Far and Away

On the morning of January 21, 2002, a Monday, Laura Southwick, a 33-year-old shoe designer for Kenneth Cole Productions, was in her room at the Haiyatt Garden Hotel in Dongguan, China, getting ready to go to work. A stylish, lithe brunette with adventurous taste and sharp, retro bangs, Laura was one of the two women’s-shoe designers for the company’s younger, hipper Reaction line, and as such often traveled to Dongguan, a sprawling industrial town between Hong Kong and Guangzhou. Around 11:30 a.m., she got a call from her boyfriend, Chad Pearson, who worked for an architecture firm in New York and whom she had dated for almost four years. It was still Sunday night in New York, and Chad was calling from the Chelsea loft they’d renovated together. When Laura traveled, they spoke every day, despite the thirteen-hour time difference. • “I’m going to work really late—I have to call you back,” she said breathlessly. “Make sure you call me. Please, please, please call me,” Chad said. “See you Friday. I love you.” Laura had been in Dongguan for two weeks and had five more days to go, overseeing production of the fall 2002 collection. For a mass-market shoe designer, or “line builder,” this was standard procedure; Laura had made dozens of similar trips, four in the past year—sometimes, as in this case—alone. This one, however, was to be different.

Exhausted from commuting between continents and from the endless bouts of jet lag, she had made up her mind to quit her job. She had even started considering other prospects, including a position with Christian Dior in Paris, and had drafted a letter of resignation that she brought with her to Dongguan. “I’m leaving on Friday and this is it, this is the last time,” she e-mailed a close friend later that Monday.

That was the last anyone back home ever heard from her. Two days later, at around 6 a.m., she was found dead in her room at the Chang-An Hospital in Dongguan. She had been admitted the evening before with what appeared to be the flu. Neither Kenneth Cole Productions nor her family was notified that she was ill. She didn’t travel with an international cell phone—as her family agonized over later. Records show that she had been given an EKG; she was treated for dehydration and given Valium for anxiety. After spending the night in a semi-delirious state, she died alone.

The autopsy report would blame Laura’s death on viral myocarditis, an infection that can develop, in rare cases, into heart failure, though with proper diagnosis and the right treatment, it can be cured. In Laura’s case, however, the EKG apparently was not seen by a doctor until after her death.

To read more, purchase the March 10, 2003 issue of New York magazine.

Far and Away