(This post was written by Beau’s mother)
Amy’s blog asks people to share their stories about how eating healthy foods helped them cure health conditions or even reverse a terminal illness. Juxtapose that against a situation where eating healthy foods could, in an extreme case, actually CAUSE death.
My family has a history of food allergies. My brother ended up in the emergency room a few times. I spent my childhood avoiding citrus because I thought I “didn’t like it.” Turns out I was allergic. Sometimes just walking by a freshly cut watermelon would cause my throat to start to swell and my airways to constrict. It is one thing to live with food allergies yourself, but when you become a parent, living with the “what ifs” concerning your child can be terrifying.
First off, I was one of “those” mothers who hand-made my kids’ baby food. Neither of them ever ate food from a jar. My daughter (first born) is a wonderfully well-rounded eater and has no food allergies. However, my son has food allergies that are more extensive than what my brother and I grew up with.
Even though Beau had eaten pureed peas and other vegetables for the first nine months of his life, when I attempted to feed him the natural versions of most vegetables, he balked. I remember him once sitting in his chair sobbing as he removed peas from the high chair tray one by one and set them back onto the dining room table. How is it that a toddler could figure out he was allergic to peas but I didn’t catch on until years later?!
Beau was a very fussy eater — this kid wouldn’t even eat Mac & Cheese. From the blue box! We had to talk him into trying everything. I remember stocking up on the Lego characters that he liked because he would earn one whenever he tried a new food. I tried to walk the line between encouraging and pushing food on him, especially recalling my brother being rushed to the hospital a few times.
I waited until he was 18 months old to have him try peanut butter (the pediatric guideline at the time) and stood there with the phone in my hand and 9 and 1 already pressed in case he reacted. Where the peanut butter touched his face the skin turned red, but his breathing was fine. He preferred Nutella, so that was the majority of his sandwiches, but I also layered peanut butter on the bread without a problem.
Beau ate mostly a vegetarian diet until he was 6 or 7. I continued to introduce new things and when he was 10, I gave him almonds. He proclaimed them “ok” so a few nights later I gave him pistachios (my favorite) and said, “If you like almonds then you’ll really like these.” He ate a few, and said they tasted ok. Twenty minutes later he started vomiting. We ended up spending the evening in the emergency room. Here’s a tip: know the fastest way to get a real doctor to come to your kid’s room? Let him vomit all over the resident who tries to use a tongue depressor to look down the throat of a kid who’s been tossing his cookies for an hour. Seriously, what DO they teach them in med school?
The diagnosis: allergic to pistachios. They give him hives down his esophagus. I am given no information on whether this means he is allergic to other nuts. The boy has practically been raised on Hazelnut spread. So I do some research and figure out that you can be allergic to some tree nuts and not others, but that if he’s allergic to pistachios, then he’s also allergic to walnuts and pecans.
A year later, he came home from Boy Scout camp with a rash (they ALL did) and when I arrived he was throwing away a Choco Taco ice cream treat because it “made his mouth feel funny.” His lips were a little swollen, but the label said peanuts only. I figured some tree nuts had accidentally been mixed in. I took him to the doctor immediately who said, “If it were my kid I’d get him tested for peanut allergy”, even after I told him that Beau ate peanut butter on a regular basis. But sure enough, he tested positive. At this point we ended up at the allergist, who declared all nuts and legumes banned from his diet. No chick peas, no green beans, no peas (remember the high chair story?). No beans. No soy. In addition to that, we suspect he has a sensitivity to kiwi fruit and a slight allergy to eggs.
Basically he is allergic to everything that I, a vegan, live on. How ironic is that?? I always swore I would never be one of those mothers that made separate meals for family members, but I’ve been forced to acquiesce.
Fortunately, Beau (now 13) is a militant label reader and does not generally like stews, casseroles, or foods that could be hiding allergens. I tend to feed him simpler foods (no sauces or casseroles, only easily recognizable spices) instead of accommodating recipes for his allergies. I don’t want him to accidentally eat something when he’s away from home that is dangerous simply because it looks similar to something I’ve changed around. My goal now is to feed him the healthiest versions of whatever he likes.
I’m holding out hope that he outgrows these allergies. I outgrew mine. My family was visiting Hawaii when I was 21 and suddenly pineapple sounded really good. My mother was reluctant to let me eat it, but I did, and I was fine. I now eat citrus like crazy and can go through a bag of clementines in a few short days.
In the meantime, we are cautious with Beau. I serve us both vegetables like broccoli, carrots and cauliflower, but after that, our diets differ wildly. I’ll add beans and rice — he’ll add meat and cheese. I’m lucky that I don’t have a house full of kids to feed and have the time to deal with separate diets.
Almost a year after Beau was diagnosed with the nut allergy, we bought some cookies at a fund raiser. Beau bit into what he thought was a chocolate chip cookie which turned out to be oatmeal raisin. He’s not a big fan of that flavor so he stopped eating it …. luckily. His lips started to swell and he became nauseated. I ran for the package only to read that it contained ground up walnuts. Uh oh. That was the closest I ever came to using his Epi Pen. He didn’t get sick, but was in pain for a couple hours. I actually called a pediatrician who lives in our neighborhood and asked “When do I use the Epi Pen?” His response: “You’ll know.”
Years passed, we were careful, and we didn’t have any other incidents. That is until the first day of school this year. I didn’t have his Benadryl or Epi Pen at school yet because we were visiting the allergist the next day and Beau is a meticulous label reader. I got a call from the school – he had grabbed someone else’s lunch and was so hungry that he bit into the sandwich without looking (seriously!) and didn’t realize until too late that it was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I ran up to the school with Benadryl. He ended up being fine.
The one thing that makes me feel secure in sending him out into the world with food allergies is the fact that he is not shy about asking what is in things or to see packages. We were visiting my daughter’s sorority house at college and the House Mother offered him a doughnut. He asked what was in them and when she said she didn’t know he asked to see the package. My husband gets a little embarrassed when he does this, but he’s never had an allergic reaction to food. As someone who has and knows how scary it can be, I encourage Beau to ask all the questions he needs.
As he’s now a teenager, his food allergies haven’t really affected his social life. Luckily he’s a sporadic eater. So if he’s at someone’s house and they are serving something he’s not sure about, he’ll just go without eating until he gets home. Although he has missed out on many a cupcake or birthday treat someone brought in because they didn’t bring the package. He just won’t eat something if he doesn’t know what’s in it.
If you are the parent of a child with food allergies, here is my advice:
- Encourage and empower your kids to ask questions about what is in their food. They should not be embarrassed or shy about it. This is their health and they deserve answers.
- Don’t expect the doctors to give you a laundry list of every possible food your child could be allergic to. Do your own research, ask questions, and get a second or third opinion.
- Cook simple foods so that when your child is away from home, they can recognize what is safe versus what could be a problem.
- Know the types of physical reactions (rash, hives, respiratory restriction, etc.) your child is susceptible to, and make sure they have access to the proper counter measures. We probably should carry an Epi-Pen everywhere but I don’t because Beau doesn’t suffer respiratory distress. Instead, he gets hives down his esophagus and stomach. So my husband and I always have Benadryl on us (that’s the first line of defense). We do take the Epi-Pen when we travel.
- Make sure your child’s teacher and proper school administrators are aware of the allergies and have a proper emergency contact number.
- (This one is from Beau, himself.) Depending on how bad your allergies are, be very careful about what you eat. Don’t always trust your parents. No, I’m serious. And if you eat something you’re allergic to, don’t wait to tell someone just because you’re embarrassed. Tell someone right away!