I recently returned from Toronto for the premier of the documentary "Sabrina's Law."
It tells the story of Sabrina Shannon, a 13-year-old food allergic child, who died from an allergic reaction that occurred after eating cross-contaminated French fries from her school's cafeteria. Sabrina's fries were served with tongs that also served fries with "poutine," a popular topping for French fries in Canada, which contains cheese curds.
On September 29th 2003, Sabrina pleaded with her mother Sara not to send her to school with another sandwich. She hated sandwiches and wanted to buy French fries from the school cafeteria. She explained to her mother that she had had these fries the week before. She checked with the cafeteria staff and they were "safe" for her. Sara reluctantly agreed because she knew that Sabrina was responsible about her allergies. Sara put some money into her daughter's hand, and sent her on her way.
At lunch time, Sabrina doubled checked with the cafeteria staff and made sure that the fries were not fried in peanut or soy oil. She bought the fries and a Coke with the $5 bill her mother had given her that morning. She ate her lunch without incident and neither saw nor tasted the trace amounts of dairy that cross-contaminated her last meal.
After lunch, Sabrina headed to geography class where she started to feel ill. She informed the teacher and was sent with a friend to the school office on the other side of the building. Sabrina told her friend that she was having an asthma attack so they did not think to stop at her locker where her Epi-Pen was kept. A few moments into the walk, Sabrina started to wheeze and she was stumbling as they arrived at the school office. Her friend noticed that her lips were turning blue.
Sabrina's last conscious moments were in the school office. She explained that she was having trouble breathing and then collapsed onto the floor. It occurred to those with her that she could be experiencing an anaphylactic reaction. Her friend ran to Sabrina's locker to retrieve her EpiPen. (Sabrina was teased by other students for carrying her EpiPen pack, so she kept it in her locker.) She was injected with the epinephrine and an ambulance was called.
Sabrina's mother Sara was called then too. Sara noted the time and since it was just after Sabrina's lunch time, she knew "it was the fries." Sara raced to the school and noticed that it was a crisp and beautiful fall day. She could see kids kicking a soccer ball as she arrived, which was a huge contrast to what she saw next: paramedics carrying Sabrina on a stretcher - her beautiful red hair spilled over the back. Then she saw Sabrina's hand, the same hand that took the $5 bill that morning, hanging off of the side in a way that terrified her.
Sabrina's heart had stopped and although it was restarted, she had been without oxygen for far too long .Vital organs shut down and there was extensive brain damage. The moment that no parent should ever have to face was here. Sara had to say good-bye to her daughter, her only child. But before she did, she made a promise to Sabrina that she would do everything in her power to prevent this from happening to another family, another child. That was September 30, 2003.
Sara Shannon's life has changed in many ways over the past five years, but not a day goes by that she doesn't miss her daughter or wonder what might have been. Keeping her promise to her daughter is what keeps her going. She worked tirelessly for legislation to protect students at risk for anaphylaxis.
"Sabrina's Law" is a law which protects allergic students in Ontario, Canada. This law set a precedent and has become a model for similar laws internationally.
Part of the documentary features Sabrina in her own voice in a radio interview, explaining the dangers of food allergies and what she needed to do to protect herself. There is no denying that she understood, and yet without knowledgeable adults around her, it wasn't enough.
Looking back over Sabrina's life, it is amazing to see how her radio documentary, her drawings, and her life seem to have been preparing us to hear and learn from her heartbreaking story. Now all we need to do is listen.