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5 Things I Wish You Knew About My Son's Food Allergies

When it comes to nuts, there's no room for mistakes. And it terrifies me.

Photo credit: Courtesy of Lisa Lombardi

Do you suffer from allergies?

We found out my son had food allergies on a family vacation when he was 3.

It was some of the scariest minutes of my life. We had just checked in to our hotel in Puerto Rico and Gus was starving so I handed him my cashew-raisin trail mix. Within minutes, he was scratching at hives. Then his face started swelling and he stuck his tongue out. In a panic, I gave him liquid Zyrtec while my husband called our pediatrician, who stayed on the phone until the reaction subsided. (We were lucky—with that severe a reaction, we should have gone to the ER.)

Back home, Gus was diagnosed with allergies to tree nuts (and, later, to peanuts too). I felt like my world collapsed on me that day, but since then, it has expanded in unexpected ways. There has never been an easier time to raise a child like Gus. Schools have protocols. Chefs and waitstaff usually get it. Food allergy parents share information in Facebook groups and fight to get better labeling laws passed. I can follow food allergists on Twitter who tweet out fascinating new research and everyday tips.

Still, there are things I wish everyone understood about kids like my son, and about me, too. I never realized any of this before my son was diagnosed, so don’t feel bad if you’re surprised. And they are….

1. He’s just a normal kid. Except he’s not. Except he is.

Kids with food allergies are completely healthy. But they have a condition where if they eat the wrong thing without the right medication on hand, they could die. Or suffer sudden, frightening symptoms—from hives and swelling to vomiting and difficulty breathing—which can lead to ambulance rides and days/nights spent in the emergency room. I’ve ridden in an ambulance with Gus and I can’t begin to tell you how scared I was.

The great news is there’s a drug that can be counted on to reverse an anaphylactic, or multi-system, reaction if it’s given quickly, and that’s an injection of epinephrine, aka an EpiPen or Auvi-Q. Anaphylaxis sometimes requires multiple doses, which is why kids with food allergies need a two-pack EpiPen or Auvi-Q on them at all times. The shot goes in the outer thigh, not the butt, in case you ever have to use it.

Gus, age 3. Photo credit: Courtesy of Lisa Lombardi

Most people totally get it, but a few times we’ve tried to hand over our EpiPen bag at an activity and the supervisors have argued that we don’t need to leave it because no food is being served. Trust us, we need to leave it—he can have a reaction to something he ate two hours earlier, at our home. Not to mention, surprise snacks are handed out to kids all the time (see #2), especially around the dreaded “candy holidays” (Halloween and Easter, I’m looking at you).

2. I’m not a helicopter parent. Really.

Maybe you’ve seen me rushing over to the soccer sidelines as a coach hands out snacks and thought, “Woah, that mom is overbearing.”

You’re not wrong. I tend to hover, especially when food is involved, like when we eat out with a team and the kids order from a separate table. I try to not hover too much, especially now that my son is 11 and able to advocate for himself.

But if you don’t have a child with food allergies, you’ve never thought about all the random snacks handed to your kid by: Coaches, playdates, babysitters, grandparents, teachers, other kids, the woman handing out samples at the supermarket. Food allergy parents have to be on it, especially when our kids are young.

We had a near miss on the sidelines of a baseball game several years back, where a coach handed my son a Klondike bar with nuts in it. My husband used the eyes that parents seem to grow in the back of our heads to spy what was happening, rush over, and intercept the rocky road bar before it went into Gus’ mouth.

That’s good "helicoptor-ing" in my view.

3. Please don’t think I’m second-guessing you.

When your child has to avoid nuts or other foods, you double-check everything.

And you double-check everyone. That includes my own husband, my parents and in-laws, my sons, and even the waiter at the fancy hotel who assures me his staff has been extensively trained in food allergies (see #4)

I even double-check myself, because when it comes to avoiding food allergens, I have to be perfect. Good enough is not good enough—and that is a freaking terrifying reality.

