Utah boy's death highlights food allergy vigilance
Stacie Henstra said her son's best friend was his "allergy body guard."
The family was "religious" about not keeping anything containing peanuts in the house, she said, explaining how while playing at his friend's house last week Tanner Henstra, without a second thought, reached for a bowl of peanut butter-stuffed pretzels and popped one in his mouth.
"He bit down but didn't swallow it. He spit it out immediately," said Stacie. But within minutes, the 11-year-old's throat and tongue swelled, cutting off his airway. Two days later, he was pronounced dead.
"I'm a nurse. I know about anaphylaxis. But I was shocked at the severity of his reaction. It was just so fast," she said. For parents of kids with food allergies, it's a reminder, said the St. George mom, to "never let your guard down."
It's unknown why, but food allergies are on the rise. From 1997 to 2007, the number of kids diagnosed with food allergies increased 18 percent, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. It is the leading cause of anaphylaxis outside the hospital setting.
Heightened awareness has prodded elementary schools and day care centers to ban known trigger foods and to stock "EpiPens," an injectable form of adrenaline known as epinephrine, the first line of defense for anaphylaxis.
But it's teenagers and young adults who are most at risk of dying, said Rafael Firszt, an allergist at the University of Utah. "It's not that their food allergies are more severe. It's that nobody is watching over them as carefully as when they were young."
Explains Michelle Fogg, president of the Utah Food Allergy Network, "Teenagers are bigger risk-takers and less vigilant. They get busy, it's not cool to carry [epinephrine] around. They just get caught without it."
Tanner also had asthma, which Firszt said is another risk factor for fatal reactions.
The youngest of four Henstra siblings, Tanner was diagnosed with a peanut allergy before he could talk. "His sister had the same allergy, and we noticed the signs early," said 45-year-old Stacie Henstra.
Otherwise healthy and active in sports he was a wrestler Tanner was conscientious, the kind of kid who paid attention to details and who went out of his way to befriend kids who were alone on the playground, said his mom.
"His first-grade teacher referred to him and his friend as the 'pretty boys.' He was always worried about his hair being just right," she said. "Even laying in the hospital bed, hooked up to life support, he just looked so peaceful and perfect. His perfect eyebrows and perfect hair line."
She said Tanner usually carried epinephrine, but had never needed it before. He didn't have it on him the day of the accident.
He did have his allergy medicine, which he took as soon as he realized his mistake. And he called his mom, who was four minutes away.
"He sounded worried but otherwise OK. When I got there, he was still doing fine," she said.
But on the drive home his breathing became labored, and he started to turn blue. A neighbor who was outside when Stacie Henstra pulled up to the house performed CPR while she ran inside to grab the epinephrine and dial 911.
"I gave him the injection, but he arrested on the grass, and again at Dixie [Regional Medical Center]," she said.
Tanner was flown to Primary Children's Medical Center, but doctors could find no brain activity. Earlier this week, he was removed from life support, Stacie said. "We were able to donate his organs. He saved three lives."
And she hopes to save others and spare other parents from wondering, "what if."
"I wish I had more EpiPens. I wish I had them everywhere," she said. "You can't assume because you haven't had an attack, that you won't have one."
Twitter: @kirstendstewart How to help
I Family members have set up a fund to help cover Tanner Henstra's medical and funeral expenses. > bit.ly/15SN7we
His funeral is scheduled for noon on Saturday, April 27 at the Lava Flow Chapel in St. George (1625 Lava Flow Drive).
Fatal food allergies
A food allergy sends someone to a hospital emergency room every three minutes in the United States.
There is no cure for a food allergy, and you can develop an allergy at any age.
A reaction to food can range from an itchy mouth to a rash or anaphylaxis, a severe and potentially deadly form of swelling.
Once an anaphylactic reaction starts, a medication called epinephrine is the first line of defense and you should immediately seek emergency care and dial 911.
Anaphylaxis can happen without any other signs of an allergy, such as a rash.
It may recur after initially subsiding and experts recommend observation for four hours after exposure.
Source: Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network