There is so much in the news about food allergies. One hears reports on scary allergic reactions, or how a school is not properly handing the food allergies. However, there are also many success stories that you don’t always hear about. There are families that are able to manage food allergies successfully and raise a happy and healthy child, without constant stress and anxiety that the child will suffer an allergic reaction.
My family has one such story to share – though success certainly wasn’t overnight. Ours is a typical middle class American family of four. My husband Marc and I have two sons, Ryan, 11, and Alec, who’s 8. Alec has an infectious smile and a zest for life – that child can charm the pants off anyone with his quick wit and bright smile.
He wakes up happy and goes to bed happy. He always has a nice thing to say about everyone, and wants to include everyone in everything. Yet every day, we live with the possibility that Alec will have a severe or fatal reaction to common foods that most people can eat without thinking.
As a baby, Alec cried a lot from colic, and had croup and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), all before his first birthday. He was born with eczema and at seven months old, he was diagnosed with food allergies. The diagnosis was not to just one, but to four different food allergens: dairy, wheat, eggs and peanuts.
With the diagnosis came shock. This was no mere intolerance. These were life-threatening allergies.
The understanding of the diagnosis, prompted the fear of food. “What in the world am I going to feed him?” I asked myself. It was relatively easy to avoid egg and dairy products or even peanuts, but wheat was everywhere. You do not realize how many foods have wheat in them until you’re trying to avoid it.
Fear for Alec’s health was paramount in those first days after diagnosis. I felt overwhelmed to the point of paranoia. How was I going to keep him safe? How was I going to keep him from eating anything he was allergic to? What if he had a reaction? How would he grow up normal, healthy and happy like other children? How was he going to go to school?
After such a diagnosis, your first instinct is to protect your child. Put them in a bubble. Scrub every surface they come in contact with. Sanitize everything. Scour the home and throw everything out that they are allergic to. Then, reality sets in. This child is not the only person in the house. Can you truly force everyone onto the restrictive diet of one member of the household? How many demands can you put on other people regarding your child and his safety, before they push back?
What I can do is to make sure that, as my baby grows, he learns to protect himself. I did not want him to be afraid to eat. I did not want to use words that scare him. We chose the words “Alec safe” and “Not Alec safe” to describe food to Alec. This took the fear factor out when talking to him about food.
Certain changes needed to be made in the house for Alec’s safety. We needed to decide how to handle foods that Alec was allergic to that the other members of the house could eat.
To avoid cross-contamination, I had to come up with new ways to prepare foods. I changed recipes that contained Alec’s allergens so that I could make one meal for everyone, rather than multiple meals. Some compromise had to be made to make our house safe at meal time, without resorting to removing all the foods that Alec is allergic to.
For example, I changed my mother’s award-winning brisket recipe that was made with cream of mushroom soup to use a tomato-based sauce. I also experimented with different gluten-free flour blends to replace flour in baked recipes.
As a parent of a child with food allergies, I always have to be prepared. This is no simple feat. I carry emergency medications such as epinephrine auto-injectors, antihistamines and an asthma inhaler. I vigilantly stay prepared with food. You never know when you will wind up somewhere that does not have a safe choice, such as a friend’s house where they cannot accommodate your child’s allergies.
In the end, I decided to go about managing Alec’s allergies the same way I am going about raising my other child. If I remain calm during a crisis, my children will remain calm. I use this philosophy with all accidents, from my children falling off bicycles to needing stitches after jumping on furniture. As nerve-racking as it is to know it’s possible my child could die from a food, I cannot be so paranoid that it prevents him from growing up to be happy and healthy.
Today, Alec can discuss his allergies with a smile on his face. He will proudly say that he is allergic and show you his medical bracelet. If you ask Alec about any food he wants that he cannot have, he will tell you, “Oh, Mommy can make me that,” with his signature grin and that sparkle in his eyes.