Parents reach out on allergy dangers after daughter's death

08/29/2013 12:00 AM

08/28/2013 11:31 PM

In the last four weeks, Sacramento urologist Dr. Louis Giorgi and his wife, Joanne, have received countless cards.

Envelopes, in a rainbow of colors and sent from people across the nation, overflowed from a bowl on a counter in the Giorgis' Carmichael kitchen. Personal notes offered condolences for a young teen who died too soon. And some expressed gratitude for the message of her grieving parents.

The Giorgis' 13-year-old daughter Natalie died on July 27 from a severe allergic reaction to peanut butter. The married couple have since used Natalie's death as a rallying cry for more education about children's food allergies.

They helped establish a nonprofit organization called the Natalie Giorgi Sunshine Foundation, which is aimed at promoting public awareness and research of food allergies. They are giving out "Natalie Marie, the Sunshine Girl" wristbands – in her favorite shade of purple – for community members to wear.

On Sept. 15, the parents will be participating in a fundraising walk for Food Allergies Research & Education, a group working on behalf of millions of Americans facing potentially life-threatening food allergies.

Joanne Giorgi said it was a card she received – one penned by a Monterey mother – that most poignantly articulated the problem she and her husband are hoping to correct.

"This woman very eloquently put it, and I don't disagree with her, that 10 percent of people get the seriousness of food allergies and 90 percent think that it's maybe just being overprotective," she said Wednesday as the parents granted an interview at their home on their loss and the cause they've taken on.

"People recognize the prevalence of food allergies, but I don't know if people take them seriously enough to realize they could be fatal," she said. "I think by the amount of people that have written to us, expressing their thanks, that we are shedding a light on it."

The story of Natalie's death captured national media coverage last month and continues to get attention.

It was on the final night of vacationing with her family at Camp Sacramento in Eldorado National Forest when Natalie bit into – and quickly spit out – a Rice Krispies treat. The snacks were a tradition on the last night of camp. But this year, peanut butter had been mixed into the chocolate drizzle topping.

Natalie immediately went to her parents, saying she tasted a flavor she didn't recognize. Her parents said they gave her the allergy drug Benadryl. Fifteen minutes later, after she started having trouble breathing, Louis Giorgi called 911. He administered three injections of EpiPens, a treatment for life-threatening allergic reactions.

Despite the efforts of her parents, paramedics and nurses, Natalie died early in the morning on July 27.

According to Joanne Giorgi, that bite into the Rice Krispies treat was Natalie's first exposure to peanut product in 10 years. Her only previous experience had been when she first tested positive for a peanut allergy at age 3.

Her parents said they and Natalie were always vigilant about her peanut allergy – even if that meant she skipped ice cream at Baskin-Robbins or declined birthday treats brought to class. She swapped Halloween candy for sugar-free treats at a dentist's office to get rid of snacks with peanut products, they said.

Natalie's twin sister, Danielle, has also tested positive for peanut allergies.

"Kids who don't get to eat the food are sometimes like, 'Really, I can't eat this?' " Joanne said. "We tried to say to them, 'We are not doing it to be mean. We are trying to protect you.' And they did a really good job of understanding it."

Still, Natalie died as the result of one unknowing "mistake," Louis Giorgi said.

Natalie was always involved in charitable endeavors, her parents said. They spoke Wednesday about how Natalie would get mailers from St. Jude's Children Hospital, and pray for the suffering kids whose stories were told inside. She would frequently donate her own money to their cause.

Natalie was to enter eighth grade at Our Lady of Assumption Catholic School in Carmichael. She had been elected to serve on the student council this year.

Her parents said Natalie was the kind of young leader would be first to jump on board with efforts to increase awareness for food allergies.

"We hope that Natalie will serve as a sunshine, as a beacon for that light, so that this doesn't happen again," Louis Giorgi said. It's not enough, he said, to see doctors and be prepared with anti-allergy medication. "We were there. We had an action plan, and it wasn't enough. The only way to stop it was to stop the exposure" to the allergen, he said.

Advocating for food allergy awareness has helped the Giorgis cope with the pain of losing a daughter, they said.

Joanne Giorgi described the "darkest day" in August when Natalie was to attend the first day of new school year.

"I think most parents can probably imagine what that must be like," Joanne Giorgi said. "That was something that she should have been doing – that she was ready to do."

"But we have to continue to be there for her twin (Danielle)and the other two children (Catherine and Michael)," Louis Giorgi said. "Life needs to go on for them. The twin needs to finish her eighth grade, and go on to high school without her sister."

The number of U.S. children who have food allergies increased by 50 percent from 1997 to 2011, according to a May report for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Medical investigators are unsure why.

Steps are being taken in the Sacramento area to address the dangers.

The Elk Grove Unified School District banned peanut products from its elementary schools' cafeteria menus shortly after reports of Natalie's death.

"Anything that limits the risk of exposure is going to be helpful," Louis Giorgi said. "Maybe, there's more reasonable things that can be done. The school district is taking some action, but we as a community need to take steps as well. That is Natalie's message.

"We need to do what is reasonable to accommodate all the kids, especially when it's life-threatening. We need to do as much as we can."

Call The Bee's Kurt Chirbas, (916) 321-1030.


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