When you become a parent, it’s almost impossible to avoid looking into the future. Gazing down upon a sleeping infant, you realize it won’t be long before you will be cheering on your daughter at her first soccer game or building your first fort with your son.
But parenting has a way of keeping you on your toes. Reminding you that you aren’t in control.
Austin mom Melinda Lipani had one of those parenting curveballs thrown her way when she traveled with her daughter, Sarah, to visit family in New Orleans when Sarah was 13 months old. During the trip, they met up with family at a restaurant for lunch. About 15 minutes after leaving the restaurant, Melinda noticed that Sarah was rubbing her nose and seemed as if she was itchy. Melinda’s mom, who was with them at the time and who is a nurse, immediately said, “She is having an allergic reaction. Get out your Benadryl!”
Melinda didn’t have any Benadryl, so they headed to the nearest pharmacy and gave some to Sarah. After 20 minutes, she was still puffy, itchy and congested, so Melinda took Sarah to the emergency room. At the time, Melinda had no idea that Sarah had any allergies, nor how serious the reaction would be. Melinda and her husband Keith both suffer from seasonal allergies, but there was no history of food allergies in either of their families.
After the family returned to Austin, Sarah was tested for allergies, and the results were overwhelmingly positive for a wheat allergy. Sarah is now five years old and is allergic to wheat, egg, oats and watermelon.
Sarah’s story is becoming more and more common. Recent studies show that one in 13 children are impacted by food allergies. That means six million chidren, or about two kids per school classroom.
When Sarah was younger, having food allergies didn’t change the family’s lifestyle. Melinda was a stay at home mom and brought food for her to playdates and outings, just as any mom would. But when Sarah was two and a half, Melinda enrolled her in preschool. Melinda met with the school director before school started to discuss Sarah’s allergies, what to do in case of a reaction and to suggest alternatives to snacks provided by the school that would be safe for Sarah.
A month after school started, Melinda got a call from the school. Sarah had eaten an entire piece of toast that was left on a table. The teacher had administered Benadryl, but when Melinda arrived at school fifteen minutes later, Sarah was coughing and had hives on her body. Melinda drove Sarah to Dell, and during the drive, Sarah’s coughing intensified and her breathing made a whistling sound. Instead of stopping to administer Sarah’s Epipen, Melinda just drove faster, mistakenly thinking that she should wait to administer the Epipen until Sarah turned blue.
Later, Melinda learned that the top cause of death from an allergic reaction is delaying the use of an Epipen.
Melinda was beside herself with guilt and worry. She didn’t sleep for weeks afterwards, watching Sarah sleeping and whispering apologies to her slumbering daughter. Melinda was sorry for not taking action on the way to the ER and thought certainly she must have done something “wrong” during her pregnancy to have caused Sarah’s allergies.
A few months later, Sarah had another allergic reaction at school. This time, Sarah got hives after accidentally eating wheat crumbs that were on her snack plate. Melinda then realized how sensitive Sarah was to wheat, and their lives changed much more dramatically. Melinda and Keith made the decision to pull Sarah out of preschool.
When Sarah was two and three years old, Melinda would monitor her closely at playdates, since the other children would be eating crackers, Goldfish, pretzels, hard-boiled eggs and sandwiches, all which contained allergens for Sarah. From past experience, Melinda knew that Sarah could have a reaction even by accidentally ingesting some of the crumbs from her friends’ food.
As Sarah has grown older, things have gotten easier. Melinda brings a dessert and snacks for Sarah at birthday parties. When the family travels, Melinda packs a large ice chest and a few bags of groceries. Since the family is already used to reading labels on food, they know much more about what they are eating and eat healthier.
But, life is certainly more complicated. Eating out is very difficult, and as many families are now learning, wheat is in many things we don’t expect — ice cream, bouillon cubes, salsa, salad dressing and seasoning — in addition to the pasta, bread and crackers that we would expect. Well-meaning friends and relatives offer food to Sarah without realizing that it has egg as an ingredient. Dropping Sarah off at a playdate or a camp is not as simple as it would be for a kid without food allergies. All of this means that Melinda feels she must always be on alert for possible symptoms and problems.
Sarah started kindergarten this fall. After her first preschool experience, Melinda was able to find two in-home preschools where Sarah wasn’t “the kid with food allergies”. One of the owners urged Melinda to never apologize for Sarah having allergies and the other prepared her to be an advocate for Sarah by not seeing allergies as a burden. Each new school year, as she did this year, Melinda will meet with school staff and train them on what to do in the case of an emergency. She will also find out where snacks are served, what art supplies are used (for example, the main ingredient in play dough is wheat), what field trips are planned and if the class will be doing any cooking or other projects with food products. Melinda sees it as her job to come up with alternatives when necessary, to ensure everyone can have fun and participate in all the planned activities.
Melinda says she has felt lucky to find people who are willing to create an environment which is safe for Sarah. But she realizes not all kids have the same experience. Recently, Melinda cringed when reading the online comments from an article in the Statesman about food allergies. She points out that when children are young, they can be very messy eaters. Crumbs, residue and spills at school from classmates can accidentally be ingested and cause a severe reaction, or even, death. Although she admits that parents of children with food allergies recognize they cannot always be in control of their child’s physical environment, she hopes that everyone can continue to make minor adjustments, such as not bringing peanuts to school, to save a life.
Melinda found two local resources which have helped her adjust to what life is like as a parent of a child with a food allergy. A local food allergy support group, Austin Families with Food Allergies, has an online discussion board, monthly meetings and social gatherings and mobilizes members for advocacy work. Another source of support has been the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN). FAAN funds medical research related to food allergies, raises awareness of food allergies and helps educate the public and advocate for families with food allergies.
Austin Families with Food Allergies is supporting FAAN by hosting the second annual Austin Walk for Food Allergy: Moving Towards a Cure on Saturday, October 1st at Mueller Lake Park. The walk is two miles long (two laps around the lake) and strollers and wagons are welcome. The event is free to attend and you don’t need to have food allergies to participate. Donations will be collected for FAAN at the event. The Walk will also feature live music by Kyle Dine, a fire truck, balloon artist, carnival games, food vendors and a visit from H-E-Buddy.
Thanks to Melinda for sharing her family’s story.
Have your children been diagnosed with a food allergy? Do you make modifications to your social gatherings to accommodate friends’ food allergies? Why do you think there has been such an increase in food allergies in children?
Written by: Nicole Basham