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 a CBC Radio 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 schools in the province of Ontario. It is legislation could come to 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 Canadian 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 auto-injector 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 serious respiratory trouble, and kept repeating “it’s my asthma.”
A teacher raced to Sabrina’s locker to get her EpiPen auto-injector 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 device could be administered, before the ambulance arrived.
The girl’s heart was restarted at the local hospital and she was airlifted to the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa. Sabrina’s young heart and lungs were strong but she’d suffered significant brain damage.
Later, it would be determined that her devastated condition was the result of anaphylaxis due to food allergy. The coroner posited that the allergic trigger was dairy protein, which Sabrina would have been exposed to through cross-contamination from tongs used to lift her fries. Those same tongs had also been used to serve orders accompanied by poutine, the French Canadian accompaniment of gravy and melted cheese curds. She would have been allergic to the curds.
On September 30, a day after her reaction, Sabrina was removed from life support and died.
At a press conference in Ottawa almost a year after Sabrina’s death, Dr. Andrew McCallum, the chief coroner for Eastern Ontario, called for the implementation of comprehensive anaphylaxis management plans in the schools, and said that high schools, in particular, needed to pay better attention to the need to protect allergic children such as Sabrina. All schools, he said, should keep epinephrine auto-injectors available in the school office and staff and teachers must have proper training in the use of the device.
Then Sara Shannon stepped up to the microphone to tell the assembled media that, while her daughter lay dying, “I made a promise to Sabrina that I would do whatever is possible to prevent this fate from happening to any other child. Please help me to keep my promise,” she said softly.
Next: The fight for Sabrina’s Law