FAIRFIELD, Conn. —The cause of death for a Sacred Heart University student who choked during a pancake-eating contest on campus was asphyxia due to obstruction of the airway by a small mass of food, the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner said Wednesday.
The death of 20-year-old Caitlin Nelson on Sunday was ruled an accident, said Julie Bolcer, executive director of public affairs and communications at the medical examiner's office.
The SHU community in Fairfield has been reeling since Nelson was rushed to St. Vincent’s Medical Center on Thursday evening after she began to shake and collapsed while participating in the Greek Life contest on the University Commons.
The Clark, N.J., resident had eaten four or five pancakes before she collapsed, spitting out some food, but still choking, witnesses told police. A nursing student began CPR, while others attempted to use the Heimlich maneuver and began pulling food from her throat, police said.
Nelson was transferred to Columbia University Medical Center on Friday, where she died on Sunday afternoon.
Sunday night’s Mass at SHU’s Chapel of the Holy Spirit was dedicated to Nelson and attended by thousands of students, faculty and staff — many of whom stood outside the chapel during the service, SHU said in a statement.
The service was followed by an impromptu candlelight vigil as community members consoled one another and offered prayers for her and her family and friends.
The SHU flag has been lowered to half-staff in her memory.
"She passed away ... and is now with her father, who was a victim of the 9-11 attacks," SHU President John J. Petillo said in an email to parents Sunday.
Nelson’s family donated her organs after her death.
"The entire Sacred Heart community is sending their sympathy and prayers to Caitlin’s family and friends," Petillo said in his email. "No parent should ever have to receive news like this. I ask for your prayers for Caitlin’s mother, family and friends."