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Cecilia C. Ekperi ’09, a leader of Harvard’s black community remembered by friends for her outgoing personality, died last Thursday after she fell ill during a basketball game. She was 19.
Ekperi was playing basketball at the National Cathedral School in Washington D.C. with three other friends. After taking a shot and landing on her feet, she sat down on the ground, and then proceeded to lay prone on the floor. The three friends, including Patrick Jean Baptiste ’09, thought that Ekperi was playing a joke and was pretending to be hurt. The two other friends were not Harvard students.
When they realized that Ekperi was unresponsive, one of the friends—Sarah Nutman, a rising senior at the Georgetown Day School in D.C. who is a certified medical technician—found that Ekperi still had a pulse and began to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. When Ekperi’s pulse stopped a few seconds later, Nutman began to administer CPR.
Nutman said that it became clear “that there was something really wrong” with Ekperi shortly after Ekperi laid down on the gym floor. Nutman added that she began to administer medical help about a minute after Ekperi laid down.
According to Nutman, a basketball coach who was at the court called for medical help.
A security guard brought over a defibrillator to try to revive Ekperi. Nutman, the guard, and another student continued to administer CPR.
When an ambulance arrived, the medical staff also tried to revive Ekperi, giving her oxygen, CPR, and medication. But they could not rescue her, Jean Baptiste said.
The medical staff said that Ekperi had died before they arrived at the scene, according to Jean Baptiste.
Jean Baptiste said he later spoke to a doctor who said that Ekperi likely died of an undiagnosed heart problem that was not detected during physical examinations. Nutman said that the medical cause of Ekperi’s death has not been confirmed.
“The doctor said that [fatal heart conditions are] rare but that it happens among young athletes,” said Jean Baptiste, who is also a Crimson editor.
Ekperi was an athlete who played basketball all of her life, added Jean Baptiste, who said he and Ekperi had become close friends over the course of the summer.
“The only thing that brings me some type of comfort is that she was doing something she loved when she died,” he said. “Even on her way to the court she was saying that basketball was something that was very important to her.”
The Washington D.C. Coroner’s Office confirmed last Friday that Ekperi died, though they did not release the cause of death.
Friends remembered Ekperi, who lived in Greenough as a freshman and was going to live in Winthrop House next year, for her energy and her involvement in Harvard’s black community.
“Whenever I think of Cecilia, I think of laughter and joy and happiness. She loved to talk and have a really good time,” said Sarah Lockridge-Steckel ’09, who was also Ekperi’s blockmate.
“She always added so much to whatever we were doing, whether it was academics or a party or just goofing around,” Lockridge-Steckel said. “She was very much the life of what we did.”
Another friend, Laurel A. Macey, said that Ekperi “was very outgoing, exuberant, very outspoken, laughed easily. She had a good sense of humor and dedication to whatever she did.”
Ekperi, Lockridge-Steckel, and Macey became close friends last year through the leadership posts they held in the Freshman Black Table. Ekperi was the organization’s social chair, while Lockridge-Steckel was the president and Macey the secretary.
They were also all members of the Association of Black Harvard Women (ABHW).
“She was very passionate about issues in the black community specifically,” Lockridge-Steckel said. “She cared a lot about [ABHW] and about really establishing community.”
Ekperi was also a member of BlackCAST, and served as sound technician for the group’s April performance of “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf/For Black Boys Who Have Considered Homicide When the Streets Were Too Much,” at the Loeb Experimental Theater.
Macey said that a funeral would be held on July 22 at 11 am, after a viewing from 10 am to 11 am, but the location has not yet been determined.
Macey also added that she and others will plan a memorial service for Ekperi when students return to campus in the fall.
Ekperi, who was of Nigerian descent, is survived by her parents and an older sister, Macey said.
—Staff writer Pierpaolo Barbieri contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer William C. Marra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Brittney L. Moraski can be reached at email@example.com.
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