Food Allergies Can Be Fatal
My little sister Mary was four years younger than I. She died this
year at age 33 because of severe allergies to nuts and accidental exposure to
them. She was my only sibling.
As long as I can remember Mary was a sickly child. Back in the 60s we
really didn't understand why, but we did find out at a year old that she had
asthma. My mother was referred to an allergist and Mary had treatment from
him for many years of her childhood.
We always knew Mary had asthma, but it wasn't until one day that my mom put some
peanut butter on a piece of toast that we discovered she had a severe food
allergy as well. Her allergist gave her weekly shots for this and prick
testing as well. At this time she was about four years old and we were never
told that she had a life-threatening condition, and we were never informed
My sister lived her life puffing inhalers -- they were always in her hand or
nearby. She was also taking Theophilin prescribed by her Pulmonary
Specialist to control her asthma as an adult, but was never informed that she
had a life-threatening condition or even given an Epi-Pen in case of
accidental exposure to nuts. Now that we look back, many times that she was
in respiratory arrest, she was actually in anaphylactic shock, but the word
"anaphylaxis" was never used or mentioned to either her or her family.
She felt if she could keep her athsma under control, she was OK, and she
already knew she had to avoid nuts.
I remember a time when she went into a home when they had just finished
baking peanut butter cookies. It immediately sent her into shock. We almost
lost her on September 4, 1998. She and I went out for some Mexican food --
she ate a tamale that had peanuts in the masa. She told me she was having a
food reaction and that she would be OK. Driving home, she almost completely
stopped breathing. I rushed her home and called 911. They were there within
five minutes and immediately gave her an IV and a shot of epinephrine and
Benadryl. They rushed her to the emergency room code blue. She came out of
it OK -- they watched her for a few hours and sent her home. I remember that
night after it all happened, asking her why she had such violent reactions to
nuts. She told me she thought she had anaphylaxis and that her doctor was
not treating her properly. She was correct.
I felt so helpless, like there was nothing in the world that could be done for
her. Mary lived each day like it was her last. She used to tell me that
nuts were going to get her one day. We both looked at each other on the night
of September 4, 1998, and she had a look on her face as if to tell me "I can't
go through this anymore Eileen, its just too hard for me." I will never
forget that look she gave me.
The night of May 15, 1999, I had just finished a long day working and I was
about to relax in my bed for the night. My husband was away on military.
It was about 9:40 PM when the phone rang. It was my mother. She
told me they were at a hospital in the city next to theirs and that they were
with my sister. She had been exposed to nuts. I asked if she was OK and she
said "I don't know. They have been working on her for over two hours and she
isn't responding." I immediately called my friend Alina and she drove about an
hour to the hospital where my sister was. I was greeted by my father and my
sister's fiance Barry. My dad shook his head, crying, and said "It's real bad
this time, Eileen."
My sister had obtained her Masters Degree six months before her death. She had
just been hired as an Administrator for the Mental Health Department in the
county where she died. That evening she wanted to celebrate her new-found
success and was going to treat her fiance, her best friend, and her best
friend's husband to a fine dinner.
They selected the "Feast for 4," which was a family-style dinner, but mentioned
to the waitress that Mary had severe nut allergies and could not have any
nuts, nut products or anything that could be cross-contaminated. They all
mentioned this three times and made an issue of it. The waitress then called the
manager over to their table, and the manager guaranteed them that her food
was safe for her to eat.
About ten minutes after they were served, Mary excused herself and went to the
bathroom. Within a few minutes she came back to the table and called the
waitress over and said "I'm having a food reaction. Call 911. It's going to be
bad". She then exited the restaurant with her party onto the patio. She
always did this as if she were trying to get air. Her fiance ran back to see
if 911 had been called. In the meantime, Mary was gasping for air and her throat
was almost completely swollen shut. Her tongue swelled out of her mouth and
she began to turn blue and then collapsed. She was unconscious and not
breathing. A doctor and five medical students happened to be dining on the
patio and witnessed my sister collapsing. They ran to her aid, and began
doing CPR. One student ran to the car to get a knife to open her throat
with. Just about the time when they were going to open her throat, the
ambulance came with no paramedic and no epinephrine. Several minutes later
the paramedics came and began trying to intubate her, but her throat was
swollen shut. Her pulse was already weak, so they just transported her and
continued trying to intubate her and do CPR.
In the emergency room, her heart stopped and they brought her back. We, her
family, were not informed of anything that was happening. We just had to wait.
They finally took her to ICU where, shortly after, I arrived. We all heard "code
blue." We were all sure it wasn't Mary.
