Gina Mennett Lee was a teacher and trained to be a principal before her children were born. But after she found out her younger daughter, Jillienne, had multiple food allergies, Mennett Lee didn’t feel she could re-enter the workforce and be sufficiently available to her daughter.
Just because she didn’t go back to teaching, however, doesn’t mean she slowed down. Mennett Lee, who holds a masters of education degree, founded the Food Allergy Education Network and spent many years advocating for children with food allergies from her town of Branford, Connecticut. She and fellow volunteers provided educational resources on food allergies to families, schools and local communities.
Now, Mennett Lee is combining all of her experience – educator, food allergy advocate and mother of a child with multiple food allergies (milk, sesame, peanuts, tree nuts and shellfish) in her new business, FoodAllergyConsulting.com.
As part of The Allergy Advocates series, Allergic Living is pleased to honor Mennett Lee for her tireless and unwavering dedication to bringing parents and schools together with a common goal: to keep food-allergic children safe.
Senior Allergic Living contributor Claire Gagné speaks to Gina Mennett Lee about her own evolution from local organizer to advocate-consultant.
When did you find out Jillienne had food allergies?
When she was eight months old I was nursing her and eating a bowl of cereal. When I looked down she was covered head-to-toe with blotches. I drove to the emergency room where I waited for a long time to see a doctor, during which time her symptoms went away. We were sent home with instructions to see an allergist.
She then had a serious anaphylactic reaction at age 2½. What happened?
It was summertime and my family was visiting. Jillienne was eating shrimp, which she had eaten dozens of times before. She started vomiting but I wasn’t sure why. I wondered if she had eaten too fast, or if it was because she had been running around playing. But I also thought it could be an allergic reaction so, according to her emergency care plan, I gave her liquid Benadryl, which she vomited back up.
I looked up to speak to my sister and when I looked back down her whole body had turned red and her face had swollen to 1½ times its normal size. Her tongue was so swollen that it was hanging out of her mouth.
I immediately injected her with epinephrine and counted to 10. I yelled at my mother to call 911. After the epinephrine was injected she tried to scream but the scream wouldn’t come out because her throat was closing up. Her body turned limp and her lips were turning blue.
While we were waiting for the ambulance her face started to look normal again. By the time the ambulance pulled into our driveway she looked completely fine.
I learned a lot that day. I learned how quickly a reaction can escalate and how seconds can make a difference. I also learned how life-saving epinephrine really is.
You founded the Food Allergy Education Network in 2009. What was the group’s purpose and how has it evolved?
Initially, I was just trying to reach out and find other parents who were dealing with food allergies. I did find a group of parents and we were all concerned about our town and the schools in our town. We worked together to advocate for policy change.
We became a non-profit so we could raise funds to really reach out to the community. We provided workshops in the community and created educational resources. We also have parent support groups and child support groups.
Next page: Working as a food allergy consultant; Today’s biggest challenges