In August 2022, 19-year-old Alexander Ngai-Jun Wu — who had several food allergies including a severe milk allergy — was in Cologne, Germany with his bandmates from the Ealing Youth Orchestra. There he participated in what was described as a ‘team-building exercise’ where they swapped ingredients to make a burger. He suffered an allergic reaction and despite administering his epinephrine auto-injector, suffered anaphylactic shock and died a week later in a Cologne hospital.
Alex was a student at the Royal College of Music which described him as a talented cellist and a keen composer and arranger. He was also an organ donor whose generosity saved five other lives and the sight of two others.
The West London Coroner’s Court heard testimony about how while abroad in Cologne, he mixed food and ate part of a burger he made by ‘mingling’ ingredients.
Last Monday, Coroner Lydia Brown told the inquest: “On the day of his collapse, on August 23 last year, it’s clear he was participating in some form of tasks and that he took these somewhat outside the box.”
She said that Alex had suffered a ‘fairly immediate’ and fatal response from eating the constructed burger.
The coroner testified:
All of it is terribly difficult to reflect upon. It seems to demonstrate that this was a man of such intellectual prowess that he would go that bit further. I have no evidence that there was any foolish or reckless behaviour.
What is tragically apparent is that during the course of that lunchtime, he mingled together several food products from McDonald’s.
Some contained dairy food products. What happened in making that pretend burger is not clear, but he had a fairly immediate and fatal response. I have looked very carefully at allergy advice from the McDonald’s chain.
I accept there was a language barrier but I also accept that Alex would normally deal with his allergy difficulties. I see it as the most awful, unfortunate incident that occurred not due to anyone’s carelessness, but simply as a consequence of an action that went so terribly and unexpectedly wrong. The medical cause of death: anaphylactic shock.
The coroner ruled that Alex’s death resulted from an accident.
Alex ate at least part of a burger that contained dairy and shortly became unwell. The burger had been joined with another burger due to a team-building task. Despite self-administering his epi-pen, and the prompt arrival of paramedics’ support, he died one week after from an anaphylactic response to the dairy products.
Accidental death can cover a whole range of circumstances. Nothing could describe this terrible set of circumstances more accurately than an accident. I have carefully read all of the information before the court; live evidence and a considerable number of other statements obtained from those around Alex when he had this collapse, and the information provided by his mum, from when he was a baby and his severe food allergies.
Alex had a severe, lifelong allergy to a number of foods, including dairy products. He was fully aware and trained with an epi-pen. I have heard how he managed these, with the support of his family. The Ealing Youth Orchestra considered how best to manage these allergies. Initially, he took food with him.
He was knowledgeable about his own allergies and how to deal with these issues. He got to age 19, albeit with some issues, but he was essentially a healthy young man.
A spokesperson for the Ealing Youth Orchestra said:
Alex was an outstanding musician and had enjoyed many previous tours with us. His medical condition was well known and the Coroner found that all precautions had been taken and procedures followed. The EYO family has been devastated by this tragedy and we continue to support Alex’s family and the orchestra and tour staff as we come to terms with this. We ask that the privacy of all concerned is respected.
We send our sincere condolences to Alex’s family who are now, almost a year later, reliving the tragedy of his death as a result of the inquest. We wish them strength and solace in the days to come.
As we always do when reporting these tragedies, we look for strategies individuals with food allergies should employ to prevent similar occurrences in the future.
One observation of note is that Alex did the right thing by administering his epinephrine auto-injector soon after suffering the reaction, but unfortunately, it was not soon enough or a sufficient enough dose of the medication to save him. Whether a second dose was administered or would have helped him is unknown, but we urge you always to carry two epinephrine auto-injectors everywhere, every time, and to administer the first and call emergency services immediately when you first suspect anaphylaxis. If the symptoms worsen or do not improve after 5-10 minutes, administer the second dose.
That said, the best way to deal with anaphylaxis is to avoid it, and that brings us to the second takeaway: Never share another’s food.
By all accounts, Alex was diligent about his food allergies but lapsed when it came to the team-building exercise involving swapping food. The possibility of cross-contact is a serious enough danger alone, but consuming someone else’s food that has not been adequately vetted is as dangerous as not knowing the ingredients in the first place.
We understand that peer pressure (especially among young men) can lead to impetuous behavior, but it took a life in this case. Never take unwarranted risks assuming epinephrine will save you; although epinephrine is your lifeline should the unthinkable happen, prevention is the best means for avoiding tragedy.