This month’s main article will touch many hearts. Dee Benson, mom to Laura, lost her beautiful 18 year old daughter to peanut-induced anaphylaxis in 2004. She’s never told Laura’s story and wanted to tell all of you about her. It’s heart-wrenching to realize that we really do deal with life and death when managing food allergies.
Dee, tell us about your daughter Laura. What did she like? What were her dreams for the future?
Thanks Nicole for the opportunity to tell Laura’s story. Laura, like most teenagers, loved being with her friends. She loved God and was on the worship team at her church. She had a passion for performing and took every opportunity to sing and dance on stage. Laura never shied from the spotlight and didn’t mind standing out from the crowd. Most of her wardrobe consisted of neon colors and clothing she had “improved” with scissors and puffy paint. But above all, Laura cared deeply for people and really invested herself in them. Whether it was staying up all night to make presents for her friends just to show she cared or donating her hair to Locks of Love or pouring her energy into promoting school music programs, she tried to make her little corner of the world a kinder and more beautiful place.
What was your daughter Laura allergic to? How old was she when you found out about her allergies?
Laura had many allergies. She was allergic to trees and grasses, dogs, cats, dust, and peanuts. Her peanut allergy was by far the most severe. When Laura began eating solid foods, my mother gave her part of a peanut butter and honey sandwich, and within minutes her face was hugely swollen. Later, before Laura turned 2, she had to be rushed to the hospital because she had trouble breathing. It was at this time that she was also diagnosed with Asthma.
Had she ever eaten peanuts before? Did she experience an allergic reaction then?
Laura had infrequently come into contact with a few peanut products (candy, with peanuts or peanut butter) over the years. Generally, she would spit them out because she was aware of her allergy and also because she just didn’t like the taste of peanuts. On those occasions, she would take her inhaler and call me. I would bring her Benadryl and in a while she would be better.
Did Laura understand about her peanut allergies? Did she carry an EpiPen?
She understood that she had a severe allergy to peanuts, and she took it very seriously. I did leave an EpiPen with her middle school office, which was never used, but Laura didn’t normally carry an EpiPen.
Tell us about the camp that Laura attended. Had she been there before?
The high school group at her church did a Spring Break service project every year. They went to a camp in Northern California to prepare the camp for summer. They painted and cleaned and had a great time. Laura had been at this particular camp before and was looking forward to it.
What happened on the day Laura died?
At lunch, one of the camp staff had prepared rice krispie treats with peanut butter, but nobody labeled the snack or informed the kids of the ingredients. Laura loved rice krispie treats, and it never occurred to her that anyone would make them with peanut butter. After she ate it, she went to one of her counselors and told him that she believed there were peanuts in the snack and that she was having an allergic reaction. The counselor told her to go back to her room and lay down for a while.
(Just as a precaution, on the Friday before leaving for camp, I called Laura’s doctor’s office to see if I could get Laura in to renew her EpiPen, which had expired quite a while before this. The doctor only worked half days on Friday and we were not able to get an appointment, therefore, Laura did not have an EpiPen with her at camp. She did have her inhaler and I am sure she took that, but she was not given any additional medicine such as Benadryl.)
When she got worse, she went to her counselors again, and that’s when they realized that she needed medical attention. They called the ambulance, which was several miles away. Laura died on the way to the hospital.
Is there anything you would have done differently?
Aside from not letting her go at all, I would have required a nurse and EpiPens be available on site. Laura had filled out her own application for the camp, which stated that she had a peanut allergy (as well as other allergies) and asthma, so the church and the camp were given information on Laura’s condition.
Has the camp done anything differently since Laura’s death in 2004?
I haven’t contacted the camp, but I hope that they would now review all allergies listed on campers’ application forms.
What advice can you offer to other parents of children with food allergies?
Be prepared for emergencies, and enjoy every minute you have with your children.
Nicole’s Comments: Thank you Dee for sharing this incredibly tragic story. I so appreciate you sharing what happened to your family because it helps those of managing food allergies to learn from you. Dee and I met recently and talked about Laura. Like many teens and children with food allergies, Laura had never experienced anaphylaxis before this episode. It reminds us all that past allergic reactions are no indicator of future ones and potential severity. From Dee’s comments about what she would have done differently, I’m sure many of us can relate. In the 8 years since Laura has died, there is more education and awareness in many camps, but make sure to have your child’s Health Care Plan/Food Allergy Action Plan in writing; have EpiPens travel with your child always and as Dee said, “enjoy every minute you have with your children.”