Anaphylactic and societal shock: An Israeli parable - opinion

Echoes of the collective gasp that the tragedy elicited can still be heard across the country, along with debates about where to place the blame and calls for measures to prevent it from happening.

Galit Deri, mother of Osher Deri, a 23-year-old woman with a milk allergy that passed away after she was served milk ice cream at a kosher meat restaurant, speaks with the media in Hatzor HaGlilit, northern Israel, April 15, 2021. (photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
Galit Deri, mother of Osher Deri, a 23-year-old woman with a milk allergy that passed away after she was served milk ice cream at a kosher meat restaurant, speaks with the media in Hatzor HaGlilit, northern Israel, April 15, 2021.
(photo credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
 Israelis were horrified last week by the untimely death of 23-year-old Osher Deri, a resident of the northern town of Hatzor Haglilit. 
Echoes of the collective gasp that the tragedy elicited can still be heard across the country, along with debates about where to place the blame and calls for measures to prevent the same kind of thing from happening in the future.
The unfathomable event occurred on April 14. Finishing dinner with a friend at a kosher meat restaurant in Rosh Pina, Deri ordered her favorite dessert. As she stuck her fork in the chocolate cake covered in what was supposed to be non-dairy whipped cream, her buddy, Eden Shoshan, took a photo and posted it on Instagram. Neither young woman could have imagined that this would be Deri’s last picture – the one that would continue for days to accompany newspaper articles and TV broadcasts about the heartbreaking incident.
It began when Deri took a mouthful of the topping, which she rightly believed to be parve. For one thing, no kosher meat restaurant serves dairy products, or even has them on the premises. For another, Deri had eaten this particular dessert on several occasions. 
No sooner had she swallowed a spoonful, however, did she begin to have an allergic reaction.
“There’s milk in this!” she suddenly blurted out, while Shoshan ran to the chef to ask about the dessert’s ingredients. Though he initially assured her that it couldn’t possibly contain milk, a subsequent check revealed that an egregious error had been made. 
Discovering that he was out of parve whipped cream, the chef (who, at 19, should probably be referred to as a cook) had sent a co-worker, perhaps even younger, to run to a nearby supermarket for a new supply. Peculiarly, the latter didn’t notice that the item he purchased was regular ice cream. 
THIS WAS the first blunder in the deadly sequence. The second was Deri’s lack of her epinephrine injector (EpiPen), which she needed to counter the anaphylaxis she was experiencing. 
The third was that neither she nor anybody else called an ambulance. Instead, she drove herself to the hospital, calling her mother on the way to recount the mishap. In a chilling recording of what would be their last conversation, Deri is heard yelling, “You don’t understand! I don’t feel well! I’m dying!”
Little did they realize that her life really was about to end.
What happened after she and Shoshan arrived at the Ziv Medical Center in Safed is a matter of some dispute. Shoshan told Channel 12 that the hospital staff was slow to heed her desperate friend’s cries for help. Describing Deri screaming about being unable to breathe, Shoshan claimed that by the time emergency room personnel gave her an injection of adrenaline, it was too late.
CCTV footage from hospital security cameras tells a slightly different, though equally terrifying, story. In spite of how long it seemed to have taken Deri to be treated, the whole episode – from her entry into the emergency room until her collapse – took eight minutes. Sadly, efforts at resuscitation by this point were in vain. Nevertheless, the Health Ministry is conducting its own probe. 
Meanwhile, police shut down the restaurant and detained five employees, including the owner and the chef, on suspicion of negligent homicide. They were subsequently released to house arrest after it was determined that their behavior had not been intentional.
Aside from Orthodox diners being incensed by the religious dietary blooper, which will likely result in the restaurant’s going out of business for lack of customers, a nationwide discussion ensued about food allergies. Israelis of all stripes, from politicians to pundits, began to call for legislation that would mandate restaurants to have epinephrine pens on hand as a prerequisite for obtaining a license. 
Yinon Azoulay, a Knesset member from the Shas Party, promptly submitted a bill to this effect. And Rishon Lezion Mayor Raz Kinstlich took his own initiative, announcing the installment of epinephrine-injector depositories in all food establishments in the city. Whether other municipalities mean to follow suit is unclear. 
It’s easier to declare such a plan than implement it, of course, particularly where administering a potentially dangerous drug is concerned. Imagine, for instance, the guy who didn’t recognize dairy ice cream being in charge of a first-aid kit. 
BUT TECHNICALITIES do not make for touching TV features; not like parents of children suffering from food allergies, some of whom spoke in interviews about their constant fear for their kids’ safety. 
One woman practically wept at the prospect of having to worry well into her son’s adulthood, as Deri was 23, yet hadn’t remembered to carry her epinephrine pen, even when she went out to eat. Deri’s grieving mother attributed this not to carelessness, but to the fact that her daughter had been employed by and patronized the meat restaurant in question, and knew that it was completely devoid of dairy products.
A man with the same allergy told Channel 13 that this kind of first-hand is irrelevant. He explained that he refuses to eats dark chocolate, for example, since although it is considered parve by kashrut standards, it might contain minuscule amounts of milk. 
According to the concept of “batel b’shishim” in Jewish dietary laws, a dish that contains a mixture of meat and milk is still kosher if one of the components is only a tiny fraction (1/60) of the other.
His point was that while this ratio is “legal” for kosher-keepers, it could be lethal for someone with allergies. Thus, he said, not only does he refrain from partaking of parve desserts that imitate dairy ones; he never leaves home without his EpiPen.
His statement cannot be dismissed, but it is uncomfortable to emphasize in the aftermath of Deri’s demise. Obviously, the only appropriate reaction to her unfortunate plight is mourning. Any response indicating that the outcome would have been different had she only put the pen in her purse comes off as victim-shaming.
STILL, THE tendency on the part of Israelis to fault external forces for their woes, rather than assuming personal responsibility for their actions, is both ingrained and rampant. Indeed, the very term sets teeth on edge in the Jewish nanny-state, where the populace regularly deals with difficulty by demanding government intervention.
The irony is inescapable, especially in Israel at the moment, with citizens voicing malaise, if not rage, at the coalition-building impasse that may be leading to a fifth election. Perhaps the chaos is causing otherwise rational people to forget the adage that “hard cases make bad law.” 
And if ever there was a “hard case,” Deri’s is it.
This isn’t to suggest that a campaign to raise awareness about the gravity of food allergies – in parallel to hi-tech companies’ current search for cures – shouldn’t be a public priority. On the contrary, the more educated everyone is about the perils of anaphylactic shock, the better. 
It’s just that Deri’s misfortune was not a common occurrence. It was, rather, a dreadful fluke from which the key lesson lies in the value of precaution.