Claire Rowan awoke to a panic-inducing news alert on her phone: The Food and Drug Administration recalled three popular powdered infant formulas — one of which Rowan’s 16-year-old son, Will, depends on as his sole source of nourishment because of extreme and deadly food allergies.
The night before she saw the recall alert, on Feb. 17, the Vienna, Va., family received a shipment of 58 cans of EleCare Jr, an amino acid-based, hypoallergenic formula. It has been Will’s primary form of sustenance for the past two years.
The recall, which contains certain lots of Similac, Alimentum and EleCare formulas, was because of consumer complaints of bacterial infections linked to the products. The FDA is investigating four reports of infants who were hospitalized, including one who died.
To her horror, Rowan quickly realized that “every can in our house was part of the recall,” she said.
Will stopped growing at age 7 and was subsequently diagnosed with several health conditions, she explained, including Crohn’s disease, the immune system disease eosinophilic esophagitis and gastroenteritis.
He struggled with growth for several years until he began tube feeding in October 2019. The results of exclusively consuming formula were life-changing for Will, who opted to get a long-term feeding tube a few months later.
“All of a sudden, he wasn’t so pale and he started growing and he had energy,” Rowan said. “He grew almost four inches in the past year.”
While she and her husband were alarmed by the recall, “instead of worrying, we tried to be very proactive,” said Rowan, who is a teacher at James Madison High School, where Will is a sophomore.
With her son’s permission, she decided to share her family’s dilemma on Facebook and posted a plea in their town group, on the off chance that a neighbor might have a spare can.
“Long shot but I am desperate,” Rowan wrote, explaining her son’s situation. “As of now, he has no food. None.”
“We are willing to pay if anyone at all has even a can or two we could buy. We will drive anywhere,” she continued. “Our choices are no food or likely anaphylaxis.”
After she shared the post, Rowan went to work and taught her first two classes of the day, feeling on edge. Once she had a moment to check her phone, though, she was stunned to see “hundreds and hundreds” of comments and messages of support.
“I had to get some Kleenex, because I could not believe how this had flung from me being worried to being overwhelmed by the help,” she said. “Nobody asked what’s wrong with him. They just asked, ‘What can we do?’ ”
Not only did strangers start scouting local supermarkets in search of non-recalled cans, but people also called Abbott Nutrition — the company that produces the formula — as well as other formula makers to inquire about alternatives. Many waited on hold for hours, Rowan said, only to be told that it was unclear when safe cans of the formula would be available.
After this story was published, Abbott Nutrition, one of the largest infant-formula producers in the nation, said in a statement, “We value the trust parents place in us for high quality and safe nutrition and we’ll do whatever it takes to keep that trust and resolve this situation.”
While Rowan was at work on Feb. 18, many people in her community and beyond were rallying to secure the coveted 14.1-oz cans, which cost about $40 each, depending on the seller. The product comes in powder form and is mixed with water to consume.
Jill Baker, who lives in Fairfax County, Va., and is a friend of Rowan’s, was one of the many people who saw the post and jumped into action. Baker started her efforts by visiting a neighborhood Facebook group to ask whether anyone had spare, safe formula, and she soon saw that Rowan’s post had already been shared by another user.
One person in Stafford, Va., commented that she had found two non-recalled cans, so Baker promptly drove an hour each way to pick them up from a stranger.
“It was one of those moments where I felt like, okay, I can do something here,” Baker said.
“It’s one thing for me [to do it] when this is a dear friend,” she continued. “But all of this happened because of complete strangers.”
Rowan was deeply moved by the overwhelming response to her post, which was shared hundreds of times in various Facebook and email groups, as well as on Reddit. Social media users offered up cans of alternate formulas, plus suggestions for places to find pre-recall cans.
“The crazy part of this is the number of people who shared and helped link me to countless other parents in the same boat,” she said.
Rowan was well aware that her family was not alone in their post-recall panic.
“It’s like liquid gold for families,” she said.
By the end of the day, there were 4½ cans of formula for Will, all of which were offered free by strangers. It would be enough formula for the teen to get through the next few days, until he was expected to receive a shipment of a trial formula prescribed by his doctor.
Rowan realized that for many individuals with medical conditions and severe food allergies, testing an alternative formula isn’t so simple. She decided to redirect all additional formula that was offered to her to other families in need, both locally and across the country.
On Saturday morning, she drove to Alexandria, Va., to deliver six cans — given to her by a stranger in Lorton, Va. — to Elizabeth Coco.
Coco’s 4-year-old son has multiple rare diseases, including Food Protein-Induced Enterocolitis Syndrome, which triggers an allergic reaction to food, and Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, a condition that induces repeated episodes of anaphylaxis, a life-threatening allergic reaction.
“Trialing a new formula is not an option for him,” Coco explained, adding that her son would need to be in a hospital to test any new products, which can be traumatizing. “All of the [other] amino acid formulas on the market he has had reactions to. This is the one formula we found that quite literally saved his life.”
All 54 cans of formula already in her pantry were unusable because of the recall, Coco said, so on Friday night, “he went to bed hungry, without those calories, and without his bottle to comfort him.”
A friend of Coco’s had stumbled upon Rowan’s post, and the two women connected on Facebook. Rowan explained that she had six spare cans, which she was willing to deliver to Coco in the morning.
“Every can matters,” Coco said. Seeing Rowan pull up in front of her home, she felt an “overwhelming sense of relief and just incredible gratitude,” she said.
“I know that I would move mountains for my kid. I have no doubt that she would move mountains for her kid, and to see all of us fighting for each other’s kids, too, just really shows that there’s still this strong sense of community and human care for others,” Coco said.
That morning, the moms shared a tight hug.
“She cried, and I cried,” said Rowan, who has, over the past few days, provided more than 50 cans of formula to several families in need.
Knowing how expensive the formula is and given that Will’s food is partly covered by insurance, Rowan and her husband agreed to incur the cost of shipping for those who don’t live locally.
Rowan has become the midpoint between several formula-seeking and formula-donating families, who came across her post and reached out.
“We just had a mom in New Jersey sending cans to Seattle, and we have a mom in Maryland sending cans to Massachusetts,” Rowan said. “This team of moms on the Internet have figured out how to offer what they have.”
What started as a desperate appeal for support swiftly materialized into “a little world” of people “trying to be helpful and trying to be kind,” Rowan said.
This experience has reinforced to her — and to her son — that “people are good,” she said. “They really are.”
This story has been updated to include a statement from Abbott Nutrition.