice asks, what is the Moral of This Story?

Well, all of you lovely ladies with long flowing hair….. Including all of you in the land of the living – Hillary, Susan, Cher, Susan, Gloria, Aphrodite, Rapunzel, etc.

When necessary, Tie Your Hair Back, Damn it!
(Do it for Michelle, if not for yourself)


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