Grieving Colleagues Recall Dancer Órla’s Food Allergy Vigilance

in Food Allergy, Food Allergy News
Published: February 6, 2024

Órla Baxendale was “bold, goofy, caring, hilarious,” says Christine Flores about the 25-year-old, who suffered a fatal allergic reaction after eating a mislabeled cookie. The two professional dancers became fast friends performing as elves in a holiday production. 

Christine Flores and Órla Baxendale at holiday resort.

The pair had more than a passion for dance in common – both of them had peanut allergies. “When I found out the cookies were mislabeled, I was furious,” Flores tells Allergic Living.

Baxendale suffered anaphylactic shock and died on January 11, 2024. The New York City-based dancer’s severe reaction began after she ate a cookie from a package of Vanilla Florentine Cookies that did not list peanut in its ingredients. The cookies were made by Cookies United and purchased in Connecticut at a Stew Leonard’s supermarket.

Flores was Baxendale’s roommate in Pennsylvania at the Nemacolin Resort while they performed at the resort’s holiday village for two months at the end of 2023. The dancers  bonded over their peanut allergies – Baxendale was allergic to tree nuts as well – after meeting while rehearsing for their performances. 

“We wouldn’t have to worry about nuts in the house or sharing dishes,” Flores notes. She says they both practiced vigilance with food allergies.

The roommates didn’t cook often, but when they did, Baxendale was usually at the stove. Pasta Bolognese was a particular favorite. The two enjoyed sharing safe snacks and cookies from the cafeteria at the resort. 

Flores last saw Baxendale when they drove back to New York from Pennsylvania on New Year’s Day. She had been texting with Baxendale and another friend the night of the reaction. At some point, Baxendale just didn’t respond to the chat.

Flores sobbed for hours upon finding out about her friend’s death the next day. “I felt confused, angry, heartbroken and in utter disbelief. It didn’t make sense.”

Dancer’s Vigilance About Allergies

In a post on Instagram, Flores, 30, wrote: “I feel like you were a younger sister and I so wish I could protect you right now.” Her shock over Baxendale’s fatal reaction was in part due to the vigilance her fellow dancer took in managing her allergies.

“I knew Órla wouldn’t just eat the cookie without checking if it had nuts,” Flores told Allergic Living. “I knew her friends and co-workers wouldn’t give her the cookie if they knew there was even a possibility of it having peanuts in it.”

Baxendale was diligent about checking packaged food labels, Flores says. When dining in restaurants, she always asked servers about peanuts and nuts in any menu item. 

Flores notes that the dancer’s vigilance extended to carrying at least two epinephrine auto-injectors everywhere she went. In fact, both of them each carried more than two auto-injectors while touring. This was because they couldn’t be sure about proximity to a hospital.

Howard Hershenhorn, attorney for the family, says during her reaction to the cookie, Baxendale received two epinephrine injections. She had made a habit of telling anyone she was with how to use her EpiPens, he says. 

“Órla always told them, ‘Don’t be afraid to use if I need it,’” says Hershenhorn, a partner with the New York City firm of Gair, Gair, Conason, Rubinowitz, Bloom, Hershenhorn, Steigman, and Mackauf.

On the night of her reaction, Baxendale went home with two friends after a day of rehearsing, Hershenhorn says. He confirms that they helped to treat her and made sure she got to the hospital when she suffered the severe reaction.

Humor, Skill and Flaming Hair

Órla in ‘Alice’. photo: MOMIX by Sharen Bradford.

MOMIX dance company manager Paula Burns saw firsthand the vigilance Baxendale used to communicate her food allergies. The dancer was with the company based in Washington, Connecticut, at the time of her death. She was one of multiple dancers playing the role of Alice in Wonderland in the company’s production of “Alice”. 

Burns was responsible for communicating with venues on tour about company members’ allergies. During rehearsals, dancers bring their own food, and she says everyone was aware of Baxendale’s allergies. They also refrained from having nuts or nut-based foods while touring with her.

Baxendale moved to New York City in 2018 from East Lancashire in England to pursue her performance career. Her dance journey in New York City began at The Ailey School. In addition, she performed with various dance companies in the New York City area.

“Her quirky facial expressions, her tremendous sense of humor, her flaming red hair, her skill as a dancer. All of these things made Órla memorable, and a joy to watch on stage,” Burns says. Baxendale was looking forward to MOMIX’s upcoming tour stops in Brazil while performing as Alice, the manager recalls. 

Flores, who is currently performing in the musical Illinoise in Chicago, pays homage to her friend’s talent. “She was a fierce, flexible, precise dancer and captivating performer.”

Baxendale’s funeral service was held on February 3, 2024, at St. Mary’s Church in Haslingden, England. The priest who officiated gave condolences to Órla’s assembled family and friends before a casket adorned with four roses and a ballet slipper. 

He noted that the words “of her little cousin said it all. ‘She didn’t have enough numbers.’ In other words, she was too young.”

Label Foiled Dancer’s Vigilance

The tragic death simply because of inaccurate allergen information has caused considerable anger in the food allergy community – and beyond. 

“I imagine anyone who has heard about this, whether they knew her personally or not, feels a sense of anger that someone died because of mislabeling,” Burns says. She feels the tragedy is magnified when that person has “their whole life ahead of them.”

For Flores, it has also made her more concerned about trusting labels when navigating her own peanut allergy. Baxendale’s former roommate is now second-guessing every label, wondering if it is accurate and up to date. “Now when I check a label, I think of her,” she says. 

Companies must understand how important it is to triple-check their labels, even with products that have been out for a long time, she says.

“I hope this tragedy will make them realize how big an impact they have, and how much trust we are giving them to do their job properly,” Flores says. 

Baxendale’s family will be filing legal action against Stew Leonard’s and Cookies United over the dancer’s death due to mislabeled cookies, Hershenhorn says. 

Since recalling the Florentine cookies that Baxendale ate, which did not have peanut and egg on the label, Stew Leonard’s has announced two more recalls. On January 27, it recalled rainbow cookies for not including all ingredients on the label. 

Then on February 5, the supermarket recalled several sliced chicken and chicken salad products from its stores in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey. The issue is that the products may contain milk that is not declared on the label.

Related Reading:
Family Will Sue in Dancer’s Fatal Reaction to Mislabeled Cookies
FDA Issues Guidance to Reduce Allergy Label Errors
How to Read a Label When You Have Food Allergies