Crusading Over Foods that Can Kill
Yael Kozar of Rolling Hills Estates was getting ready to take her two young daughters for a walk a decade ago when she gave them both a bite of a peanut butter-flavored power bar. Her 18-month-old daughter spit it out, and Kozar figured she just wasn’t a fan.
During the walk through the neighborhoods of Westchester — at the time their home — the little girl became ornery. Then the sniffles came on, and Kozar wondered if she’d caught a cold. Moments later, Kozar took a look at her daughter and was horrified: one of her eyes was swollen shut and she was wheezing.
The next thing Kozar knew, she was in the car, gunning it for the hospital in Marina del Rey. By the time Kozar came running through the emergency room’s sliding glass doors, clutching her daughter, the baby girl was covered in vomit and was barely breathing.
“They saved her life while I was sitting with her on a hospital bed,” she said. “You don’t recover from that as a mother.”
That is how Kozar and her husband, Andy, came to learn that daughter KD is deathly allergic to peanuts. It is also what prompted Kozar to shelve her career in television and becoming Southern California’s most indefatigable advocate for deadly food allergies.
Last week, a tragedy put the peanut-allergy issue in the national spotlight. After eating a peanut given to her by a friend on the playground, 7-year-old Amarria Denise Johnson of Chesterfield County, Va., died of a severe allergic reaction. The school did not carry epinephrine injections, better known as EpiPens, which deliver via needle a dose of an adrenaline-like substance, thereby neutralizing an anaphylactic shock that can claim a life in a matter of minutes.
The tragedy is Kozar’s worst nightmare, and underscores why she has become such an outspoken advocate.
Once a producer for shows like “American Journal” and “Hard Copy,” Kozar now travels around Southern California to give presentations to groups; chairs an annual Los Angeles fundraising walk for the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network; heads up a South Bay support group on anaphylaxis prevention; and puts her television skills to use producing podcasts about food allergies. All for free.
“We lose a child every other day in this country,” she said, referring to food-allergy anaphylaxis deaths. “This doesn’t count the ridiculous number of children that land in the ER fighting for their lives and also the near misses that 15 million Americans with anaphylactic allergies experience.”
The peanut issue is what eventually brought the Kozar family to the South Bay. About three years ago, seeking a safer school setting for her daughter, they moved to the Palos Verdes Peninsula, where the schools are exceptionally vigilant about peanut allergies.
For starters, the cafeterias in Palos Verdes Peninsula schools are completely nut-free. That means no food with peanuts, walnuts, pistachios or any kind of tree nut. But the schools on The Hill don’t stop there. This year, the district also banned corn nuts and pretzel rods, not because they contain peanuts but because they aren’t manufactured in a nut-free environment.
By contrast, the school the family left behind in the Los Angeles Unified School District had proposed putting peanut butter and jelly on the menu every other week.
“The thought of 530 kids having peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch — it would have made it impossible for my child to dodge those bullets,” she said.
Palos Verdes Peninsula is also among the only school districts in the nation to have a policy in place for allergic reactions to food allergies.
“At the beginning of the year, every family signs a waiver which allows the administration to use an EpiPen on their child in case of emergency,” she said.
The district’s attention to this issue may have something to do with how the community has been forced to cope with its own peanut-related tragedy. In 2004, Palos Verdes Peninsula High student Laura Keiko Benson died on a church trip after eating a Rice Krispy treat that contained peanut butter.
“She didn’t get to her EpiPen in time,” Kozar said.
Over the past couple of decades, the prevalence of people with peanut allergies has increased a dozenfold, to roughly 2 percent of the American population, said Dr. Lawrence Sher, who specializes in pediatrics and allergies in Rolling Hills Estates. About 5 percent of all Americans — and 8 percent of children — suffer from a serious food allergy of some sort. Science has yet to find a cure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“This is the reason why having groups such as what Yael is involved with is good,” he said. “People have so many questions.”
About five years ago, Kozar and Sher joined a statewide effort to push through a state law requiring all California schools to carry at least one EpiPen in the nurse’s office. It failed because legislators wanted more information. Now, a similar effort is under way at the federal level.
In the meantime, families grappling with the condition are on their own.
KD Kozar is now 11. Her last episode occurred at a restaurant in Westchester four years ago, and it was a bad one. After taking a bite of the black beans on her father’s plate, her throat began to close up.
“Mom, I’m scared,” she told Yael, hands clutching her own neck. Her mother administered the EpiPen in the girl’s leg, but it didn’t seem to help. KD ended up spending a week at Mattel Children’s Hospital at UCLA.
In three days, she had four anaphylactic reactions — that is, allergic reactions doctors consider deadly.
On top of that, KD experienced scarring in her esophagus, and ended up returning to the hospital for surgery to fix the problem.
At the restaurant, the waiter had assured the family that their meals would be nut-free. But as it happened, a chef had been experimenting with a new recipe that involved putting crushed peanuts in a sauce. The family sued the restaurant and won.
After that episode, while lying on what was almost her deathbed, KD resolved not to let her peanut allergy stop her from leading a normal life. She goes to a public school, hangs out with friends, rides on passenger planes — which can be a scary experience — and even plays hockey. But KD can never let her guard down.
“You just have to be cautious about what you do and what you eat,” the girl said. “It makes you a little neurotic. It’s like having night vision. When you look around you and see someone with peanuts, you stop and just kind of blank out a second, and think: `What do I have to do to get away from this.”‘
On the Web
To watch Yael Kozar’s Anaphylactic Allergy Podcast, go to http://bit.ly/wWp7qB.