By: Barbara Matousek
The summer that Sam was 2 and 1/2 I pulled up to the daycare and the kids were all outside playing. Sam’s eyes were swollen and red, his face puffed up as if he were full of air, and a steady stream of snot ran down his upper lip. This was four hours after he had screamed at Jamie that he’d gotten some peanut butter on his hand and Jamie said “Oh, just lick it off.” Standing on the sidewalk in front of Jamie’s listening to the story my first thought was “Oh no. Not THAT allergy.”
Admittedly before my son was diagnosed with a peanut allergy I didn’t know anything about them other than the fact that peanut allergies can kill. I didn’t know that nearly 6 million (or 8%) of American children have food allergies. I didn’t know that the prevalence of peanut allergies among children had tripled between 1997 and 2008. I didn’t know that 1 in 13 children under age 3 were affected by food allergies.
After Sam’s initial scratch test in which a tiny peanut protein caused a welt the size of a half dollar on his back, I knew our lives would change, that we’d have to watch everything he ate, that he wouldn’t be able to eat baked goods from commercial bakeries or any food from Chinese restaurants, that we’d have to ask about anything he ate that we didn’t make ourselves because peanut butter is often used to thicken sauces and peanut oil is occasionally used in restaurant cooking. I knew he’d never run around and play with a child who had just eaten a peanut butter sandwich. And I knew he’d have to always carry an epi-pen in case of a severe, rapid-onset reaction called anaphylaxis which results in sudden throat swelling and low blood pressure that can be fatal.
I am a mother of small children so I understand how overwhelmed every parent is just remembering the needs of their own children. I sometimes can’t remember my own phone number or where I parked my car, so I completely understand a parent who barely knows my child who doesn’t remember that he has a peanut allergy. I understand that it is MY responsibility to over and over again gently remind those who are around Sam that he can’t have peanuts.
But Valentine’s Day caught me completely off guard. The school knows he has a peanut allergy. The school knows another child in his class has a tree nut allergy. The school knows food can be a tricky thing for a child with a peanut allergy. When I received a letter from Sam’s teacher giving me a list of children who he would share “Valentines” with, I bought a package of little cards with little heart stickers and temporary tattoos, and Sam and I sat down and wrote his name and the names of his classmates on 21 of them. The letter didn’t mention food. The letter didn’t say anything about candy. But I have learned my lesson and I now know that “Valentines” means something very different than it did when I was in preschool 40 years ago. “Valentines” means little card and bag of candy… and an opportunity for the exhausted overwhelmed parents of Sammy’s classmates to forget that a child in their class can die if he consumes peanuts.
According to a study released in 2008 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, food allergies result in about 300,000 ambulatory-care visits per year in children. More than 15% of school-aged children with food allergies have had a reaction at school. And approximately 20-25% of epinephrine administrations in schools involve children whose allergy was unknown at the time of their reaction. Every year we hear about children who have died in school as a result of something they ate. And if your child doesn’t have a peanut allergy you may not pay any attention. But when you’re the parent of a child with a peanut allergy, news of the preventable death of a child with an allergy triggers fear and anxiety. It is a good reminder that your child CAN die from a peanut reaction. It is a good reminder that living with a peanut allergy will require you to step out of your comfort zone and keep reminding people over and over again that you are just one person and you would appreciate their help in keeping your child safe.
Here is a great list of 10 things you should remember about food allergies in the classroom.
Valentine’s Day was a great lesson for all of us. I now realize the importance of working with the school to get the word out about my son’s allergy, and I now know that I need to be the one responsible for gently, consistently reminding other parents that there is a child in their child’s class who can die from peanuts. I don’t blame anyone for forgetting, and I don’t blame the school for failing to remind them. I blame myself for not being more informed about what he encounters at his school and what his school policies are regarding allergies. But you can bet that has changed.