Allergist Mom: What My Food Allergic Kids Taught Me

in Food Allergy
Published: July 13, 2012
Sarah BR1

No amount of medical training could have prepared me for having children with multiple food allergies. The Allergist Mom’s powerful story from the Summer 2012 edition of Allergic Living magazine.

I can tell you exactly where I was when the field of allergy and immunology first stole my heart. I was in my first year of medical school sitting in an overly cool classroom taking notes as fast as any human hand could. My pathology lecture was just ending and immunology was up next. I rubbed my sore fingers and prepared to write down, verbatim, the next lecture.

But shortly after my professor started to speak, I realized that I had completely stopped taking notes. I had allowed myself to be drawn into the story that she was weaving, a story of T cells and B cells and their physical and chemical conversations with each other. It was amazing.

Little did I know that she was introducing me to a cast of cellular characters that would soon become not only important for me to pass my next immunology test, but also to complete my subsequent fellowship training and to my understanding of the mechanism of food allergy, an immunological disease that would affect three of my four children.

In 2005, after completing a pediatric residency, I started my fellowship in the field of allergy and immunology at the Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. I had a 7-week-old baby boy at home so I was knee-deep in motherhood, but I was ready. I was excited to finally be seeing patients with the allergic and immunological disorders that I had been so interested in during medical school.

These diseases, including chronic sinusitis, seasonal allergies, and immune deficiencies, were all challenging and interesting, but what drew me in the most was food allergy. There was something so cruel and senseless about a disease that denies a child a bakery cookie – it made me want to break its code.

Patient Emotions
As fellows, we were taught to take a detailed history of the allergic reaction from the patient and the parent, paying exquisite attention to what food was ingested, the timing of the ingestion in relationship to the symptoms and what symptoms occurred.

Patient histories would often become complicated, a fusion of facts and feelings. We would then perform skin-prick testing with the suspected food protein and draw blood for the same allergen. Combining the history and the results of the testing, a diagnosis was made.

We would review an allergen avoidance sheet with the family, explaining the importance of reading food labels, and discuss an emergency health-care plan, teaching the families how to recognize and treat an allergic reaction. We provided them with a short list of support services and asked them to follow up in one year. It was a good system, at least as far as I knew.

By the end of my first year of fellowship, we had twin boys (yes, we had three boys in 13 months!) and one of them, Gino, literally had hives on his skin only a few days after he was born. He would soon be covered in itchy, bleeding eczema and more often than not, vomit, so I made an appointment with an allergist.

I provided her with a detailed history of my son’s reactions that was, of course, muddled with facts and feelings. His skin-prick test and his blood test to cow’s milk were both positive and the allergist told my husband and me that our son was allergic to cow’s milk.

The Diagnosis
As this diagnosis fell from her lips, the same diagnosis that so often fell from mine, I experienced how it felt on the other side. It was a powerful blow. I was on the wrong side of this appointment, a side I never dreamed I’d be on. I was not the allergist that day, instead, I became the mother of a child with food allergy.

After we reviewed the perfunctory literature, I got my one-year send-off and then, I panicked. I wanted our allergist to come back in the room. I had so many questions left to ask. But I was an allergist, so how could I have so many questions? I only knew one thing – that I needed more time with her. I felt alone and anxious.

As a fellow, I’d never quite understood it when parents cried at the end of our appointments. The diagnosis and treatment was a matter of fact. You avoid the food and you avoid the reaction. But now, on the other side, I understood. It was about: how in the world you were going to avoid the food and what on Earth would happen if you didn’t.

I walked out of the office saddened that, previous to this appointment, I had not really known what food allergy families go through and devastated that I had to learn it like this. It felt like I was like starting over, both personally and professionally.

Next page: Grocery Store Blues; Gino’s Reaction