Allergy blamed for death at dinner

By Martin Johnston

Grant Freeman sat down to a tomato entree on Tuesday night last week at a work dinner. Ten minutes later he collapsed in the toilet. Two days later he was dead, a suspected victim of a food allergy.

Now his family are speaking out to try to prevent similar tragedies. Food authorities have been alerted.

Mr Freeman, a 38-year-old Whangaparaoa father and the marketing manager of Chelsea Sugar, had had food allergies since he was 5, but he never realised his life might be at risk, his grieving family said yesterday.

On April 17 he went to dinner at a cafe southeast of Auckland. Allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, seafood and chicken, he warned the cafe, was identified as the person with allergies when he arrived, and given a specially prepared meal, his sister Donna Whittle said yesterday.

Others were given a seafood entree, but Mr Freeman had a raw-tomato dish with a sauce. She was unsure what kind of sauce.

"He had a glass of wine, then had a mouthful of entree. He said it wasn't right and he didn't feel good. He went to the bathroom and collapsed in a stall. They heard the crash from the restaurant."

A colleague found him, and an ambulance was called. Ambulance officers managed to restart his heart, Mrs Whittle said, but he had been without a pulse for some minutes.

He was taken to Middlemore Hospital where he was put into a coma, but last Thursday his life-support was stopped because he had suffered severe brain damage.

Mrs Whittle wonders whether his meal was inadvertently contaminated with a trace of one of his allergy foods, but does not blame the cafe. She named the cafe but did not want it identified.

When the Herald phoned the cafe and asked about Mr Freeman's death, a woman said: "We can't make any comment about it," then hung up.

Mrs Whittle said it might never be known what caused her brother's death.

"They were very clear at the hospital that it was anaphylaxis [a severe allergic reaction]. They can't work out definitively what the reaction was to. The fact he's always had these allergies points in that direction."

Adrenalin is given to save the lives of people suffering anaphylactic shock, which can be caused by insect stings but more often is from a food allergy. Some people at risk of the condition carry an "EpiPen" adrenalin injector. Mr Freeman did not.

His worst previous reactions were diarrhoea and vomiting, Mrs Whittle said. "He had never been diagnosed with life-threatening reactions."

When he was 5 he had breathing difficulties after eating fudge containing walnuts. He became very careful about what he ate and his home was kept free of the foods he was allergic to.

Allergy NZ has notified the Food Safety Authority about the case, which has also been referred to the coroners.

Mrs Whittle, whose 4 1/2-year-old son Thomas is allergic to peanuts and eggs, wants greater public awareness of food allergies and greater tolerance from restaurants. "People just don't take it seriously enough."

Auckland City Hospital immunologist Dr Penny Fitzharris said it was thought anaphylaxis killed one or two people a year in New Zealand, but deaths from the condition were often coded as something else, such as acute asthma.

"About 50 per cent of people who know they have a food allergy don't seek specialist referral. They should," she said. "Although you may have had a mild reaction in the past, it's very hard to predict the severity of a future reaction."

Bad diet

* 6-8 per cent of children and 2-4 per cent of adults have an identified food allergy.

* Eggs, dairy products, peanuts, tree nuts and seafood are among the most common food allergens.

* One in every 2500 people experience anaphylaxis, a rare, severe and life-threatening reaction, mainly to foods.

* Anaphylaxis can cause diarrhoea, constricted breathing and extremely low blood pressure.

* It is thought to kill one or two people a year in New Zealand.

Sources: Allergy NZ, Auckland City Hospital immunologists

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