By Meera Ekkanath Klein
The recent news of a young Sacramento girl’s death from a peanut allergy hit too close to home for our family. It looks harmless, a tiny golden morsel full of flavor and protein. But for my son, peanuts are not nourishment, they are deadly.
Just like 13-year-old Natalie Giorgi, my son, Ajay Klein, is super-allergic to peanuts and peanut products. Lovely Natalie’s tragic death is heartbreaking and brings home the fact that fatal allergy attacks are just one bite away. While we have always been vigilant, Natalie’s untimely death warns us not to become complacent.
Ever since we learned of his allergy to peanuts — which is a legume, not a tree nut — we have been cautious and aware. Ajay was just 9 months old when he tasted a tiny sip of a peanut butter smoothie and immediately began to gasp for air. After a long wait in the ER and many blood tests later, it was confirmed he was allergic to peanuts.
Like any protective mother I wanted to keep him smothered and safe, wrapped in peanut-free cotton wool. But infants have a way of growing up to be independent youngsters. So I became proactive and involved at his school, Patwin Elementary School in Davis. Along with his allergist, we educated an entire class (class of 2014) of elementary school students in Davis to look out for Ajay.
Like watchful guard dogs, his friends kept Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Snickers, granola bars and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches away from his lunch table. They watched his back and he learned to watch what he ate.
The news of Natalie Giorgi’s death was a shock to Ajay, who says, “My first reaction was she should have been more careful.” But after reading local newspapers about her last few hours, he agrees that caution did not help the young girl. It was a horrible mistake, an accident.
“It is at the back of my mind all the time,” he says. “I never stop thinking about it when I’m with friends. I figured the best way to keep away from peanuts is never to eat anything outside my home. I only eat cheese pizza.”
This decision has kept him from having any allergic reactions since his initial attack at age 9 months. The Davis Joint Unified School District has been accommodating to Ajay’s needs by setting aside a “peanut-free” table at his elementary school and not offering peanut butter sandwiches as part of the school lunches.
School nurses, like the retired Toni Smith, have provided wonderful support. From junior high to his current Davis High School, school nurses have been part of his allergy response plan. They contact me each year to make sure his plan is up-to-date and that his Epi-pen is readily available in the office.
Now, as Ajay celebrates his 17th birthday I can only hope all the cautions and warnings will stay with him. So I worry and pray that he will be safe. Natalie’s harrowing tragedy reminds me that the allergy boogeyman is alive and well. Ajay will have to be alert for the rest of his life.
— Meera Ekkanath Klein is a writer who lives in Davis.