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An allergic reaction left her brain damaged. Were medics at fault?

Update: Jury returns $29.5M verdict in case involving allergic reaction

Something as innocuous as eating a pretzel left her like this.

The allergic reaction left Chantel Giacalone with irreversible brain damage. Now, she lives in a hospital bed in her parents’ dining room, eating food through a tube and getting bathed by her mom.

Giacalone, an aspiring actress and model, was in Las Vegas in February 2013 for the MAGIC fashion trade show when she took a bite of a pretzel infused with peanut butter. She sought treatment from MedicWest Ambulance, which was running the medic station that day. The cascade of events that followed was debated by attorneys Thursday before District Judge Jacqueline Bluth.

“We are here today because a corporation put profits over patients, and that’s undisputed in this case,” said attorney Christian Morris, who represents Giacalone’s mother, Deborah. “We know MedicWest is saving money, not lives.”

The closing arguments wrapped up a nearly three-week trial in a civil case filed against MedicWest. Clark County civil trials have been held at the Las Vegas Convention Center due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Thursday, Morris argued that MedicWest was negligent in its care because neither of the two medics on-site that day had IV epinephrine — an adrenaline treatment for severe allergic reactions that is required by the Southern Nevada Health District.

The requirement was established by a task force that MedicWest sits on, according to testimony and arguments.

Deborah Giacalone’s attorneys said the medics only had intramuscular epinephrine in their bags — which they did deploy — but the IV is required for when a patient is going into full anaphylaxis.

Morris argued that the cost of the drug was $2.42.

Chantel Giacalone was having trouble breathing by the time the Clark County Fire Department arrived and intubated her. Her brain lost oxygen, and she suffered a severe brain injury. Now she can only communicate using an eye gaze computer.

Her mother’s attorneys asked the jury for more than $60.6 million in damages for past and future medical expenses, as well as past and future pain and emotional suffering.

While MedicWest denied any wrongdoing, and claimed that her condition didn’t warrant the use of IV epinephrine, its attorney William Drury told the eight-person jury that if the company is found negligent, $8 million in damages will suffice.

Drury also argued that the outcome was inevitable due to Chantel Giacalone’s heightened sensitivity to peanuts.

‘I don’t want to die’

On Feb. 20, 2013, Chantel Giacalone was modeling clothes at the MAGIC trade show at the Mandalay Bay South Convention Center.

It was the second day of the event, which the woman attended with her friend Tara Retes. The two didn’t know each other well.

They were working Retes’ booth when Retes bought a frozen yogurt for each of them. She picked a random topping — a bite-size pretzel — and placed it on each one, not knowing it contained peanut butter.

Retes testified that her friend had mentioned her peanut allergy in passing, but she did not know the severity of it. Giacalone, then 27, posed for a picture with Retes while they held their treat, and they went back to work.

Sometime later, around 3 p.m., attorneys argued, Chantel Giacalone bit into the pretzel. She then asked Retes what was in it.

“I kind of tasted it again, and I said, ‘I think there’s peanut butter,’” Retes testified. “And she jumped back, and she said, ‘I’m allergic.’”

Confused, Chantel Giacalone called her dad.

“I’m having a hard time breathing,” she told him, according to testimony.

He told her to ask her friend to get her Benadryl and to go to the bathroom and use her EpiPen and seek medical care immediately.

“I could hear it in her voice she was panicking,” Jack Giacalone told jurors. “I never heard from her after that.”

Retes said that when she made her way to the medic tent, it was clear her friend couldn’t take the Benadryl. Her throat was closing, and she was black and blue. Her rings looked like they were about to pop off her swollen fingers. Retes sat on the cot in the medic tent with her, rubbed her back and told her she would be OK.

She remembers the words her friend repeated: “Don’t let me die. I don’t want to die.”

Adapting to a new life

For the last eight years, Chantel Giacalone, now 35, has lived in her parents’ home in Detroit. She needs 24-hour care.

To get her out of bed, her parents, who are her permanent caregivers, need a special lifting device. They keep track of her schedule and all her treatment in binders with timestamps.

They told the jury that they have refused to put her in a facility, and her 59-year-old mother sleeps in the room with her every night. Even though their daughter is in a different form, she still communicates with her family: She hums when she’s happy and moans when she’s upset.

She has “conscious pain and suffering,” meaning she’s aware of what’s going on and having to adapt to it, Morris told the jury.

Music relaxes her, and she sings along to YouTube videos. She does dancing exercises and makes different facial expressions.

Jack Giacalone, who is 70, said their daughter is expected to live until age 55. The couple aren’t sure how much longer they can care for her and know that their other daughter will soon have to assume the responsibility.

“When I look into Chantel’s eyes, she’s telling me, ‘Dad, don’t give up on me. I’m here. I’m in here. I’m going to get out of here. Please don’t give up on me.’ And I’m looking at her, telling her, ‘Don’t worry, honey, I’m not giving up on you,’” the father testified.

One time, he walked in and asked how she was feeling. He said he heard her say, “Not too bad.”

Chantel Giacalone graduated from an arts school in Chicago and was living in Los Angeles at the time of her allergic reaction. She was a model and had notable parts in productions such as the 2009 movie “The Butterfly Effect 3: Revelations,” the 2015 movie “Hollow Walls,” and “Skyler” in 2012.

Her family described her in testimony as outgoing and full of potential that got cut short. In Los Angeles, she volunteered to talk about bullying at local schools, having suffered herself as a young student. She acted, was an avid tennis player and was working on a sports clothing line for Theory.

The jury began deliberating Thursday afternoon and is expected to continue deliberating Friday morning.

Contact Briana Erickson at berickson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5244. Follow @ByBrianaE on Twitter.

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