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Video: Staying clear of deadly allergies

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TODAY contributor
updated 10/25/2007 12:11:28 PM ET 2007-10-25T16:11:28

Imagine being out with your child, shopping, having fun, stopping for something to eat that you’ve had dozens of times before. And imagine that child dying less than 20 minutes later, before your eyes, because of what she ate.

It happened to Catrina Vonder Meulen 18 months ago, when she lost her 13-year-old daughter, Emily, to a peanut allergy while on a shopping expedition.

“The day that Emily passed away, we were at a mall in Cincinnati, buying her a graduation dress for a friend,” Vonder Meulen told TODAY’s Hoda Kotb on Thursday. “We stopped in the food court, stopped at a national chain restaurant, buying a sandwich that she had eaten probably 50 times before. There was nothing at the time that alerted us.”

Vonder Meulen and her husband, Paul, who have two other children, had known since Emily was a toddler that she had an allergy to peanuts, and Emily was constantly vigilant about staying away from them.

But, her mother said, no one in the family had ever imagined that it could be fatal.

Since losing their daughter, the Vonder Meulens have created a memorial fund and a Web site, www.foodallergyangel.com, to raise awareness of the dangers of food allergies in the hope that they can spare other parents the loss they live with every day.

It is, said TODAY medical editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman, a growing problem in the United States and in other developed nations. An estimated 12 million Americans suffer from food allergies, with 6.9 million allergic to seafood and 3.3 million allergic to peanuts or tree nuts. Eight foods — milk, eggs, nuts, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish — account for 90 percent of food allergies.

Emily had been one of an estimated 2.2 million school-age children with a food allergy. One in every 17 children under the age of 3 has a food allergy, and the allergies kill an estimated 150 Americans each year.

Often, adults who grew up when food allergies were rarer have difficulty comprehending the problem.

“We have talked to a lot of parents,” Paul Vonder Meulen said. “They don’t understand how rapid and how deadly food allergies are.”

The Vonder Meulens were among them — until they lost Emily. The antidote to a severe allergic reaction to food or insect bites is epinephrine, which the victim can self-inject by jabbing themself in the thigh with a device called an EpiPen. Speed is critical.

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Emily had an EpiPen, but had never had to use it. With no reason to suspect she was in danger on a trip to the mall, she and her mother hadn’t brought it with them.

Source not always clear
To this day, the family doesn’t know how Emily ingested what an autopsy showed to be a massive amount of peanut protein. The sandwich she had eaten was a sweet onion chicken-teriyaki wrap that contained soy sauce, which had not bothered her before.

Catrina Vonder Meulen remembers the rapid-fire sequence of events with crystal clarity.

“About 10 minutes after we had had gotten done eating, we were walking around a T-shirt shop,” she said. “She had done a little flip, you know, she was 13 and cute, and she’d fallen. We thought she tripped on her shoes. She got back up and moved on.”

Emily had worn the party dress they had purchased out of the store and they were going to get her ears pierced. “She said she was starting to feel difficulty breathing. Never, at any time, did I think food was an issue,” Vonder Meulen said. “I felt when she fell maybe she had jarred something, because she had asthma. She went down to the bathroom, just to use the facilities. She came back and did two puffs of her inhaler, thinking it was asthma.”

Emily asked her mother if her face looked hot. It didn’t. Then she said she was having trouble breathing, and, thinking that it was perhaps because her new dress was a little tight, she went back to the bathroom to change into her other clothes.

While Emily changed, Vonder Meulen took her 10-year-old sister, Elena, to look at clothes. And then her cell phone rang.

“A girl on the phone said, ‘Do you have a daughter Emily? She’s having difficulty breathing,’” Vonder Meulen said.

She grabbed Elena and ran to the bathroom, where she realized Emily was having something far more serious than an asthma attack.

“The whites of her eyes were bright red,” she said. “Her normally pink cheeks had an icy white spot to them, and her lips had turned blue. I immediately called 911 at 3:26. We had gotten done eating around 3:10.”

By the time an EMS crew arrived a few minutes later, Emily had  stopped breathing. By 4:20, in the hospital to which she had been taken, she was pronounced dead.

Vonder Meulen said she’s been able to accept what happened.

“I’m OK,” she told Kotb. “I just want to make sure parents understand how fast this happens.”

Ignorance is widespread about this growing problem, said Dr. Hugh Sampson of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “A lot of people don’t understand the seriousness, and I don’t think they understand that there are other foods that can also cause equally severe reactions,” he told Kotb.

Kids who grow up with the allergies and understand how deadly they can be — mere skin contact with peanut dust or residue can cause outbreaks of hives — have to be constantly aware of the danger. One teenage girl died after kissing her boyfriend, who had just eaten peanuts.

“You may not know how much trace peanut oil is in other food,” said Snyderman. “You have to read labels carefully. You have to ask. Just transferring one knife from a chocolate cake to another slice — that can kill a child.”

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