Allergy death in Cincinnati

September 17, 2006 at 1:22 pm (Allergy News!, social issues)

Finally, details:

We still have a lot of work to do:

More than seasonal allergies
For some, food can be fatal
BELLEVUE – It’s lunchtime at Holy Trinity School. The kids are eating in the cafeteria – but not Kendall and Kelsey Gearns.

Kendall, a first-grader, is eating in an elementary classroom with a friend and teacher. Kelsey, a sixth-grader, is eating with a friend in the junior high building’s main office.

They do this every school day. Their parents insist on it because the girls’ food allergies are potentially fatal.

They can’t go near peanuts, tree nuts and soy. Kendall also has to avoid shellfish. Ingesting or touching these foods can trigger a reaction ranging from a rash to death.

Each girl always carries a bag with an inhaler, Benadryl and two EpiPens, each of which carries a shot of adrenalin that, when injected in the thigh of someone having an allergic reaction, will buy time to get medical help.

“I would rather be with everybody,” Kendall said while eating a ham sandwich, crackers and yogurt.

But she and Kelsey understand the isolation is for their safety.

“I’m used to it,” said Kelsey. “It gets easier to deal with.”

“We try to make life as normal as possible,” said mother Kim Gearns. “But people need to understand that my children can die from this.”

It did happen to Emily Vonder Meulen, daughter of Paul and Catrina Vonder Meulen of Delhi.


Emily knew she was allergic to peanuts. If her tongue touched food that contained them, her throat would tingle.

In fact, that’s how she and her parents determined what was safe for her to eat.

“We got comfortable with that protective system,” said Catrina.

But on April 13, that system failed the 13-year-old.

Emily was at a Cincinnati deli where she ordered a chicken teriyaki sandwich, something she’d eaten before. But, about 10 minutes after she finished it, she struggled to breathe.

Catrina called 911, but it was too late. It happened that fast.

Catrina said Emily was dead in about 20 minutes from anaphylaxis – a sudden allergic reaction that can affect various parts of the body, including the respiratory tract and cardiovascular system. She said the coroner found high peanut levels in Emily’s bloodstream.

Catrina said there is no evidence that the sandwich caused it, but the reaction happened so soon after Emily finished it. Paul said it’s all she had eaten that day.

“What could have caused this reaction could have been a microgram of peanut butter” that got in the sandwich, Catrina said.

The Vonder Meulens said they were unprepared, never thinking Emily could die from her food allergies. They said they fell into a comfort zone, too dependent on her tongue-touching method for what she could safely eat. When she was 10, they stopped carrying an EpiPen because she had never had a severe reaction.

Now the Vonder Meulens want to make sure parents of kids with food allergies and the general public don’t underestimate how quickly and deadly these reactions can be. They’ve posted an open letter called “Emily’s Story” on, a Web site that promotes food allergy awareness.

“… We want you to be scared,” they write, “so that you stay vigilant in protecting your child.”


In Northern Kentucky, several kids with food allergies have had close calls – fortunately with their parents nearby.

First-grader Rachel Ryan at Mary, Queen of Heaven School in Erlanger was 2 when she ate a peanut butter cracker. She broke into hives and struggled to breathe.

Jude Ampfer, a kindergartner at St. Catherine of Siena School in Fort Thomas, is allergic to eggs. When he was 3, he ate a snack that had egg whites in it. He swelled, broke into a rash and threw up violently.

Eight-year-old Keenan Bode at Beechwood School was a year old when he had an allergic reaction to peanuts. His parents used an EpiPen and were able to get him to an emergency room.

Katie Reis, a third-grader at St. Mary School in Alexandria, once ate what her mother thought was a solid chocolate egg – but it had peanut butter in it.

“We were halfway to the hospital, and she was covered in hives and looking comatose,” said mother Shirley Reis. “That was my only episode and hopefully my last.”


If that is to be Reis’ last episode, she’ll need help from Katie’s school.

All of these mothers say it’s difficult to let their kids go to school, spending hours away from them, but they say the schools have been very cooperative in creating a safe environment.

All of these kids’ schools do some or all of the following: make the child’s classroom free of the food to which they’re allergic; have a peanut-free lunch menu; have lunch tables for kids with food allergies and their friends who don’t bring those foods; stock EpiPens and train staff to use them; have all students wash their hands after lunch; and let these parents send a letter to parents of their child’s classmates which explains the severity of the allergies.

“You do what you’ve got to do,” said Sister Mary Ruth Lubbers, principal at Holy Trinity. “I think we’re very prepared, and the other kids handle it real well too. They watch out for Kelsey and Kendall.”

Shelli Wilson, principal at Cline Elementary School in Cold Spring, has four students with peanut allergies. Cline has a peanut-free menu and special tables for those kids.

“It’s our responsibility to keep them safe,” said Wilson.

In Ohio, food allergies are a big concern at Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy Elementary School in Symmes Township, where no popcorn is popped before 3 p.m.

That’s because even the smell of popcorn oil triggers a reaction in 9-year-old Craig Fields, who is allergic to wheat, corn, soy, eggs and peanuts.

“The entire elementary school has just rallied around him and his allergies, so he’s able to go to school and not worry about having a reaction,” said his mother, Debby Fields.

At Norwood View Elementary, all of Matthew Evans’ classmates wash their hands with wet wipes after lunch and before recess. That’s because the 7-year-old second-grader is allergic to cow’s milk protein.

His food allergy is so severe that even the residue from milk or cheese on hands or doorknobs could trigger a reaction, such as shortness of breath or turning blue on the top of his head.

Matthew used to sit at a lunchroom table alone, but it didn’t take him long to feel isolated, said his mother, Karen Evans, who asked the school to try something else. Now, he sits at a lunchroom table with a counselor who makes sure there’s no cross-contamination. Other students who aren’t drinking milk or eating dairy products can sit with him.

“There’s a lot of isolation involved with these types of kids,” Evans said. “You don’t tend to have your children invited to birthday parties and play dates out of fear. People are just afraid that something is going to happen.”

Parents of children with food allergies often do whatever it takes to keep their kids safe. Evans quit her job of 13 years in a pharmacy two years ago so that she could manage Matthew’s allergies. She’s an active room parent for classroom parties, doing all of the baking for them.


These mothers say that as hard as they try to trust schools, restaurants, neighbors or anywhere else their kids go, there are still some people who don’t understand the severity of these allergies.

“The more I educate myself, the more worried I get about it because other people aren’t always educated,” said Amy Ryan. “Peanut butter is like a weapon to (Rachel) and some people don’t realize that.”

Reporter Cindy Kranz contributed to this story. E-mail



  1. missypana said,

    I love the idea of children w/ food allergies not in the lunch room–makes total sense to me and my 9 year old who stresses out everytime its lunch time at school with dairy food around everywhere–20 minutes w/o her friends is no big deal for her

  2. Kelsey said,

    Hi I am Kelsey Gearns from the article

  3. Kelsey Gearns said,


  4. Kelsey Gearns said,

    really i am

  5. Kelsey Gearns said,


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