Tuesday , March 31 2020
Home / Family / Parents hope Rachel Hunger’s death will save lives

Parents hope Rachel Hunger’s death will save lives

Saving just one person, Jennifer and David Hunger say, would make passage of the bill they’re championing worthwhile.

Meanwhile, the story of their daughter’s death last year from an allergic reaction to peanuts has already begun to command attention.

“I can probably list four or five people who have reached out to me in the last eight months and said it has probably saved lives by hearing about (Rachel),” Jennifer said in her Concord kitchen last week. “So that part feels good.”

The alternative – grieving over their daughter and retreating into the quiet of their home in Concord – is unthinkable, the couple reasoned.

Imagine someone else dying from a food allergy after Rachel’s death. Imagine not using Rachel’s story to learn. Imagine not realizing how truly dangerous an allergic reaction to food can be.

“I kind of feel like I have a responsibility to tell others,” Jennifer said.

Rachel was eating with a friend at a restaurant in Durham. She was a 20-year-old student at the University of New Hampshire, with possibilities and potential spread out in front of her like the nearby football field. She fell into a coma and was taken off life support on May 8.

That’s why Jennifer testified to the House Commerce Committee last week at the Legislative Office Building, seeking a bill that would require restaurants to have an employee on staff who’s trained and certified in food allergies. It would also require restaurants to post notices, shown clearly, that says it’s up to the customer to inform an establishment about a particular allergy.

Her goal inched forward on Thursday, when a subcommittee vote passed the measure. The full committee will vote on Tuesday.

“It’s a start,” Jennifer said. “It gives us some hope.”

David said it’s been suggested that perhaps the statute, if it makes it through the House, the Senate and the governor’s office, should be called Rachel’s Law.

“I think it would be great,” David said. “It serves a purpose, getting the knowledge and awareness out there, and if it’s House Bill 1102, it doesn’t garner the same sort of attention as calling it Rachel’s Law.”

Their daughter was a complex soul, a contradiction of sorts. In high school, a long-term relationship with a controlling boyfriend pulled her down, leading to poor grades, Rachel would later write. At UNH, she majored in molecular genetics and got high grades. She chronicled her rough high school experiences in the online magazine, Her Campus UNH, helping her to let go, start fresh, meet new people after three years of verbal abuse and manipulation.

David and Jennifer said she had great communication and writing skills, yet she could be reserved, cards close to her vest. She never cared much for the company of others – kids were an exception, which is why Rachel worked at her mother’s day care center for five years – yet she was passionate about helping people.

“She just would prefer not to deal with people,” Jennifer said, “so she could be in her little lab and study her DNA and that is what she wanted to do. She said she could help with the demographics of people. ‘I will find a cure for something, but I don’t have to see the individual that has cancer.’ ”

Allergies? Sure, they were part of the picture. Ever since Rachel ate peanut butter at 11 months old, turning her face blotchy and swelling her eyes. And here’s where background information and an increased sense of urgency connected to allergic reactions needed to surface.

But it didn’t, the couple says.

At 11 months, Jennifer and David said, Rachel was too young for allergy testing, so Jennifer thought nothing of giving her daughter a corner of her peanut butter and jelly sandwich five months later.

Same thing happened. Blotches and swelling. Rachel remained two years too young for allergy testing, prompting David to tell me, “We had to spend the rest of that time in uncertainty and fear.”

“Just proceed as though she’s allergic,” added Jennifer, describing the family plan at the time. “At 3 years old we had her tested and she was allergic to peanuts.”

Flareups were rare. Simply stay clear of peanuts, right. But state law doesn’t mandate warning customers of what’s in their food, and those that include ingredients as a safety measure often don’t display the information in a highly visible fashion.

The egg roll Rachel ate for lunch April 19 contained peanut paste. She felt funny. She called her mother. Jennifer made sure she was not alone, that she had a friend with her. She made sure Rachel had an EpiPen, often thought of as an easy and guaranteed remedy for a food allergy, and told Rachel to have her friend administer it.

It had no effect.

Rachel had a second EpiPen, and that, too, did nothing. She suffered anaphylactic shock and went into cardiac arrest at the emergency room. Her brain went without oxygen for 30 minutes, leaving it with irreparable damage. She was taken off life support after nearly three weeks at Dartmouth-Hitchcock hospital in Lebanon. She was pronounced dead a day after her 21st birthday.

Jennifer declined to name the restaurant involved. She said a lawsuit remains a possibility.

That’s for another day, another time. Changing the law – adding one, really – is the priority for now. The process has done Jennifer and David some good, distracting them, giving them a sense of purpose, keeping Rachel’s memory alive.

Their two children – 13-year-old Allison and Jake, 16 – are dealing with the loss in their own ways. Allison has withdrawn somewhat, while Jake is more outgoing than usual, using his social life as a distraction, a coping method.

The family’s kitchen and living area, a large open space, is filled with photos. A painting of Rachel stands out, showing her smile and long hair in the foreground, the ocean in the background. The photo the painting was made from served as the central picture during calling hours.

David made sure to tell me that he resented when supporters mentioned how pretty Rachel was and how that somehow made his daughter’s death even more tragic. She was way more than just a pretty face.

The hurt, of course, came through. Their expressions, their eyes, alternated between enthusiasm over what might be and tears. They see their daughter as living forever, the poster child for what happens if you don’t take food allergies seriously enough.

Sometimes EpiPens work, sometimes not. Sometimes food contains deadly ingredients, sometimes not.

And sometimes, the death of a loved one is a beginning, not an end.

“When we were in Lebanon (at Dartmouth-Hitchcock),” Jennifer said, “I’m sitting there and I’m thinking, well, this could be happening to someone else right now. We’ve got to do something so people are safe.”