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A bitter pill: One family's tragedy becomes plea to secure household poisons

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- "With a knock on the door, my entire life changed. At 11:45 p.m. one of my night sergeants dressed in desert camouflage stood outside my trailer door clutching a note, my heart skipped a beat. He said I needed to call home now, something was wrong," said then-1st Lt. Kevin Lombardo. "When I heard the sound of my wife Billie's voice, I knew it was serious."

While deployed to Iraq in 2006, Lombardo, who was then an operations officer for the 21st Security Forces Squadron here, learned his 3-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, were being rushed to the hospital after climbing into a kitchen cabinet, prying open a child resistant heart prescription bottle and swallowing the medicine.

"Knowing the twins were in comas and I still had a two-day journey home was the hardest thing for me," he said. "I couldn't be there for my family."

It is a difficult task to get home from Baghdad. They loaded up a Humvee with weapons to safeguard against roadside threats and traveled the dangerous route in the war-torn country to board a 2 a.m. jet to Qatar. It took five connecting flights and 36 hours before the anxious lieutenant finally set foot in the United States.

He arrived 16 minutes after his little girl died.

Now a major and serving as the 721st Security Forces Squadron commander, Lombardo reflects upon the tragedy, especially as the holidays loom.

"No one ever expects something like this will ever happen to them," Lombardo said. "It just didn't seem real when I was told she was gone."

Dec. 27 had been a typical day at the Lombardo's home. Just two days after Christmas, all four children were in and out of their rooms, watching television and playing with new toys.

His now ex-wife Billie walked into the kitchen and Chloe said, "Mommy I sick." The experienced mother of four glanced at the clock; 12:30 p.m., time for lunch. With one of her toddler twins resting on the bed in a nearby bedroom and another sitting quietly at the kitchen table she began making sandwiches. Chloe suddenly passed out at the table.

Lexie, the Lombardo's 10-year-old daughter called 911. Chloe went into convulsions. Billie found a half-spilled bottle of medicine and knew then that her other toddler who had been resting on the bed, was lethargic from also swallowing medicine. The terrified mother waited desperately for help to arrive. Firefighters and an ambulance arrived within minutes and transported the twins separately to Memorial Hospital.

Friends quickly arrived to stay behind with Lexie and her 7-year-old sister, Lidia.

In the hospital, Chloe's tiny body could no longer fight the poisonous medicine. What little strength she had left seemed to transfer to her twin brother, he miraculously survived the accident.

At 12:29 p.m., Dec. 29, 2006, Chloe Bella died.

The hospital nurses let her mother and grandmother give her a bath and wash the long chestnut curls of her hair. The other children got to hold her hand. For the next 14 hours extended family arrived to grieve their loss.

"When I finally saw her she looked like a perfect angel," Lombardo said.

The day before the memorial service in their Cleveland, Ohio, hometown, the family viewed her tiny body in the coffin. Peering into her open casket her twin brother said "Coco's sleeping." The priest who, several years earlier, baptized the twins presided over Chloe's funeral.

The family also held a local memorial service at the Peterson chapel. The responding fire and rescue crews came as well as Chloe's nurses from the hospital. The nurses gave Lombardo a handmade paper box that contained a perfect replica of his daughter's hand they had made from a plaster mold while preparing Chloe's body for burial.

As the tragic anniversary of Chloe's death approaches, children will be home for vacation, and more household accidents may occur. The Lombardo's want their story to help others avoid the heart breaking loss they experienced.

"This happens every day in America," Lombardo said. "They tell you to keep medicine out of reach of your children, but really, it needs to be locked up. Now, my son has to grow up without his best friend, his twin sister," he said.

According to the American Association of Poison Control, more than 40,000 people die each year from unintentional poisoning. The association reports that most poisonings involve everyday household items such as medicine, cleaning supplies, cosmetics and personal care items.

Lombardo's wife has found strength in sharing her message of securing household poisons, storing all of their household cleaners and medicine in a locked wall cabinet. "I tell people I don't even know they need to lock up their medicine. Kids are curious.

"Through the story of her death, Chloe is saving the lives of other children," she said.

(This article originally appeared in 2006, written by then-Capt. Amy Sufak. The family asked the article be reprinted as a reminder to all families to properly secure medicine and household chemicals.)

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