Preventable Death. From Grilled Cheese.

If you are told a child in your care has a severe food allergy, believe them. Don’t kill a three-year-old with a grilled cheese sandwich.

According to his parents, staff at the preschool knew about his severe dairy allergy, but an adult gave him the cheese sandwich anyway. He ate it, went into anaphylactic shock, and died in the emergency room. No word on whether they gave him epinephrine. (New York law allows schools to stock it, but doesn’t require them to.) Update: Apparently the school called his mother instead of 911. Want to bet paramedics could have helped?

“We will get to the bottom of what happened here…” says a spokesman for NYC’s health department, “and whether the facility could have done something differently to prevent this tragedy.” Well, yeah: Don’t give kids food that you know they’re severely allergic to!

Children with severe allergies know to avoid certain foods, but they need help to do it:

  • It takes time to learn how to avoid all forms of food you’re allergic to. I was seventeen before I learned that cross-hatches meant peanut butter cookies, because we’d never had them in the house. (Incidentally: that was the first time I actually used an Epi-Pen.)
  • Some foods have substitutes that look and taste similar enough that you could take a bite — and it only takes one bite — before discovering it’s the real thing. Sunflower seed butter for peanut butter. Daiya for cheese (and yes, you can make a grilled Daiya sandwich).
  • Ingredients can be hidden. There are an awful lot of pasta sauces that look like standard tomato sauce with herbs that also have cheese in them.
  • Kids that young have no choice but to trust the adults taking care of them. There’s a power difference. If you trust someone, you’re less likely to double-check them. And when you’re not sure? Not all kids can push back against an insistent adult, especially one they’re accustomed to depending on. (Keep that issue of power imbalance in mind when you read other stories in the news today, too.)
  • Preschoolers aren’t exactly known for their impulse control, so even the ones who have the courage to self-advocate won’t always stop to check before taking that first bite.

Maybe it was someone new who didn’t know yet. Maybe it was someone who didn’t take it seriously. Maybe there was a mix-up and he was supposed to get something else, but they handed him the cheese sandwich by mistake. All of those could have been prevented.

Yes, mistakes happen. Even fatal ones. But they happen a lot less often when you listen to people who are facing the danger, believe them, and take action to follow through on it.

1 in 13 children has a food allergy. Even if your child doesn’t, they have friends who do.

Don’t let them down.

Update on the case from Allergic Living (Nov 16):

The incident is still under investigation. It’s not even clear at this point whether the specific person who gave him the sandwich was aware of the allergy (though they certainly should have been), or whether they gave him epinephrine, though it is clear that:

  • The school was aware of his allergy
  • The school didn’t call 911, they called his mother instead.

The school has been closed pending the investigation results, and new directives have been issued that childcare staff will call 911 in the event of a medical emergency.

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