In 2014, 24-year-old Sergio Lopez was with a friend on a lunch break in McAllen Texas. He ordered a veggie taco after asking if the taco contained peanuts, to which Sergio was highly allergic. He was assured it did not.
Upon receiving his takeout order, Sergio asked again and was told a second time that the order did not contain peanuts.
While eating his lunch outside the music academy where he worked, he began feeling a tingling sensation, a telltale symptom of an allergic reaction.
“So, he called [the restaurant]… it’s on his telephone. He spoke to them for a minute and a half, and they again told him ‘It’s just spices’,” said his mom, Belinda Vaca.
Sergio finished eating his taco and went back to work. There, he was seen grabbing his throat, saying, “They lied to me! They lied to me!”
A coworker drove him to the hospital while he kicked and screamed, struggling to breathe. The coworker spotted a private ambulance along the way, and Sergio got out, waving his hands before he lost consciousness.
Vaca arrived at the hospital to find her son covered with tubes, comatose.
Less than eight hours after her son had eaten the taco, Vaca was ordered to leave the room as medical personnel rushed in. Shortly afterward, she was asked if she wanted to say her last goodbye to her son.
Sergio died early the next morning. His mom said the autopsy concluded his cause of death was anaphylaxis triggered by peanuts.
Later that same day, Vaca returned to the restaurant with a co-worker who ordered the same taco and asked what the ingredients were. The owner came out and told her that peanut butter was one of the main ingredients.
She recalls the coworker telling him: “My friend just lost her son this morning because you told him no. He asked three times and you told him no that it doesn’t have peanuts.”
The owner replied: “Oh, well he asked for peanuts. This has peanut butter.”
Sergio had plans of moving to Austin and his mother planned to transfer there to be closer to him. After his death, Vaca still moved to Austin.
“My office was two blocks from the Capitol,” she said. “I feel like God put everything there for me because that’s what I would do on my lunch hour and breaks. I would go to the Capitol and I would talk to people.”
Vaca met Senator Eddie Lucio Jr who understood the need for a bill and was the first to sponsor her in 2015. She was warned the effort could take up to 20 years.
Vaca spent the better part of the next decade working to advance her legislation, meeting with legislators, and paying for flyers and T-shirts to promote her cause.
On May 29, Senate Bill 812 known as “The Sergio Lopez Food Allergy Awareness Act” was sent to Gov Greg Abbott. On June 18, it was filed without his signature, becoming law.
The legislation, which takes effect on September 1, 2023, requires specific food training programs and adds food allergy topics to the state’s Food Manager Certification exam. Restaurants must also display a standardized poster with information about food allergies and responses to allergic reactions.
But Vaca isn’t done fighting. She plans on heading to Washington DC to push for federal legislation in memory of Sergio.
“It might take me my whole life until I die. It may not happen,” she said. “But, just like there is a Heimlich maneuver poster in every restaurant, why can’t there be a food allergy awareness poster in every restaurant in the United States to save lives?”
Here is a report from KARK with Ms Vaca’s story:
Our hearts go out to Ms Vaca for the tragic and avoidable loss of her son. We are grateful for her efforts to help prevent similar tragedies from befalling others in the allergic community and congratulate her on the passage of The Sergio Lopez Food Allergy Awareness Act. We also wish her much success in taking the legislation nationally.
We also want to take the opportunity to remind our readers of the importance of taking two epinephrine auto-injectors along everywhere, every time you leave home, and to administer the drug when you first suspect anaphylaxis.
Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening reaction to a food, drug, insect venom, or environmental substance. Epinephrine is the only drug that can halt and reverse the progression of anaphylaxis and must be administered promptly to prevent the worst outcomes.
But epinephrine can’t help you if it’s sitting in a medicine cabinet at home. Be sure to have your lifeline with you always.