I started this post last week, but I am just now finishing it. It has been a CRAZY week around here.
I could not sleep the other night. A 19 year old man, although in my mind he is a boy, who I never met was in my thoughts and causing my worst fears as a parent to run repeatedly through my mind. This boy was a student at Bryant University in Smithfield, RI, but at home in Massachusetts on spring break when he ate a cookie. That boy and that cookie were the reason I could not sleep for you see, unbeknown to him, the cookie contained peanut oil (according to the news) and he had a severe reaction that caused his death. I've read a few different versions in the news of what ultimately caused the reaction to be fatal, but that is not what am focusing on. In the end all that matters to me is that he ate a food he was allergic to and it killed him. The story struck way too close to home for me.
When my oldest son was almost 3, I gave him a peanut and jelly sandwich because I wanted him to have peanut butter for the first time when he was at home with me. He had eaten a granola bar months earlier and had broken out in hives a little later, but I was unsure if the peanut butter chips in the granola bar were the cause. He took 2 bites of the sandwich and spit them both out, telling me they made his mouth "feel funny." I called the pediatrician and was told to give him Benadryl and keep an eye on him, since those were his only complaints. He seemed to be fine after that, but about 45 minutes later when my husband arrived home, he suddenly began coughing, wheezing and vomiting. We again called the pediatrician and I was told to get him to an ER as soon as possible. We did not have time to make it to the hospital, so we drove to an urgent care clinic that was much closer. I sat in the backseat with my son, who was vomiting, coughing and gasping for breath the entire time. Upon our arrival, he was rushed to the treatment room, where he was evaluated and given a shot of epinephrine and oxygen. Fortunately both of those worked and the reaction abated. In addition to treatment, you have to stay there for 4 hours after a reaction in case it returns after the medication wears off and that can happen. His reaction did not return and fortunately he handled the entire incident very well; much better than his parents were handling it. The next week we took him to the allergist and found that his allergy to peanuts was a high Level 4. There are 6 levels.
My son is now 6 and still remembers (and talks about) the time he ate peanut butter and had the reaction. He is very aware of the importance of checking all ingredients and informing people of his allergy. We have numerous Epipens, as do his grandparents, caregivers and school. The preschool he went to was nut-free and his kindergarten classroom is nut-free too. Next year in first grade, he'll sit at an allergy table in the cafeteria because other grades in the school are not nut-free.
Each time a person has an allergic reaction to a food, the reaction intensifies. We have done our best to ensure that another reaction has not happened and until this point, that has been fairly simple. At 6 years old, he does not go many places without one of us and when he does, whomever he is with is aware of his allergy and given an Epipen. My fears (which were exasperated by last week's news story) are for when he is older and has more independence. Will kids think it's funny to sneak him something with peanuts in it as a joke? Will he be confident enough to tell his friends in junior high and high school that he cannot eat certain foods or needs to check the ingredients first? What about when he goes to college and eats in the cafeteria--will he check each menu item at every meal? Although he is only 6, he is fascinated by Eastern cultures and wants to visit China and Japan when he is older. Even if he does not make it to those countries, how do you travel internationally with a food allergy? Do you need to use Google translator to learn how to say, "Does this contain peanuts?," in multiple languages?
Life for parents who have children with food allergies is different. It changes not only the types of food you have in your home, but also how and where you shop, restaurants you visit, family outings and vacation plans. While I was told that my son can only have an anaphylactic reaction if he ingests peanuts, I am frightened when he wants to attend events that sell shelled peanuts and when we fly on airplanes. We obviously take precautions, but the fear that something could happen is always in the back of my mind. I shudder when I inform restaurants of his allergy and I'm told that "we don't use peanuts here" because you cannot tell if a product is 'safe' unless you read the ingredients to verify that there is not a chance it was processed with, near or may contain peanuts. While I am not advocating for peanuts and tree nuts to be banned from all schools, I do bristle when I overhear parents say, "all my child eats is peanut butter and jelly and it isn't fair s/he cannot have it at school/camp/daycare," as I think, "your child is picky, but mine could die. Imagine it were your child who had a food allergy. Would your stance change?"
While my son only has a peanut allergy, there has been a sharp increase in all food allergies over the past few decades. There is much speculation as to the cause, but so far no one has been able to pinpoint a definitive answer. The American Association of Pediatrics recently revised its guidelines on withholding allergenic foods and now recommends that those foods be introduced to infants and toddlers earlier as one of the theories is that the increase of food allergies could be linked to the previously recommended delayed exposure. I do think that one positive reaction to the increase in food allergies has been a heightened awareness to them and the fact that they are life threatening and need to be taken seriously.
While I cannot follow my son around with an Epipen for the rest of his life (it would eventually be considered stalking), I can do everything to ensure that he understands the importance of being aware of his allergy. I hope that he grows up with the confidence to accept it as something he does not need to be embarrassed of or hide to be "cool." And if he does decide to one day travel internationally, I will get him the best translation tool that money can buy!