Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking out for Moms of allergic kids by writing an article for our local newspaper, The Florida Times Union. I had pitched a story to the Health section editor about the challenges of going back to school if you are a child with food allergies (or a parent of that child), and the editor thought it would be more effective if I wrote about my experiences in my own words.
I have said many times here and otherwise that the most important characteristic that adults or kids can have is compassion. We all have different lives and challenges, and it is impossible to accurately judge someone else’s decisions from the outside. Plus, it’s none of our business, really. :)
This goes for parenting style, breast feeding vs. bottle and the duration of each, working outside the home vs. not, home schooling vs. public/private school, and the list goes on. This also extends to relating to people with medical needs, whether they are visible (a wheel chair, for example) or not (a child with a life threatening food allergy.)
In writing this article, my goal was to show that my 5-year-old, Max, is a healthy, vibrant, and smart Kindergartener, but he does require a little bit of special care in the “keeping dangerous foods away from him” department. My hope is, that by seeing Max as a human, rather than a statistic, parents of non-allergic kids will understand why some classrooms are peanut-free or some schools don’t allow certain foods.
The article is copied below, and this is the link to it online, if you prefer. I hope that I take every opportunity to show compassion for others, as I wish it shown to me and my family.
Allergies: Sometimes deadly danger lurks in the most common of foods
JON M. FLETCHER/ The Times-Union
August 24, 2011 – 12:00am
Allergies: Sometimes deadly danger lurks in the most common of foods
When most people look at my 5-year-old son, Max, they see a precocious, smart and fun-loving child who loves to explore his world. Often, it’s not until there’s a class party, play date or other food-centered event that he’s exposed as “different” from his friends.
Because Max has severe food allergies to peanuts and eggs and minor allergies to tree nuts.
As the school year begins, Max is entering kindergarten in a new school, and my husband and I have been in overdrive planning, conferencing, researching and list-making to ensure that Max’s condition is well known at the school and that he’s not singled out because of it.
After all, lunch time, snack time, class parties and field trips are some of the most fun times at school. As parents, we don’t want him to miss out on anything because of his food allergies. But like most things in life, it takes a lot of teamwork to achieve this goal, and strong partnerships with teachers, school administrators and parents of his classmates, too.
Even if your child doesn’t have a food allergy, you likely know a child, or even an adult, who does. A recent study funded by the Food Allergy Initiative and published in the journal Pediatrics, found that 1 in 13 American children under age 18 have one or more food allergies. That equals to 8 percent or nearly 6 million kids in the United States, and the most common allergens are peanuts, milk, shellfish, tree nuts and eggs.
Food allergy reactions can be minor irritations (rash, headache, tingling in the mouth and indigestion), or they can be severe, such as anaphylaxis (throat closing, wheezing, vomiting, loss of consciousness and possible death).
Max’s allergies to peanuts and eggs are severe, meaning if he accidentally ate peanut butter or egg salad, he could die. This is a serious matter that we take great care in discussing with anyone who cares for Max. No one would hurt him on purpose, but when you learn just how many foods contain eggs or egg products, you can see the need for hyper vigilance.
For example, eggs or egg derivatives are contained in many types of pasta, ice cream, bread, cookies, cakes, mayonnaise and salad dressing, and that’s not even counting peanut- or tree-nut containing foods.
Forget eating out in restaurants; even the most well-meaning employee could accidentally slice a tomato with the same knife that touched mayonnaise, and we would be on the way to the ER.
We found Max’s allergies the hard way. When he was a year old, I gave him a bite of egg white, and 30 minutes later (a delayed reaction), he was turning blue and not breathing, and we called 9-1-1.
Thankfully, Max vomited, which got most of the egg out of his system, because we didn’t have a drop of Benadryl in the house, nor did we know what it was used for. Subsequently, we see an allergist every year. And, in the four years since his reaction, we’ve learned how to prevent a life-threatening situation from reoccurring, even though there have been some accidents over the years.
