Sabrina’s Law: The Girl and the Allergy Law
In the radio documentary she made, Sabrina Shannon, just shy of 10, holds the microphone in front of her mother and asks what it’s like to have a daughter with allergies. Then she adds: “Do you think I’m beautiful?”
With mock earnestness, Sara Shannon replies, “I think you’re probably the best-looking girl in the world.” Sabrina collapses in a fit of giggles.
SOME KIDS just have that energy, that sparkle in the eyes, that irrepressible spirit. Sabrina Shannon was one of those, a pure pistol of a kid. Her personality shone through in the radio documentary she produced with her aunt, Kathleen Whelan, which originally aired on CBC Radio’s Outfront program back in 2001.
The documentary was a first-person narrative about living with allergies. Sabrina, who was at risk of anaphylaxis to peanut, dairy products and soy, proved a natural at the mike, interviewing her girlfriends, her mother and holding forth about her allergies. It was a great 12 minutes of audiotape.
But this anecdote takes place in the past tense. Sabrina’s tale turns, sadly, to one of tragedy. She is the allergic kid who didn’t make it, the bright light extinguished.
On September 30, 2003, Sabrina died in hospital following an anaphylactic reaction. Her mom, her dad, her Aunt Kathleen, her many other relatives and friends have been devastated by her death. But this is also a story of hope born of tragedy, of an organized effort to do justice to Sabrina’s memory by making sure no other child suffers a similar, likely preventable death.
Sabrina, the girl who had her final lunch from the high school cafeteria at the age of 13, became the rallying point for a new law that requires anaphylaxis safety plans in the schools of Ontario. It is legislation that could influence widespread change in schools across North America.
ON SEPTEMBER 29, 2003, Sabrina balked at her mother’s efforts to have her take yet another allergen-free sandwich to school. It was the end of the teen’s first month of Grade 8 at Bishop Smith Catholic High School in Pembroke, a small city in the Ottawa Valley. She told her mom that the previous week, she’d eaten French fries once in the cafeteria after checking that they didn’t contain any of her allergy triggers. The fries were safe – and tasty – and she wanted eat them again at lunch today.
Sara Shannon resisted at first, but she also trusted Sabrina’s judgment. Her daughter had always been responsible about her allergies, asking the right questions before eating, always carrying her EpiPen in her backpack, along with the puffer for her asthma. Sara agreed.
Around 11:40 that morning, Sabrina and her best friend went to the cafeteria, and Sabrina ordered fries after again making sure that they were cooked in vegetable rather than peanut oil.
In the class after lunch, Sabrina began to wheeze. Thinking she was having an asthma attack, the teen headed for the school office at the other end of the building. By the time she got there, Sabrina was in trouble, and kept repeating “it’s my asthma.”
A teacher raced to Sabrina’s locker to get her EpiPen in case it was in fact her food allergies; school officials called an ambulance. Sabrina collapsed and lost consciousness, going into cardiac arrest before the EpiPen could be administered, before the ambulance arrived.