Taking Food Allergies Personally

Putting Allergies in Perspective

Jean and Sophia

Courtesy of Jean Goh

I tried to put all these things into perspective by reminding myself of the hundreds of worse diagnoses Sophia could have faced. I cleared the cabinets of anything containing nuts. I learned to read ingredient labels carefully. When I went to the supermarket, anything labeled with "may contain traces of peanuts" or "processed in a facility that also processes tree nuts" stayed on the shelf. At 9 months, Sophia wasn't eating any of these foods yet, but they were still too risky to have around. If one of us had a scoop of Rocky Road before giving our daughter a kiss, it could trigger a reaction.

Ultimately, it was the parents of my own patients with food allergies who helped me cope with Sophia's diagnosis. One mom in particular comes to mind. A tireless advocate for her child, she convinced her insurance company to cover extra EpiPens so he could have one at home, in the school cafeteria, in the nurse's office, and in his backpack at all times. She taught me not to fear Halloween, when I have to deny Sophia most of the candy in her bucket. Instead, this mom advised me to carry my own stash of nut-free treats so Sophia can trade with me for a safe piece of candy each time she receives a nut-filled one. Another mom admitted that she used to be hesitant about asking her mother-in- law not to serve the family's favorite pecan pie at Thanksgiving. She felt like a nuisance and had to remind herself that protecting her son was the priority. I think of this patient and stand by my guns when I prohibit nuts at my own mother-in-law's house.

Considering how helpful my patients have been, I'm embarrassed to think back to when I treated food allergies as just another diagnosis. Before Sophia, if I saw a child with a peanut, soy, egg, or shellfish allergy listed on his chart, I would ask if the parent carried emergency medicines. EpiPen? Check. Benadryl? Good. Then I would move on. Now I know how inadequate I was in counseling those parents and how little empathy I showed.

I hope that I'm doing a better job now. When I see these patients, I go beyond checking on their medications. I thoroughly explain how to read food labels. I stress the importance of having everyone in their life -- friends, babysitters, teachers, and grandparents -- understand the diagnosis and how to react in an emergency. And I tell them about fun nut-free snacks that can be taken to playdates and parties. At the very least, I can fully sympathize with the daily challenges these patients and their families face. As a parent, I pray that I will never receive a call from school telling me that Sophia is having trouble breathing because she ate peanut butter by mistake. As a physician, I look forward to the day when scientists announce a cure or at least a vaccine for children who have food allergies.

I did eventually receive a reply by e-mail from the airline, informing me that the soap on its planes does not contain any nut oils. As I packed, I made sure we had EpiPens, Benadryl, and nut-free snacks in our carry-on bags. But at least we didn't have to take our own soap.

Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Parents magazine.

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