Thankfully, none of these incidents required using the EpiPen, an auto-injector shot of epinephrine that helps to reverse allergic reaction symptoms, but still, they were serious enough to remind us how careful we must be on his behalf.
It’s all about Max
When it comes to birthday parties, I call the mom before and find out what kind of decorations she will put on the cake and what she will serve for lunch. Most of the time, it’s pizza, and if your local pizzeria makes calzones, they likely use an egg wash on the top. So I make pizza at home, along with a cupcake decorated as closely like the birthday cake as possible, and Max takes his own lunch and snacks to the party. There are many alternatives in the grocery store now – both for home baking and prepackaged – for people with food allergies, so this is getting easier each year.
For vacations, I buy enough groceries for Max for the duration of the trip and, we must have a hotel room with a mini-fridge and a microwave. For example, when we go to a theme park, we eat breakfast at the hotel, and carry a backpack with Max’s lunch and snacks for the day. It’s not fun, but it’s better than trying to find suitable foods for him on the go.
What does it look like?
According to physician Sunil Joshi, vice president of Family Allergy Asthma Consultants, after someone gets stung by a bee, wasp or fire ant, some swelling can be expected, but if there’s extreme swelling, hives, coughing and/or wheezing, that could be a telltale sign of a severe allergic reaction, and rapid medical attention is needed.
The signs of a food allergic reaction can be similar.
“Most of the time, a serious reaction will be noticeable in the skin,” Joshi said. “Symptoms can include eczema [dry, itchy red skin], rash, hives or lip, tongue or eyelid swelling. In severe cases, the reaction can include respiratory symptoms, such as throat tightness, coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, vomiting, disorientation and even becoming unresponsive.”
Keep in mind, some allergic reactions could be delayed, therefore, tracking the last half hour or so of food exposure to insects, etc., becomes crucial to getting the right care.
Preparing for school
A new school year brings with it plenty of food-centered events. All are fun, but not without anxiety-producing for a mom of a food-allergic child.
Some children can have a reaction if they simply breathe peanut dust or if something slightly touches their skin. For parents of those kids, try requesting for the classroom to be peanut-free. It is important to make your child’s teachers aware, as well as the principal, school nurse, and any other caregiver who may interact with him during the day.
Always have an EpiPen and Benadryl in your child’s backpack and another set that stays in the classroom, and be sure that all know how to properly use it.
Be proactive with your child’s school’s policy on medical needs: Do teachers know how to use an EpiPen? Do they know how to spot an allergic reaction? Is there a nurse on campus? What is the teacher or school plan to ensure that food-allergic kids are protected without being isolated? One day when I visited Max at his preschool during snack time, he was sitting at a desk away from the group. That was a sad sight for a mom. After discussing with the teacher, he was able to sit with the group, while his teacher sat next to him to ensure his safety. Not only is planning ahead vital, but communicating with your child’s teachers is equally important.
When Max’s class had a party, I offered to make the cupcakes. Doing this assured me he would have a safe treat with his friends.
It’s easy at times to focus on how someone else’s issue affects you, but food-allergic kids, and their parents, should be treated with the same respect you expect from others.
Food-allergic children are hard to spot. They look healthy and are not considered “sick,” as a child with a more visible health issue would be. Some parents are quick to complain about why their child cannot bring their favorite peanut butter sandwich to school.
Please remember two things: peanut butter, boiled egg or whatever the allergen, is off limits only for one meal for your child. Unlike a food-allergic child, he can eat it for breakfast, afternoon snack, dinner and all day on weekends. Also, this is a little person with feelings and a life-threatening health issue. It’s more than a tummy ache; it’s a trip to the ER. Plus, food-allergic children already feel different from their friends because of it.
I expect there will be bumps on the road to Max’s school years, but I feel confident as he enters elementary school that he will continue to be cared for, safely and part of the group.
Jennifer Marko is President of Bottle Snugglers, a baby product company based in Jacksonville. www.bottlesnugglers.com.