fb-pixel Skip to main content

Father testifies about last smile from his daughter

Umesh Dhekane recalled dropping off his daughter at the baby sitter’s home.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

WOBURN — What Umesh Dhekane remembers best from the day his daughter stopped breathing was her smile. Dhekane glanced back at 6-month-old Ridhima as he left her at a baby sitter’s home in Burlington on March 27, 2014.

“I looked over to her and she was happy,” he testified Tuesday in Middlesex Superior Court. “That is the memory I have.”

Six hours later, Ridhima was near death. Now her baby sitter, 45-year-old Pallavi Macharla, is charged with her murder.

Macharla, who has pleaded not guilty, contends the infant choked on applesauce, vomited, and stopped breathing.

But prosecutors say the baby died from blunt force trauma and shaking injuries to her head.

Advertisement



The trial has highlighted dueling accounts of the science surrounding shaken baby deaths, pitting against one another two former Massachusetts medical examiners with starkly differing opinions about the case. But most of Tuesday’s testimony was personal, as Ridhima’s parents described their daughter’s last days.

Dhekane said he dressed Ridhima and her big sister in their Halloween costumes the night before the fatal incident. The family snapped photos of the girls, trying to get a wiggly Ridhima, dressed as a lady bug, to look at the camera. Ridhima had been too young and the night too cold on Halloween to celebrate, so they chose to mark her 6-month milestone in the costumes.

The next day was unremarkable as they readied Ridhima for the baby sitter’s, and her older sister, Manwi, for school, both Dhekane and his wife, Jyoti Shinde, testified. Then came the call at 2:40 p.m. when Macharla, the baby sitter, told Shinde that Ridhima had choked and stopped breathing. Shinde raced to her home, just a few minutes away.

Jyoti Shinde testified at Middlesex Superior Court. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

“Ridhima was kind of limp. She was, like, barely breathing,” Shinde said. She remembers watching Macharla, who worked as a doctor in her native India, give Ridhima mouth to mouth resuscitation as Shinde called 911 on her cellphone.

Advertisement



Macharla’s landline was not connected to 911, her husband, Anthony Vakamalla, testified. Vakamalla, an information technology specialist, said he didn’t realize the Google computer phone system he set up didn’t have emergency calling capability.

He said his wife repeatedly tried to reach him at work, and when she finally reached him, told him there had been “an emergency,” and that Ridhima had vomited after eating applesauce and had become “unresponsive.”

But earlier Tuesday, the former Massachusetts chief medical examiner testified that he had no doubt that Ridhima died of blunt force trauma to her head and being shaken.

Quietly, and using clinical terms, Dr. Henry Nields said there were no signs of any disease or other significant findings that would explain the baby’s death. His testimony directly contradicted that of his former student, Dr. Anna McDonald, who testified Monday that Ridhima died from cardiac arrest.

McDonald, who at the time was a doctor-in-training in the medical examiner’s office, originally ruled Ridhima died of blunt force trauma and shaking injuries. Nields supervised that autopsy.

But McDonald left the medical examiner’s office shortly after that, and in 2016 contacted the office saying she wanted to change her findings.

McDonald testified Monday that after leaving Massachusetts, she further studied medical records from Ridhima’s case. She said she now believes that widespread hemorrhages in Ridhima’s brain were the result of a significant lack of oxygen after choking, and the hemorrhages were caused by aggressive attempts by doctors to save her life.

Advertisement



But Nields testified that McDonald was wrong. The evidence in the autopsy did not support that finding, he said. The autopsy suggests either impact with an object or “potentially more than one impact,” Nields said.

Nields retired from the medical examiner’s office in January 2018, but testified he still works for the office part time on a contract basis. Records from the state medical examiner’s office show Nields performed 77 autopsies in the last six months of 2018, more than most of the full-time medical examiners on staff.


Kay Lazar can be reached at kay.lazar@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar. Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.