First published in Allergic Living magazine; to subscribe click here.
From down my sons’ hallway, I heard 4-year-old Jacky’s excited voice, “Vincent, Vincent, I want to be the bad guy!”
In a soft voice, his brother replied: “OK Jacky, what is your bad guy’s weakness?”
Jacky answered with broken speech, “Allergies”. Vincent slowly repeated: “Al-ler-gies,” so that Jacky would learn to say the word correctly.
I walked toward Vincent’s room, intending to intervene and talk to Jacky about his food allergies, until I heard Vincent continue, with patience, to educate his little brother. “Jacky, food allergies are not a weakness.” This stopped my heart. You would never know he was only 9 years old.
Vincent will be in the fifth grade next school year and his little brother, Jacky, will be in kindergarten. Vincent was diagnosed with a life-threatening allergy to peanuts and tree nuts when he was 2 1/2 years old.
We were apprehensive to find out about our second son. Like Vincent, he was diagnosed with allergies to peanuts and tree nuts, and additionally to red dye food coloring. Then at the age of 4, fish allergy joined the list. Both boys have epinephrine auto-injectors.
Ever since my children were diagnosed with these allergies, each moment has been a growing educational (and often empowering) experience. My husband and I felt it was very important from the initial diagnosis to be honest with Vincent about what would happen if he ingested peanuts, tree nuts or anything that was cross-contaminated with them. We taught him how to carry and use the epinephrine auto-injector, how not to accept food from anyone but family, and never to take off his medical ID bracelet.
As he got older and learned to read, we taught Vincent how to check labels for allergy-related information. He became confident and prepared to handle himself when it comes to his allergy – but beyond managing his own allergy, he became a fearless advocate for himself, his little brother, and even the allergic community.
In the fourth grade, Vincent is a straight “A” student, and has been accepted to be a fifth grade safety patrol student. And his reason for volunteering to be part of the kindergarten patrol? So he could be close to his younger brother before and after school.
Through the year, Vincent has been walking Jacky down the kindergarten hallway, showing him the “peanut-free zone” classrooms with signs outside the doors and the peanut-free tables in the cafeteria where he will sit, all to help transition his little brother into kindergarten.
Vincent has also been an active participant in the allergy education of his teachers since pre-K, and I truly believe his efforts have increased the awareness of food allergies in our community. Vincent was the first child at his pre-K and elementary with such a severe allergy. Today, he can proudly walk his little brother into the same pre-K he went to and see signs posted stating that it is now a peanut-free area.
My husband and I cannot take all the credit for the progress that has been made. It is Vincent who educates his friends on what to have their parents pack in their lunch boxes so they can sit with him in the cafeteria. It is Vincent teaching his teachers how to read labels, and what to look for when it’s not always clear whether a product is safe for him.
With Jacky’s red food dye allergy, our allergist says he can tolerate up to a small amount daily. So if Jacky asks for something containing the dye, before I can say anything, his older brother is chiming in with: “You can only have one serving of red dye a day or you get itchy. Now, is this what you want?”
The truth is, I look up to my 9-year-old. He has never let his allergies hold him back or make him feel like an outcast. I am proud that he is an educator to staff and students at his school about food allergies, and that he sets such an example for his little brother. Our children have had other medical issues aside from food allergies. But Vincent has shown me that any medical condition, be it food allergies or illness, does not define who you are – you do.
Meghan Monaco and her family live in Jacksonville, Florida.
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