The Tragedy


I did not know him. I had never even heard of him before the tragedy. Now his story haunts me. I have sobbed upon hearing what happened to him and to his family.  Somehow I have not been able to get him out of my mind. 

He was a brilliant young student who was also known for his generosity and friendliness. He was gifted in so many ways, a light in the world with a future that  seemed to be so bright. He won a full ride scholarship to Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, one of only five hundred students chosen to be a member of the Class of 2026 at the prestigious school. He was already well versed in the workings of computers and became known as someone who would help his fellow classmates if they encountered difficulties with the coursework. It seemed that everyone he met was drawn to him. 

His parents were refugees from Somalia who were incredibly proud of their gifted son. He had taken full advantage of educational opportunities, joining his high school robotics team and leading them to championships. His interest in computer science grew during his high school years and he seemed destined to do great things in college and later in life. 

On December 3, he attended a student event at his Bowdoin. There were snacks which he enjoyed along with the friends that he had already made. Suddenly he felt his throat begin to swell and realized that something he had eaten must have had traces of nuts to which he was highly allergic. He excused himself and rushed to his dorm to retrieve his epipen. That’s when things went crazy. 

Whether or not he actually had time to use the epipen is not confirmed but he did reach out to his Resident Assistant in the dorm as his breathing became more and more difficult. They decided that driving to the hospital might be quicker than calling an ambulance and headed out in search of help. Along the way he was struggling so much that they called 911 and were met on the road by paramedics. The crew began to administer aide in route to the hospital but their efforts were all in vain. The brilliant young student died. 

My granddaughter and the entire campus of only two thousand young men and women immediately went into a state of profound grief. In a place where everyone seemed to know everyone else word of his death spread rapidly. My granddaughter was so upset that she called her mother sobbing and barely able to speak coherently. She and her roommates had to comfort each other as they all wondered how such an horrific thing might have happened so close to the end of the semester and the holiday season. They shared stories of how wonderful their fellow student had been.

The university offered counseling to those who needed it. They brought in furry animals to to calm the students and the teachers. The young man’s roommate was an emotional wreck as were those who had become close to him. His parents were shocked and devastated. The students and teachers at his former high school fell apart. He was beloved by so many people, a person who was filled with goodness and promise. It felt unreal to think that  consuming a little snack could be so lethal. 

We sometimes hear people poking fun at the notion of those who have allergies to nuts or eggs or gluten. They act as though the very idea of an inability to process certain foods without harm is a sign of weakness or overreaction. They scoff at the reality that such things can literally kill a person. Danger is ever present for them often from the time of their childhood. These souls travel through life assessing whether or not the things they consume will hurt them. Often there is little sign that the toxic elements are even present in the food that they eat. Just a few crumbs mixing in can create a storm of reactions in them and yet the reaction to their needs is all too often negative rather than compassionate. 

While this young man’s story seems to be an extreme, the dangers for those with severe allergies must be taken quite seriously and without judgement. I doubt that whoever prepared the food that sent him into a medical emergency ever thought of the consequences of serving something with nuts. They may not have even realized that nuts were part of the ingredients. It seems so bizarre that just eating something that is okay for the rest of us might lead to hospitalization or death. It’s something that we all need to take into account whenever we share food.

I once taught a student whose reaction to gluten was so severe that if she picked up even a crumb from regular bread she would become seriously ill. She missed many days of school because of her condition. She was abnormally thin because her body was unable to process much of what she age. Her eyes were sunken and surrounded by dark circles and yet there were teachers who believed that she and her parents were overreacting. They had little sympathy for her situation.  

I have been unable to get the incident of the Bowdoin student’s death out of my mind. I keep thinking of how broken his family must be. None of us send our children out into the world believing that we will lose them. I’m sure his parents believed that he would be safe in a school that provides so much nurturing attention to its students. It is a tragedy that someone who might have changed the world with his brilliance has been taken far too soon. My heart aches for everyone who is grieving for him. 

We will all be serving snacks and foods this holiday season. Take the time to be aware of the many different needs that people have. Be careful in planning menus and be certain to include a variety that takes allergies and preferences into account. Be kind when considering how difficult it must be for those whose bodies reject certain foods that are toxins to them. Nothing about such conditions is a sign of weakness or the stuff of jokes. In the worst case scenario a tiny bit of the wrong food can sometimes kill. 


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