About an hour later the doctor came to see us and told us Mary's heart had
stopped and there was nothing they could do to bring her back. She was in
code blue for three hours, and her pupils had been fixed and dialated since they
arrived at the restaurant.
We then went to see her body. It was the most horrible thing I had ever
seen. She was swollen from her waist to her head three times her own size. Her
lungs had collapsed and basically she suffocated to death and drowned in her
This has been very hard for me to write about, but if it can save a life,
anyone's life, please please please don't let a food allergy go untreated.
Also carry an Epi-Pen everywhere you go -- you just never know.
Mary was supposed to get married. I'm a florist and I was supposed to arrange
her wedding flowers. Instead I arranged her funeral flowers. There is a
pain in me that will linger the rest of my days because of this night.
Please don't let it happen to you.
You have just finished reading a sad, true story
of how a deadly anaphylaxis reaction affected
one woman and her family and friends.
Food allergies are very serious business.
If you have them and have never taken them
seriously before, now is the time.
Food allergies are often considered "silly." One author wrote that she had
food allergies and knew so because she would spit out vegetables and fruits
as a child. Kevin Sorbo, better known as Hercules, reported in Parade
magazine that he was probably allergic to some food because he couldn't stand
it. Because of this misconception (that people who don't like a food must
be allergic), food allergies are often considered to be a silly excuse
for not eating a disliked food.
The truth is, plenty of people with food allergies like the food they are allergic
to (that is, if they have ever ingested it).
Not liking something has nothing to do with being allergic to it.
And, believe it or not, people die from food
allergic reactions. This is not a silly excuse for not eating food.
It is instead a serious disease that requires that food's (or foods') absence.
Because of this, we've compiled a list of "tips" on how to be safer about your
allergies. Although this list is not complete and there are literally dangers
"everywhere," we hope the list will help you a little bit in becoming more
proactive and cautious.
Potentially life-saving materials: You or your child should carry, at your doctor's advice, an epinephrine injector if
faced with severe food allergies. Talk to your trusty allergist immediately to
find out how to obtain this important (perhaps life-saving) device.
In addition, if the food allergies are life-threatening, or you just want some
peace of mind, invest in a medical bracelet or necklace.
Avoid eating out. In the United States, it is currently acceptable and
legal for restaurants to refuse to give out ingredient listings. This can be
very difficult for people with food allergies. Be aware that even if you find
a restaurant that works for you now, the ingredients can change, or might
vary from location to location. Remember, something safe looking like French
fries or a slab of meat may have been fried in something as unsafe as
peanut oil. Cross-contamination can also, and does, occur. If you live in a
country other than the US, check with a food service there to see what is/is not
required. A study printed in Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that many of the 32 deaths investigated (almost half) were from eating out in restaurants and cafeterias. Some of these restaurants told the diners that the dishes were free of their allergens...but they were not. Instead of eating the food in a restaurant, try taking along your own food in a mini-cooler or insulated lunch bag. You'll have all the fun without the worry.
Convenient meals can instead be "invented" by purchasing chambered
microwaveable/dishwasher-safe containers. Put in a safe veggie, a protein side,
and a dessert in each of the containers. Frozen meals microwave inbetween
2-4 minutes, and are a great way to get convenience and normality. Children's
frozen dinners can be supplemented with a little "prize" like the "real" ones
have. FAST pioneered this idea (of using TV dinner plastic reusable trays),
and we are happy to know that it has been "taking off."
Avoid eating at friends' homes. Friends often do not understand the importance
of allergens being absent from all foods. When I ate at someone's home, she refused
to show me the label on a can of refried beans. I later got very ill and missed
a semester of school. Why not concentrate on non-food related activities, like
miniature golfing or smoke-free-environment bowling? Or, have your friend over
to eat at your house. If you or your child will not get sick from breathing
in a food, and if you know it will be safe, why not take along a little "picnic lunch" to the friend's home?
If you do not have allergies, remember to take other people's food allergies
seriously. It is not funny, however it may seem, that someone can get ill
from inhaling or ingesting food. Just as you would not make fun of someone who
reacts to an enzyme in cat's saliva (after all, that's what a cat allergy generally
is), you shouldn't laugh at people with food allergies either. Take their requests
for ingredient listings, etc. seriously.
People can get sick inhaling allergens. That's right -- inhaling them. I
recently got sick walking down an aisle of breaded items. I was able to smell
the wheat present in these foods and went home with severe diarrhea. My wheat allergies
are likely not life-threatening, so I would hate to see what might have happened to
someone with anaphylaxis.
Schools are required by the Americans with Disabilities Act to
provide for children with allergies. Work with your school to get them
acquainted to an EpiPen, calling emergency numbers, etc.
[This section was by Melissa Taylor.]