Monday, May 28, 2012

Mourning Another Food-Allergy Death

by Kelley Lindberg

Memorial Day is a day of remembrance for loved ones and strangers alike who have passed on, leaving the world a little richer for having been here – and yet a little emptier at the same time.

This Memorial Day, unfortunately, we have another child in the food allergy community to mourn. A 15-year-old boy in Atlanta, Georgia, died while celebrating a soccer game with his teammates at a buffet restaurant. (“Teen Dies After Apparent Allergic Reaction to Nuts,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Diallo Robbins-Brinson knew he was allergic to peanuts his whole life, but had gotten so used to avoiding peanuts that he no longer carried an EpiPen. At the buffet restaurant, he grabbed a couple of his favorite cookies: white chocolate with macadamia nuts. Within minutes he’d passed out and never recovered.

Statistics show that most food-allergy-related deaths are among teenagers, especially boys, who don’t carry their EpiPens with them. It seems such a simple thing – avoid the food, but carry an EpiPen for those times when you accidentally ingest the allergen. Yet teenage boys feel immortal and bulletproof, they think they are smarter than their parents, and they are horrified by the thought of having to carry those EpiPens when no one else has to carry anything. At least girls can carry cute purses without anyone caring. Boys don’t have that luxury.

My own son is now in those teen years, and I am nervous. So far, he’s okay with carrying his EpiPens in a string-bag-type backpack. But being a teenager, he’s as forgetful as a toddler (worse?), and he doesn’t remember to carry it if I don’t remind him on the way out the door. So I’m showing him this story about this Atlanta teenager as a reminder of how it’s not just Mom being overly protective. It is literally a matter of life and death.

In the news story, Diallo’s mother is quoted as saying, “He thought he was eating something safe… He loved them. If he had smelled peanut butter, he wouldn't have picked them."

That statement shows one of the misconceptions about food allergies – that you can always tell just by smell or by sight if a food contains an allergen. I’ve heard of people who swear they can tell if a food contains an allergen by touching the food to their tongue; if their tongue tingles, they avoid the food. That is a highly dangerous way to test a food, and can give a very false sense of security. Perhaps the portion of the cookie you touch to your tongue isn’t contaminated, but another is. Perhaps there is not enough quantity to make your tongue tingle, but enough to make your body react if you eat it. It’s a game of Russian Roulette. The safer option is to ask for an ingredients list when possible, and avoid anything suspect if there isn’t an ingredients list. No cookie, cupcake, or salad ever invented is worth losing your life, or your child’s life.

This is the third Atlanta child to die from a food allergic reaction since last August. I hope in Atlanta, food allergy awareness is becoming more important because of this rash of deaths. And I hope everyone across the country (and globe) will become more aware, too. Maybe we can all learn from Diallo’s story and remind our children to be a little more vigilant, a little more careful, and little more safe.

And here’s my fervent wish that Diallo will be the last food-allergic child we ever have to mourn on Memorial Day.

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