Years ago, my daughter had a playdate with a girl who has severe nut allergies. This girl spent the entire day in my home, but wouldn't eat a single thing in my house. She was well aware that my own son has severe, life-threatening allergies and that I possibly know a thing or two about safety. It didn’t matter to her; she was not putting a morsel in her mouth that didn’t come from her own home.
I hate to see children suffer from anxiety regarding their health, but I couldn't help but find myself a little envious and in awe of this cautious girl. It’s just that with Ben, my food-allergic son, it seemed like we always had the opposite problem. Ben has always been a super-laid-back, absent-minded kid. I get it because I'm similar. The difference is that I’m a parent, so when it comes to my children’s safety, I can't afford to be laid-back.
I spent years reminding Ben to read food labels, years yelling after him as he raced out the door, years asking whether he remembered to take his emergency meds with him. Today, we are finally at a decent place in the battle with his food allergies. Today, my son is able to enjoy himself, much like any other teenager, while also staying safe.
I've found that by laying down a few simple rules and doing everything we can to live by them, my son and I have been able to come to terms with his life-threatening food allergies. Now, I even run a company, Allermates, that helps kids with food allergies and other medical concerns. Because in the world of allergies, sometimes you just have to learn from experience. Below are what years of experience have taught Ben and me. If your kid is struggling with food allergies, I hope these tips can help you too.
Ben has learned he can’t just reach for a plate of cookies at a party. If no one can completely verify all the ingredients in a certain food item, then he doesn't eat it. I have to say, over the years, he has begun to show such amazing discipline. He never pities himself, and he has become an expert label-reader (I have too).
As much as many of us want to keep personal information private, my family has learned that it’s vital to let others know about our health conditions — particularly food allergies. I’ve taught my son to tell servers, "I'd rather not end up in the emergency room this evening" as a way to make sure he's being taken seriously. If we don’t feel confident enough about a server's knowledge, Ben knows to speak directly to the kitchen about the ingredients in a dish. Who knew the yogurt dressing of a beet salad at a Greek restaurant is made with almonds or that fish sauce is used to cook a chicken dish at our local cafe? We did.
Sure, on occasion I still have to yell out, “Ben, did you take your meds with you??” But it's gotten so much better — with patience and practice. My heart swells when I hear him shout, “Mom, where did you put my medicine case?” We have made it a simple part of life: Where we go, those medications go too.
Ben and I have learned the hard way to immediately recognize the signs of an allergic reaction. When he grips his stomach following a meal, we both now know that this is not a tummy ache and that he didn't "just eat too much" (is that even possible for a 13-year-old boy anyway?). Instead, it's usually the start of a whole series of allergic reactions — and it means it's time to get the epinephrine in and head to the hospital.
Although learning the signs of a reaction — and understanding what our immediate response to that needs to be — hasn't been easy, I sure am glad we've both figured it out together.
One day, Ben will be on his own, and all I can do is hope he'll take everything we've learned together and be as diligent as he can in ensuring his safety. I'm so proud of how far he's come — how far we've come as a family. As I work to offer families tools that make living with allergies and other medical concerns easier and less stressful, Ben remains my inspiration and my motivation. And if this whole difficult journey is what it takes to ensure his health and the health of kids like him, it's worth it.
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