Food allergies are very much a part of my life. Not because my children have severe allergies. But because we go to a peanut-free preschool. My preschool made the change after my first two years and I have to admit, it was a big adjustment for our family. Not something that I hesitated to do because if I were the mom of the peanut-allergic child, I would be terrified to send him any place but a peanut-free school. So to educate the rest of us non-allergic parents, I asked my friend, Janelle, to enlighten us on her life revolving around severe food allergies.
Janelle: “All I remember was feeling pity for the parents with the child in my older son’s class with food allergies. With so much to worry about as the parent of a small child, it seemed unthinkable to add anaphylactic shock to the list. I was also incredulous at the extent of the boy’s sensitivities. Families were asked to omit all nut butters from their children’s lunches (my son loved almond butter!) as well as food products that may contain nuts or been processed with nuts. I was so proud of my son’s varied diet and willingness to eat anything. I was at first frustrated by the limitations on what I could send in for him to eat. When I asked the teacher and boy’s mother about peanut allergy reactions, they told stories of the allergic little boy merely touching the peanut oil on a board book at school and the climbing bars at Freedom Park and almost immediately turning red in the face and swelling faster than they knew what to do. A couple of the other moms whispered in the hallway to each other that they didn’t think this little boy was “really” allergic… whatever. After a slight adjustment to my kid’s lunch menu, I more or less forgot about the issue unless I bumped into the (very cute) little boy at the occasional birthday or preschool party, always with his mom nearby toting his allergen-free slice of cake and an EpiPen.
Jump ahead to Winter 2005 when one morning, while wondering why one of my six-month-old twin sons was so angry about nursing, I mixed up a bit of formula and rice cereal for him. Although we were already treating him for head-to-toe eczema, I could immediately see where dabs of the new food mixture had touched his lips, face and hands– bright red, raised patches and lash-marks where the formula had only touched his skin. A few hours later, our pediatrician had to repeat herself two or three times to me that, indeed, this looked like an allergic reaction to the dairy-based formula. Allergic to milk?? Food allergies have never been a problem in our family– though present here and there– and I have always thought that milk “allergies” and sensitivity were sort of a whole-foods-Dr-Weil-vegan-eat-right-for-your-blood-type-diet type of choice. Certainly not a severe-reaction, lifestyle-altering medical condition. I even went on to offer my twins little peanut butter sandwiches a few months later (they ate almond butter with impunity) and watched with amazement as my son screamed, vomited, rashed, and swelled all over. Wow. Seeing was believing.
Allergy testing on both twins turned up allergies to peanuts, dairy, eggs, beef, dogs, cats, all farm animals (except for bunnies!), trees, weeds, grass and mold. Short of living in a sterile bubble, treatment was a combination of several medications plus complete avoidance of the allergens. Something about this process kept reminding me of my children’s relative excellent health. On one hand, they had a shifting (allergies quietly change: go away, become more severe, or aquire new sensitivities, all without notice), ever-present, life-threatening reaction to everyday substances. One of my sons even broke out in hives if I immersed him in (any kind of) water for longer than a couple of minutes for baths or splashing in a baby pool. On the other hand, their underlying health was strong and resilient. Allergies can be managed. So I set about managing: air ducts were washed free of mold and dirt, allergy covers zipped onto crib mattresses, our pets cleaned and contained like never before, mold scrubbed off the inside of the bathtub plug (old bath toys thrown away!), all food labels scrutinized and a short master food list began of what my twins could and couldn’t eat. (Add in toddler pickyness, and the list became even shorter.) Their diaper bag was now equipped with Benadryl and EpiPens, and anyone staying with them for even short periods of time had to be made aware of what to watch for and what to feed them. No deviations. Thinking about their whole lives and all the parties and eating-on-the-go and microwave-popcorn-on-a-rainy-day moments they wouldn’t have wasn’t helpful. As mentioned before, allergies change unexpectedly– so while there is the unthinkable possibility that their allergies are quietly becoming more lethal (thus are all food allergic patients encouraged to carry EpiPens, even without prior history of sudden swelling or shock), there are also encouraging statistics that show a majority of children outgrow allergies to dairy, eggs, wheat and soy by age five. Outgrowing allergies to peanuts and shellfish is not as promising, so teaching caution to them from age zero is my focus. Oh, and avoiding peanuts like the plague.
My twins are almost three years old now, and their need for friends, new ideas and places is more obvious every day. I can’t (and don’t want to) keep them holed up in our house, afraid of what may happen if they are accidentally exposed to allergens. Sometimes I don’t know what’s more daunting, planning for allergies or for transporting twin two-year-olds! We mostly stick to outside playspaces when possible, and I always look around for dropped snacks on the ground. Well-meaning kids and parents who want to “share” their bags of snacks or offer my little ones a chance to pet their dogs are unknowingly some of the most frequent hazards we come across. Their preschool is a thorough, attentive, well-informed place where kids don’t bring in nut products as a school-wide policy, though I can always tell when one of my sons was near someone’s jacket with dog fur on it, or played too long in the moldy sandbox (all sandboxes have mold!). Luckily, my sons’ reactions have not been of the sudden, swelling variety (with the exception of peanuts), so we just clean off the rashes and wash their hands and know that the advantage of being part of the regular world is worth the risk that a sweet preschool friend will offer to share a cheddar goldfish. Their teachers usually sit between my allergic kids and the others at the same table, which makes me feel good that they can be a part of this important and fun social scene, but control the danger of leaving it to them to protect themselves yet.
I’ve found so much support from a Charlotte group called Parents of Allergic Kids. Swapping recipes, keeping up with current news and studies regarding allergies (several participate in Duke’s controversial allergy study), hearing alternative perspectives on allergy treatment, and sharing ideas for keeping our kids safe at school and other places out of our homes are just a few of the topics covered by this group both on-line and at monthly meetings. There are also tens of websites and cookbooks for people with food allergies, so there’s no shortage of tips and foods to try out.
So now I’M the allergy mom… checking packages for ingredients, bringing in the “special” treats, smiling apologetically at other parents, knowing that I have to have their cooperation and understanding for my sons to take a small step out of my house and into the larger world. My little ones don’t know what ice cream tastes like, or macaroni and cheese or pizza, but they know what “friends” are and they are so proud of the songs they can sing and their preschool art. We’ll revisit the allergist in the few months for re-testing to see whether their allergens have changed or retreated, so keep your fingers crossed for us!”
Thanks, Janelle. A little humbling isn’t it? I think we can give up the peanut world for a few years to make sure these little guys are safe. Let’s hope they outgrow it all!