Teen Has Fatal Reaction at Chicago School

in Managing Allergies, Parenting & School
Published: December 20, 2010

A 13-year-old Chicago girl suffered a fatal anaphylactic reaction after eating Chinese food – which was supposed to be safe – at a school Christmas party. [Note: See update near the end of this article.]

Katelyn Carlson, who was allergic to peanuts, was rushed to hospital in the early afternoon of Dec. 17, 2010, but died a few hours later. An autopsy subsequently confirmed that her death was caused by anaphylaxis, the serious and swift-progressing form of allergic reaction.

According to the father of a classmate and close friend of Katelyn’s, the teacher had checked several times with the restaurant to make sure that the food being prepared would be safe. Matthew Akinrinade, whose daughter is also allergic to peanuts, told the Huffington Post that his daughter noticed Katelyn was having trouble breathing.

Two other parents from the school told The Post that schools officials said the food contained peanut oil. It was not yet confirmed whether this was the case or whether there was other peanut protein in the food that Katelyn ate.

Katelyn was an honor student at Edison Regional Gifted Center, and an active teenager. She held a second-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, played basketball and soccer, and was involved in her church. Grief counselors were immediately sent to the school to counsel distraught students and staff just before the Christmas break.

The tragic news came just before January 2011, when Illinois schools are required to implement a specific food allergy policy that will outline everything from classroom parties to emergencies.

Chicago Teen Tragedy – “Devastating Loss”

“Katelyn’s death is tragic and devastating to her parents and her classmates – and frankly to all of us who are at risk of anaphylaxis, or have a child at risk,” said Gwen Smith, editor of Allergic Living magazine.

Smith says that Chinese cuisine, except if made at home or by a chef highly trained on allergy management, is too dangerous a choice for those at risk of anaphylaxis due to peanut, nut, sesame, shellfish, or soy allergies. “These are staples in the cuisine, so the risks of cross-contamination or mistakes in such a restaurant kitchen are always high.”

She urgently reminded people with allergies to take extra care when they are eating foods prepared by others, to use an epinephrine auto-injector at the first sign of a serious reaction. “In too many fatalities, epinephrine is used late or not at all. In case of doubt, please use your auto-injector.”

The Chicago Public Schools board is investigating the death of the Chicago teen. It is not yet known whether the girl received an auto-injector dose at school. Katelyn’s parents are Dr. Maria Ignacio and Michael Carlson. Shortly after her death, Michael Carlson said his daughter was usually careful about her food allergies, but he has not commented since.

On the funeral home’s online guestbook, Sara Shannon, mother of Sabrina Shannon, another 13-year-old who died of an anaphylactic reaction, offers her condolences to the Carlsons:

“I know your pain and your suffering that you are now experiencing,” she writes. “Sabrina Shannon has a new friend in heaven. Sabrina, like Katelyn, the same age, the same circumstances, left our planet to young. My prayers and thoughts are with you during this most difficult time. I am so sorry for your loss. Sara Shannon”

Friends and relatives write in the guestbook of the Chicago teen’s infectious smile, and dedication to her little brother. In a long tribute from one family friend, the picture of what a special young person she was emerges. The friend notes Katelyn’s caring approach to younger children:

“The kids have always looked up to her as a role model in Tae Kwon Do. Her smile was exuberant, her energy seamless, and the most amazing thing about Katelyn is that she had the ability to make even the most inconspicuous person feel significant. Perhaps this was her gift to the world.”

UPDATE on Katelyn’s Tragedy

Katelyn’s father, Michael Carlson Jr., filed a lawsuit in Cook Country Circuit Court in 2011 against the restaurant which provided the food for the classroom party. Chinese Inn Restaurant was asked not to include any foods containing peanuts, peanut oil or peanut sauces because children with peanut allergies would be eating it.

Gil Ross, an attorney for the Carlson family, told the Chicago Tribune that the food was tested by the medical examiner’s office and the University of Nebraska. The results showed that the food was “heavily contaminated with peanut products and that this was the tragic cause of this child’s death.” The family is seeking more than $100,000 in their lawsuit.

Related Reading: 
Sabrina’s Law: The Girl and the Food Allergy Law