Teen sues hospital after food causes severe allergic reaction
Kayla Bellotti always assumed that in a hospital she would be safe. That the staff were there to make her better the few times in her young life when she was rushed to the ER after consuming even a tiny amount of dairy, eggs, beef or pork. These are all foods the 16-year-old is severely allergic to.
Now, after an anaphylactic reaction to a hospital meal that was supposed to be allergen-free, Kayla no longer thinks the hospital is a safe place. She wants her local hospital in New Jersey to institute policies that ensure patients with food allergies can be sure that the food served to them won’t trigger anaphylaxis, including the struggle to breathe.
To this end, Kayla, a specialized high school student, and her mother, Jeanne Bellotti, are suing Hunterdon Medical Center (HMC) in Flemington, NJ. The lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. District Court, also names Hunterdon Healthcare System Inc.
The irony of this situation was that Kayla was admitted to HMC to treat a severe allergic reaction to a meal – then suffered a second episode of anaphylaxis, triggered by the hospital’s own food.
The family’s lawsuit claims four counts against HMC for repealing rights for people with disabilities in Kayla, including being denied equal access under Article 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. It also lists Title III offenses of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Affordable Care Act, New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, as well as five counts related to neglect and causing emotional distress and physical harm.
The lawsuit says the hospital discriminated against Kayla solely on the basis of her disability by “denying her safe access to patient meals and subjecting her to illness and risk of death.” He calls the actions of hospitals “the result of intentional discrimination or of deliberate indifference to [Kayla’s] rights protected by the federal government.
Despite Bellotti’s clear demands for food that does not contain her daughter’s allergens, the lawsuit says HMC failed to make the “necessary reasonable change.” The result was that Kayla was injured: she endured the second round of anaphylaxis, became “terrified” and the lawsuit says the teenager still suffers from anxiety.
A birthday reaction
The story begins on Kayla’s 15the birthday on August 7, 2019. After a late lunch at a local restaurant, the teenager began to experience a rapidly progressing anaphylactic reaction. She received two successive doses of epinephrine and was rushed to the emergency department in Hunterdon.
Once emergency personnel stabilized her, the decision was made to keep her overnight for observation. For food, the lawsuit says Hunterdon’s policy is for patients or their family members to order meals from in-room menus. In Kayla’s case, her mother took charge, and every time Bellotti called the food service, she detailed her daughter’s allergies, stressed their severity, and asked for confirmation that the meal would be safe.
At lunchtime on August 8, Kayla took a bite of the veggie chili which arrived with a note saying “dairy free and egg free.” According to the costume, she immediately began to experience symptoms of another anaphylactic reaction. Her tongue was itching and her throat was starting to swell, and she felt more and more sore. It was surreal and scary.
“This first (anaphylactic) reaction at the restaurant was my first in a long time,” said the teenager. “The second, in my hospital bed, I just couldn’t believe it. I had to sit there a bit to take in what I was feeling. Kayla then told her father, who was in the room, and he rushed to the nursing station for help. The costume says that “having had a severe reaction the day before and knowing how severe her reactions were, she was afraid of dying.”
Contacted by Allergic life, Kathleen Seelig, the spokesperson for the hospital, sent an email that read: “We are not commenting on the pending lawsuits.” The lawsuit notes that the hospital also billed parents for the care their daughter received due to her reaction to hospital food.
The substitution has been made
At first, neither Kayla nor her parents thought the hospital meal was the cause. Rather, they thought she must have developed an allergy to another ingredient in chili pepper. But Kayla’s doctor advised them to demand the full ingredient label of chili and read it carefully.
When they did, the parents say they discovered that unwittingly, a meal replacement had been made – because the dairy-free, egg-free chili Bellotti ordered was not available. The chili served, in fact, contained these allergens. In addition, although the hospital has what is called a “near miss system”, in which incidents like this are supposed to be recorded to prevent similar events from happening again, in this case, family lawyers discovered that there was no record.
“That tells us it didn’t matter,” said Mary Vargas, a Washington, DC-based disability rights lawyer who is co-counsel in the case with Lawrence Berger, whose firm is based in Washington, DC. Haddonfield, New Jersey.
This is not the first time that people with food allergies have had anaphylactic reactions in hospitals, notes Vargas, whose company is Stein & Vargas. “It seems that sick people, women giving birth, patients who have other concerns when entering the hospital, such as childcare, still need to be responsible and find a way around hospitals to ensure their safety, ”she said.
In search of change “for all”
Bellotti says the family’s decision to sue was not taken lightly. In the past, the family never considered suing a facility where Kayla had an allergic reaction, due to errors such as cross-contamination. But this time it was different. Hunterdon is the family’s local hospital, closest to their home and Kayla’s high school, where she will be sent in the event of a later reaction or medical emergency.
“It’s supposed to be where she feels safe,” her mother says. “And we think they need to make the change for everyone who comes into the institution, so that they can access food and feel confident.”
As for Kayla, it is all a bit scary. However, if the lawsuit helps change the uncertainty about food safety for other allergic people who need to go to the hospital, she will be happy.
“Still, I think from now on I’d rather take my own food to the hospital,” she said.
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