Updated March 27, 2017: The grieving parents of Anthony Maruca, a 23-year-old who recently died of severe allergic reaction, have a message for young food-allergic individuals: “You shouldn’t be embarrassed to speak up about your allergies,” Janet Maruca told Allergic Living. “It is a matter of life and death.”
She and her husband Joseph Maruca are sharing their son’s story in the hopes that other people, especially young adults, will become more educated about managing severe food allergies.
Anthony had graduated from Rutgers University in New Jersey last year and moved in February to Medford, Massachusetts to start his career as a business development consultant for Oracle Corporation. He had flown out to California for a few weeks to train for his new job before tragedy struck.
Upon returning to Massachusetts on March 10, Anthony, who had allergies to peanuts, milk and eggs as well as asthma, went to a local Five Guys restaurant with his roommate. Anthony ordered a bacon hamburger, French fries and a drink, while his roommate got a cheeseburger.
After the meal, the pair drove home from the restaurant chain, which took about 20 to 25 minutes, according to what the roommate has told the Maruca family. When the young men got to their place, Anthony said he was feeling quite unwell and to call 911, since he thought it was an allergic reaction.
Anthony, who was getting symptoms, then used his epinephrine auto-injector, which he always carried. However, his roommate said it didn’t work. It’s not clear whether the roommate means that the medication wasn’t effective by this point in his friend’s reaction or whether Anthony administered it incorrectly and didn’t get a full dose.
“He was a great kid. He had a heart of gold,” his mother said, fighting back tears. “At his wake, there was a three-hour wait to say goodbye to him. People waited that long to say their condolences.”
She says that having just started a great job, “he was on top of the world. To have your life cut like that over eating something breaks my heart.”
The roommate couldn’t recall whether Anthony told the server about his multiple allergies. Janet Maruca, who works as an emergency room nurse, suspects there may have been cross-contact while Anthony’s burger was being prepared; she raises the question of whether the same spatula was used for the friend’s cheeseburger.
As well, the Five Guys chain makes unshelled peanuts available to customers for snacking. The menu ingredients list shows that there are several major allergens in the kitchens. For instance, peanut butter is used in some dishes and the hamburger buns contain milk and egg. The French fries, which Anthony also ate, are made in peanut oil. While such an oil is often free of peanut protein and many experts consider it safe for an allergic person, it doesn’t appear that Anthony asked the staff about the oil’s level of refinement.
The Massachusetts franchise owner says there are signs warning of loose peanuts and others asking patrons let servers know of food allergies. “The peanuts is something we’ve had since we opened our first restaurant over 10 years ago, so we just make sure people know they are there,” he told Allergic Living.
Despite having lived with food allergies since his first diagnosis at six months of age, Janet Maruca says that Anthony was embarrassed to talk about them. “He didn’t tell a lot of people because he didn’t want to be singled out. He wanted to be what he called, ‘normal,’” she said.
Anthony was a strong and athletic guy. His obituary notes that he grew up playing numerous sports and that he loved the Jersey Shore’s seaside lifestyle, and had worked as a lifeguard and participated in swim competitions.
Something that Janet began hearing after Anthony’s death was that other friends of his had food allergies too, and that they shared her son’s reluctance to discuss the medical condition. “I never realized how many kids are embarrassed by their food allergies and won’t speak of it or just won’t eat,” she said again stressing how important it is to let restaurants know about your food allergies.
The Marucas would know about this – and not just because of Anthony’s tragic passing. The family owns a famous pizza restaurant – Maruca’s Pizza – on the Seaside Heights boardwalk in New Jersey. This family understands the issues of managing ingredients and cross-contact in a busy kitchen.
The family is trying to raise awareness of food allergies and was working with Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) on programs to further educate those who are unaware of the severity of food allergies.