The airline's customer-service agent thought she had a real kook on the phone. I'd just asked what I thought was a straightforward enough question: "Does the soap in your airplanes' restrooms have almond oil in it? It always smells of almond essence to me." The agent replied, "I could spend all day trying to find the answer to that question, ma'am." I tried explaining that my daughter is allergic to nuts, and I wanted to know if I would need to carry my own soap when I packed for our trip. I assumed that someone could look at the ingredient list on a bottle of hand soap on any airplane and just tell me yes or no. Instead, I was put on hold and eventually gave up and e-mailed my question to the customer-service center.
Such is life when you have a child with food allergies. Most people don't understand unless they have a child who's similarly afflicted. Even I, a practicing pediatrician, never realized how much food allergies can take over so many aspects of daily life until my now 7-year-old daughter, Sophia, was diagnosed with peanut and, eventually, tree-nut allergies.
It all started when Sophia developed terrible eczema at 2 months. Thinking that a milk allergy was contributing to her skin problems, our doctor ordered blood tests when she was 9 months old. Her lab tests were negative for milk, but to my surprise, her peanut numbers came back mildly elevated. Skin tests may be more accurate in diagnosing food allergies, so I made an appointment with Helen Skolnick, M.D., a physician in New Jersey who specializes in food allergies.
At the consultation, Sophia reacted so strongly to the peanut skin prick on her back that the nurse came running with Benadryl as hives quickly spread all the way around to Sophia's chest. Before I could digest what was happening, Dr. Skolnick had swooped into the room with handouts on nut-free diets and support groups for parents. She explained how an injection of epinephrine from an EpiPen could be lifesaving in the event of cardiorespiratory collapse from an allergic reaction.
Epinephrine? Cardiorespiratory collapse? At that moment, I could not fathom that Sophia could have such a severe, life-threatening allergy. And wasn't I the one who was supposed to be giving parents these instructions and using the big medical words? Instead, I ended up red-faced when Dr. Skolnick asked me to demonstrate the proper use of the EpiPen, something I often teach parents to do in my own office. I still cringe to think of how she corrected me when, in a state of shock, I forgot to remove the safety release on the device before pretending to give the injection.
Then Dr. Skolnick delivered the real shocker: Sophia's off-limits list included Chinese, Thai, and Indian food due to the prevalence of nuts in their cuisine. No Chinese food? But I'm Chinese! In the food of my native Singapore, and throughout all of my beloved Southeast Asia, peanuts are ubiquitous in satay sauces, curries, and even salads. I was supposed to deny my child her culinary birthright? For the first time, I knew what it felt like to leave a doctor's office feeling deflated by bad news.