Please know that when you tell me your brownies are safe for my son and I say, “Do you still have the box for me to check?” I’m just doing my normal, triple-check thing.

Because mistakes can and do happen, and I know this because my husband and I have made them ourselves.

One time, my husband Dan accidentally bought cookies that had pecans buried in the middle of a long ingredient list, and my babysitter gave one to my son. They both read the label, but the pecans weren’t bolded (some companies choose to bold the top eight allergens, but there is no law requiring they do so).

Another time, I ran to a deli and bought my son an Italian combo hero without asking if it had nuts. I was in a rush, and I completely forgot to ask.

Big mistake. After two bites Gus said, “My mouth feels all itchy.” I ripped the sandwich apart and found Mortadella, an Italian bologna embedded with pistachios. We had to use the EpiPen and get to the ER.  

Now we play it safe. When Dan brings home groceries, I scan the cereal boxes and pretzels as I put them away. And if I shop? We do it in reverse.  We even read labels on snacks we’ve bought a gazillion times before, because they suddenly change, which can be super dangerous for kids with food allergies. Just recently, before scooping my favorite white tortilla chips into a bowl, I read the label and gasped (OK, maybe I said the F word) because it suddenly had a “made on shared line with tree nuts” warning label. Whaaat? I dumped the chips.

4. Yes, I want to know if the pizza has nuts in it.

Let me tell you, it is sooo much easier now to eat out with confidence than it was eight years ago when Gus was first diagnosed. For the most part, restaurants get it. At breakfast buffets I’ve had chefs come out and say to my son, “Hey buddy, what kind of omelet do you want? I’ll make it in the back for you so we know it’s safe.”

In a small town in Italy, a chef who spoke not a word of English came out of the kitchen with a concerned face and handed his packaged bread to me so I could check the label. While he patiently waited, I compared it against the translation cards I brought that listed out the Italian words for walnuts, peanuts, pistachios, etc. I felt my heart fill with gratitude.

But still occasionally, we’ll go to a restaurant, explain his allergy, ask our standard “Does it have nuts or nut oils?” and the waiter will go, “It’s pizza!” with a clear “dummy” implied at the end.

Please bear with us, restaurant people. Every once in a while, pizza or hot dogs or foods you would assume to be safe are not. Sometimes there’s peanut butter in chili (there have been stories of this unlikely combo killing a person), fries made in peanut oil, and unexpected pesto drizzled on pizza (this has happened to us), without a warning on the menu.

Last summer, at a luxe but family-friendly resort, we were assured that the staff receives extensive training in allergy management. At dinner our first night, my son disclosed his allergy and ordered the ribs special. When it arrived, I thought I spied something crunchy on top. I looked up at the waiter, aghast. “Are those nuts?” He whipped it away, apologizing. If the lights had been just a little dimmer, or the peanuts more finely ground, I wouldn’t have spotted them. My husband and I felt shaken by the close call.

“A few times we’ve tried to hand over our EpiPen bag at an activity and the supervisors have argued that we don’t need to leave it because no food is being served. Trust us, we need to leave it.”

5. We know you’re looking out for him. We can’t thank you enough.

Other people are my angels, helping to keep my son safe at rock climbing parties and baseball games and sleepovers and class trips.  

I am grateful every day for you. My son’s awesome friends who make sure their parents pack a nut-free lunch so they can sit at the nut-free table with him.

The mom hosting a playdate who snaps pics of labels and texts them to me before handing out snacks. Technology for the win!

My girlfriends who come over at parties and quietly let me know which foods are safe and not. The school nurse who gives me the heads up that my son’s nut-free snack supply is running low—she doesn’t want him to feel left out if there’s a class birthday and he doesn’t have a treat. My sister and mother-in-law who always bake for him at family parties because store-bought cakes can’t be trusted.

Sometimes, having food allergies makes life a bit harder. But it also can give you VIP access to other people’s kindness. My son lives with a village watching out for him.

He’s a lucky kid.

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Published May 29th, 2018

Do you suffer from allergies?