In Mexico, We Lost My Girl to a Taste of Peanut

A glorious day turned to the worst ever. Kyah tasted peanut. She'd forgotten her auto-injectors, and heroic efforts couldn't defeat intense anaphylaxis. So now I dedicate myself to allergy awareness and prevention.

By Lisa Cohen
Kyah Rayne Cohen
Kyah Rayne Cohen

Editor’s Note: This article is powerful and emotional – we do not recommend it for children or young teens.

My family arrived in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico at varying times on Monday, November 19, 2018. Eight of the family were already in full vacation mode, when the final four of us arrived. Our driver dropped us at the biggest and most beautiful four-story villa at the point of the bay, overlooking the Pacific and the small town of Sayulita. 

It was a magnificent and extravagant Thanksgiving holiday planned by my father to be sort of a last hurrah, since my mother, who’s 82, and my father, 80, both have serious health issues.  

Kyah, my 21-year-old daughter, greeted me with a perfectly blended jalapeño margarita upon my arrival at the villa. Tuesday was spent in our private pool and tooling around the little restaurants and shops. Ironically, we would notice how many pharmacies lined the square.

On Wednesday, we had a glorious beach day. There was a small, secluded beach steps away from our villa through a tiny cemetery on the northern tip of the bay. There, the entire clan swam for hours. Though Kyah’s asthma had been acting up a bit in the humidity, she reveled in swimming for at least five hours. It was our idea of bliss. Ceviche and cerveza, surfing and rafting with family, and yoga on the sand. 

The only other guests on that little beach that Wednesday were four women from Oregon, who had actually taken yoga classes with my sister. When we noticed their fancy camera, we asked if they might snap a few family photos for us – they turned out to be the last pictures with my daughter. 

That Fateful Taste

From left: Lisa's sisters Amy and Tara, Lisa, Kyah, and Amy's daughter Hayley.
From left: Lisa’s sisters Amy and Tara, Lisa, Kyah, and Amy’s daughter Hayley.

After five deliriously happy hours in the beautiful water – and amid the chatter and laughter of all of us together – we headed for a family dinner. It would be at our villa, prepared by the in-house cook and scheduled for 5 p.m. As part of the food planning, allergies and intolerances had been discussed. No salt for Papa, no gluten for Hayley, no peanuts for Kyah. 

As we all were showering and preparing for the evening meal, Kyah went down to the kitchen, where she put one finger into what would turn out to be a deadly peanut sauce.  

She went immediately to her room for Benadryl, which had brought her relief from mild reactions over the years. My daughter had never had an anaphylactic reaction or had to use an auto-injector. But in minutes, Kyah knew this day was different. Growing up, I always carried epinephrine auto-injectors for her. And I ensured she’d taken her allergy and asthma medicine off to college at the University of Arizona in Tucson. But excited to go on this family vacation, she’d flown down to Mexico without those auto-injectors.

Kyah ran up to the third floor to find me. She told me what she’d tasted, that she was struggling to breathe, and that we needed to go find an EpiPen right away. My brother-in-law Philly drove the golf cart with Hayley, my Spanish-speaking niece, Kyah and me. The five-minute golf cart ride brought us to the little village of the pharmacy-lined square.

None of them would have an EpiPen. In Mexico, we would learn, only hospitals have them. 

Finding Medical Help

As Kyah lay at a tiny urgent care center room in Sayulita Square, we phoned for an ambulance, then began running into pharmacies and restaurants, yelling out for a doctor and epinephrine. 

Philly, who is a trained search and rescue first responder, began CPR on Kyah. As he continued, Dr. Mark Maus and a colleague, two doctors from San Francisco, appeared. The pharmacies were reluctant to give us anything at all, so worried were they about payment. With prodding, negotiation and credit cards, we were able to buy vials of epinephrine. The two doctors and Philly began giving repeated epinephrine doses drawn up by syringe. Alternating with CPR, they worked heroically.

The reaction that took hold of Kyah was intense, severe and fast-moving. The CPR kept bringing back a very faint pulse. It would stop and start for the next 10 minutes. We continued CPR with no response. I held her feet elevated in my arms to keep blood flowing to her heart. My hands caressed her, as I screamed her name. Over and over, I screamed her name. I screamed her name so loudly the doctors were annoyed. My last communication with Kyah was a very fast eye flicker. I knew she was talking to me. She said goodbye.

Kyah stopped breathing. She soiled herself, and went limp in my arms.

It took at least 20 minutes for the ambulance to arrive in that square. Hayley and I squeezed in with two medics and Kyah in the small ambulance. It took us to the urgent care center some 10 miles away. 

They would not let me into the room with my girl. I sat on those dirty, cracked cement steps wailing. A full moon rose. A huge harvest moon on November 21, 2018. A sweet, young woman named Natalia appeared out of nowhere, and asked if she could smudge me with incense and sage outside the makeshift emergency room. I agreed to this tiny, human reprieve.

My niece was screaming in Spanish, getting credit cards and taking care of the business of emergency care and possible evacuation. My son Ace, told of the situation, showed up in my arms moments later. We were informed that Kyah needed to go to the closest hospital, and she was being transported there by ambulance. The rest of us needed to get there, too. Natalia, the incense lady, said she would drive us. We piled into in her 3-door car – the fourth was missing. (My family would later send this angel of mercy money for car repairs.)

Howling at the Moon

In that grimy little hospital, I learned my girl was gone – all because of one small taste of a food. My brother-in-law delivered the news. I fell to the floor. My face, my mouth, my entire body convulsed with sobbing.

They rolled Kyah to me in a little room with canvas drapes. My reaction was visceral. I climbed on top of her, where I lay until they pried me off of her. I opened her eyelids, so I could see her green eyes. I went over every inch of her body, her toenails and fingernails that I had painted bright blue the day before by the pool. There was her OM necklace that I gave her for her Bat Mitzvah, which she wore every day. I removed it and it now hangs around my neck next to mine. I stared at her belly button … her marked connection to my physical body. I rubbed her beautiful, arched dancer’s feet.

I would spend three days howling at the moon while my family handled the business of death. The only slightest bit of ease was that we were all together. Twelve of us in Mexico. 

Kyah and Lisa
Kyah and Lisa

I flew her body back home in a private plane. Laid out in the back seats covered in an Indian sari and fresh sunflowers that I liberated from the private airport lounge. Her cold stiff hand in mine, we flew home to Arizona.

Epilogue: In the wake of the tragic loss of my daughter Kyah, I’ve pledged to raise the level of awareness about the severity of food allergies, and the need to always have epinephrine available for prompt use. With the incredible support
and effort of family and friends, I recently launched the Kyah Rayne Foundaton, with a mission to promote food allergy awareness, education and public policy. We can and we must prevent deaths from anaphylaxis. Please visit the Kyah Rayne Foundation to learn how you can help our cause.