Teen Food Allergy Deaths: Lessons from Tragedy

in Food Allergy
Published: July 2, 2010

The Kiss and Christina

IT ALL went so wrong so fast. After spending the evening of Saturday, November 19, 2005 with a bunch of friends at the home of her boyfriend in Jonquière, Quebec, 15-year-old Christina Desforges went upstairs with him around 3 a.m. She and the boy, Yan Desormeaux, were kissing.

Within five minutes, she wasn’t feeling well and rushed down to the basement to retrieve her asthma puffer. Another friend, Michael St-Gelais, was sleeping down there. He saw Christina grab her “pompe” out of her backpack. She inhaled the medication, but was still struggling to breathe.

Christina said she needed air. She went up to the front door, swung it open and collapsed. Michael sprang into action to give her CPR, which he’d learned in a course in Grade 9.

Michael, whose father is a nurse and who seems conversant with basic first aid, could see that her throat was completely blocked. He believes the girl’s heart had stopped. He says he used cardiac massage to get it re-started. In the meantime, Yan raced to call 911.

“Between the time she came downstairs and the time she lost consciousness, it seemed like an hour,” remembers Michael. “But it couldn’t have been more than five to 10 minutes.”

Yan was still too devastated to speak to Allergic Living, but Michael confirmed that the boyfriend had eaten a peanut butter sandwich around 6 p.m. that Saturday. Michael does not know if Yan ate anything else after that. Neither of the boys had any inkling that Christina was allergic to peanut, and she was not wearing her MedicAlert bracelet.

They did know she had asthma, however. When the paramedics asked Michael to find Christina’s provincial health card, he looked through her backpack for her wallet and was surprised to find an EpiPen. But he still assumed she had had an acute asthma attack.

At press time, the coroner was formulating his opinion on the cause of death, though he said he does not believe it was anaphylaxis. Asthma is another cause under consideration. But for Dr. Susan Waserman, president of the Canadian Society of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, the question is less one of which of those conditions is to blame, as asthma and anaphylaxis are inter-related.

The question to her is, what triggered an episode severe enough to kill? She wonders whether Christina’s asthma had been under control, and what she was exposed to in the days and hours leading up to her death.

“What were her exposures?” Waserman asks. “Did she have an infection, was there a cat in the house, did she use an Aspirin or an anti-inflammatory?” Although Christina wasn’t smoking, there had been smoking in the house that night.

Depending on an asthmatic’s triggers, “all of these things could have contributed to acute airway constriction,” explains Waserman. But that doesn’t rule out the peanut as a contributor, she says. “The food may have just tipped her over the edge. On a background of poor asthma control, it could have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Christina’s mother, Nathalie Desforges, says her daughter was usually mindful of her allergies, and a reliable reader of ingredient labels. But the girl was becoming increasingly allergic: shortly before her death, Christina had had reactions to green peas and pea soup.

Nathalie speaks of how she misses her only child, whom she describes as a free spirit and very full of life. She urges other young people to talk to others about their allergies and to be careful.

Since Christina died, Michael says that’s already happening in his area of Quebec. Every teen he knows with food allergies is now faithfully wearing a MedicAlert bracelet and taking the risks a lot more seriously. Having been through the wrenching experience of trying to save Christina, he stresses that teenagers need to communicate to their friends the seriousness of their allergies and asthma: “the allergic person should tell everyone that they have severe allergies.”