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Family shares tragic story of child lost as food allergies skyrocket

Severe allergic reactions to food skyrocket, researchers don't know why (Photo: Sorensen family photo)

(KUTV) Fourteen-year-old Tanner Sorensen loved life, his friends, family, basketball and football.

“He was witty, funny, loving and humble all in one.”

His mom Jen Sorensen beams while talking about her oldest son. She was extremely proud of him and was looking forward to “showing him off” at Herriman High this year. She works in the front office; he was going to be a sophomore. Instead she sees his friends walking and talking in the halls without him.

Tanner died Jan. 4 at home with his family, fighting to save his life.

This happy-go-lucky teen died from a severe allergic reaction to peanuts. In Utah, his is the second death in four years. Another young man also named Tanner died in April of 2014 after accidentally biting into a pretzel filled with peanut butter. Tanner Henstra’s St. George family and community grieved his loss.

These two young men a part of a growing number of kids and adults diagnosed with food allergies. Nationally it is estimated one in 13 kids have one or more allergy to an everyday food that could cause them harm.

Tanner Sorensen’s Dad Terry Sorensen said his son was always easy to be around. They spent his final hours together at a church youth activity. When the evening was wrapping up, leaders cleaned up and put leftover cookies on a plate while the boys were playing basketball in the gym of their neighborhood church.

“Someone had asked them let's finish up these cookies,” Terry Sorensen said. "Tanner asked is there any peanut butter in them but no one really knew.”

“The next thing I know he was pounding on the front door,” Jen Sorensen said, home not even a half a block from the church. She opened the door to find her son with swollen lips that were turning blue.

Unbeknownst to his dad, who was still at the church, and his mom, 14-year-old Tanner had eaten a cookie before leaving the church. He’d rushed home on his own hoping to get to his inhaler. He was struggling to breathe and trying to get to the medicine cabinet where it was kept.

“I went over grabbed the inhaler and tried to do it for him but I could see the powder come back out of his mouth. His tongue was blocking his airway," Jen Sorensen said.

In a panic Jen reached for her phone and told Tanner Sorensen “it would be OK,” the last words he likely heard from his mother. As she turned around, “he collapsed to the ground and cut open his eyebrow.”

At that frantic moment Terry Sorensen was walking up the driveway and heard a commotion, and assumed his boys were rough housing.

“I heard Ty yelling and thought he and Tanner were going crazy,” he said.

What he saw as he opened the front door was anything but a happy scene with his two sons rough housing.

Jen Sorensen was using an EpiPen on Tanner, but the pens were not working. The first EpiPen didn't go through his pants and the second EpiPen bent and went into Jen’s thumb. Finally -the third EpiPen worked, but only after removing his clothing. Something that should not have to happen.

A report released earlier this week shows this family is not the only one to have problems. The FDA has found seven deaths this year have been blamed on EpiPen failures with hundreds of reports of the pen breaking or not working. (link to bronaugh story on this issue)

Tanner was still not conscious or breathing after his mom had attempted chest compressions waiting for first responders.

Efforts to save Tanner were heroic, lasting through the night, but his mom knew he'd gone without oxygen too long.

“I kind of knew here in our home they worked on him so hard, the responders worked so hard in our living room.”

Their first born -- gone in an instant.

“It never triggered in my mind anaphylaxis” Jen Sorensen said. She had trained Tanner's whole life for that moment.

"As a mom you run scenarios through your head and I just didn't think that either, he said he couldn't breathe and went for his inhaler.”

It wasn't until later, when Jen and Terry Sorensen pieced together the fact Tanner was not in fact having an asthma attack, but had eaten a peanut butter cookie as everyone was packing up and headed home from the church.

“For some reason, Tanner let his guard down.”

“He's a teenage boy. That cost him his life,” Jen Sorensen whispered.

Tanner was allergic to peanuts, tree nuts and milk. This was discovered when he was just 18 months old and got gum stuck in his hair. His aunt was tending him and used peanut butter to get the gum out. She noticed a reaction. Tanner was tested for allergies, as was his younger brother Ty, around the same age.

Both were anaphylactic allergic to peanuts and tree nuts. Nuts are in the top eight foods that account for 90 percent of all food allergic reactions. Milk, that Tanner was also allergic to, is also on the list along with eggs, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat.

The allergy tests changed the way his family ate, shopped and planned their lives. Every label is carefully read, lunches packed for school, and treats sent to parties just in case.

The Sorensens found, like many other families, that controlling their diets was easy when the children were young. The older they got, the harder it became to ensure their boys were safe at every moment.

The family is still reeling with its loss, but hoping to save lives by telling its story.

“It is serious and it really just takes a second for someone to lose their life.”

In the last decade cases of severe food allergies have skyrocketed. Nailing down exact numbers is difficult, though the estimate is an increase of 300-400 percent.

“When I was growing up it wasn't an issue” said Terry Sorensen. “But now it is way more common.”

Researchers have theories on why food allergies are increasing, ranging from the pesticides used on the foods we eat to our overly clean and sanitized living conditions.

FOOD ALLERGIES A GROWING PROBLEM

Not everyone takes nut-free classroom signs seriously.

Jen Sorensen finds it frustrating.

"If it were their child they would have a totally different perspective,” she said.

She said on field trips there are always those ladies who say their children only eat peanut butter and jam.

The problem with a simple PBJ in the same classroom, on a bus or in a shared space, is cross contamination. A child eats a sandwich, touches a pencil sharpener and a book and the allergen is passed around the room. Even the smell of the nuts is enough to make some kids violently ill.

“I don't think people understand how severe it is” Terry Sorensen said.

Tanner was his dad’s best friend -- his buddy.

The family, now minus one, asks that you look at food allergies as more than a life choice for finicky kids.

Food allergies are a disease and one that effects far more than you’d ever imagine.

Through tears, these grieving parents want anyone who listen to know their son is proof it just takes one mistake.

"He just made one mistake as a teenage boy would.”

The Sorensens hope to be advocates in the food allergy community at some point. Right now they are still dealing with their loss and figuring out a new way forward.

There are many issues they believe need to be addressed including EpiPen pricing and reliability, accurate food labeling and recognition of anaphylaxis.

If you have food allergies in your circle of family and friends you can find support and ideas for keeping foods safe through the Utah Food Allergy Network or its Facebook page.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

FoodAllergy.org

FoodAllergyAwareness.org

CentersForDiseaseControl

U.S. Food and Drug Administration

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