Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Scariest Moment of My Life: The Day my Daughter went into Anaphylactic Shock

Every 3 minutes across the United States someone is admitted to an Emergency Room for a food allergy reaction.  My family experienced that trauma 18 months ago when my daughter spent three days at the hospital as we dealt with a life-threatening situation brought on by a severe food allergy.  This week is Food Allergy Awareness Week and I wanted to share our story.

18 months ago I was spending the day at home taking care of my 18 month old twins.  My wife had suggested that I give them some peanut butter for lunch that morning because she had heard about more kids having peanut allergies than when we were younger and preferred that if something happened one of us was with our children versus them being at day care, taken care of by a babysitter, or spending time with one of their grandparents.  We weren’t that concerned because no one on either side of our family has food allergies but wanted to be safe.  We were so lucky that we were cautious!

At lunch time I cut up some banana slices and placed a tiny bit of peanut butter on them for the twins to eat. I gave them first to my son who LOVED them! Fifteen minutes went by without a problem and he was asking for more.  With a feeling of relief that there didn’t appear to be any problems, I gave him some more slices and handed a few to my daughter.

About a minute later that is when trouble happened!   My daughter started screaming hysterically and pulling at the skin on her face.  Dark red hives began appearing across her body.  I went to get some Benadryl and call me wife at work.  No Answer!  Just a couple minutes later I could see my daughter’s eyes and nose starting to swell up.  Do I call 911? Do I make a run to the Emergency Room at the hospital just a few miles down the road?  I grabbed my keys and rushed with my kids to the car! 

Five minutes later I pulled up to the entrance of the ER like a bat out of hell.  The security guard at the door asked what I needed as I was unbuckling my daughter from her car seat but as he saw her just said “Oh my God! Let me help!”  My daughter’s eyes at this point had completely swelled shut. He grabbed my son and yelled out "follow me".  We ran through the ER each with a kid in hand as he gave an alert on his radio for the pediatric care unit to be prepared.  A swarm of doctors enveloped us as they connected her with an IV of life saving medication, put an oxygen tube down her throat which was now swelling shut, and checked out her vitals.  A nurse backed me away from the gurney telling me everything was going to be alright and sat me and my son in chair set back out of the doctors’ way.  The adrenaline began to fade and was replaced with a feeling of helplessness as there was nothing that I could do to help and deep stabbing pains of guilt knowing that I had given my daughter the food that put her here in the ER. I was raised with the attitude that guys don’t cry but I started to weep.

A little while later, my wife burst into the curtained area where we were at, having gotten my voice mail alerting her to the situation.  The look on her face seeing our little girl lying in a hospital bed connected to a bunch of tubes is burned into my head.  It is something I hope I never have to witness again in my life.  We were informed that my daughter wasn’t reacting as well as they would like to the medication and needed to stay in the ER until she was stabilized.  We spent twenty-four hours there and were transported to a regular hospital room for more treatment the next day once she had fully responded to all the medications and was on the road to recovery.  They kept her one more day after that for observation.  Fortunately, everything turned out alright in the end and she didn’t sustain any long-term or permanent damage from the incident.  Her life, and our family’s lives, changed forever though on that day as she was diagnosed with severe peanut/tree nut allergies and we have to be ever vigilant now for her safety.

The following is a video with useful tips and information regarding food allergies from Dr. Devang Doshi a leading expert in the field:

We carry an epi pen now with my daughter wherever we go.  An epi pen is a medical device also known as an epinephrine autoinjector that delivers a measured dose of epinephrine to treat the onset of anaphylactic shock caused by an allergic reaction.  In the case of my daughter’s reaction, while fortunately everything turned out fine, I made the wrong decision I rushing to the ER.  If someone is having an allergic reaction give them a shot of their epi pen if they have one and call 911.  Police, firefighters, and paramedics carry medication and have training to deal with these situations.  Food allergy reactions can be life or death situations, get help!

In dealing with our daughter’s food allergy, we need to be alert to avoid her ingesting peanuts/tree nuts or having peanut/tree nut protein or oils absorbed into her skin.  This isn’t as easy as it would seem though.  Our biggest hurdle is the fact that a food item might be contaminated in the kitchen or food processing plant although not specifically having the allergens as an ingredient.  We have to ask questions at restaurants and read labels all the time.  You need to look at for warnings labels such as “may contain” or “processed in facility with peanuts or tree nuts.”  It is frustrating though, because allergy warning labels are not required by law in the United States so just because a product does not have one you can’t assume it is safe.  We do lots and lots of consumer research on food products now in our household.

Basic things you used to take for granted now become problems too!  I had to pick up my crying daughter from preschool the other day because she couldn’t participate in a classmate’s birthday party.  One of the girls in her class had brought in cup cakes with a peanut warning on them so the teacher excluded my daughter from the class room snack time and sent her to the office for her protection.  My daughter was heartbroken she missed the birthday party and as a parent I was frustrated that food that was a danger to my daughter was allowed in a room with a big peanut-free sign on the door for a special occasion.

Halloween was one of my favorite times of the year as a kid - I loved trick or treating!  When I took my kids trick or treating last October 75% of the houses gave us Reese Peanut Butter Cups.  As much as I tried to prescreen the candy, people consistently tried to go around me to give candy directly to her or get her to put her hands into buckets.  We took some risk and gaver her some freedom on Halloween to take candy but afterward she traded it in to us for a special treat at Toys R Us.  I also didn't let her put her hands in her halloween basket and made her wash her hands when we got home...I was a nervous wreck to be honest when we went trick-or-treating last year but I don't want her excluded from fun activities other kids enjoy.

I’m a huge Detroit Tigers fan! Before we had kids, going to a Tigers games were a fun activity that my wife and I regularly attended.  We were looking at buying season tickets for us and the kids.  We went to a game and realized to our horror once we got there that there were peanut shells EVERYWHERE.  You don’t notice these things until they really matter.  We quickly left the game!

Peanut Butter & Jelly sandwiches were a lunch time staple in my house growing up.  In our house now we have Sun Butter & Jelly sandwiches.  Sun Butter is a peanut butter substitute made from sunflower seeds.  It has a little bit of a sun flower seed aftertaste but is really good once you get accustomed to that.   

These are just a few examples of ways a food allergy can impact things in your life that you wouldn’t have thought about otherwise.  Here are a few tips on dealing with a peanut allergy from the American Dietetic Association:

  • Some Food manufacturers voluntarily print advisory statements on food labels if there is a risk that a “safe” food came into cross-contact with a food allergen such as peanuts.  Look for warnings “may contain peanut” or “produced in a facility that also produces products containing peanut”.  An independent review showed that more than 7% of products that don’t contain peanuts as ingredients are contaminated in a kitchen or factory and contain enough peanut protein to trigger an allergic reaction.
  • Advisory labeling is NOT required by law.  The absence of an advisory statement does not necessarily mean there is no risk of cross-contact with peanut.
  • You may need to contact a manufacturer directly to get the information you need to assure the safety of someone with a peanut allergy before consuming a product.
  • The type of advisory statement may not reflect risk.  For example, “manufactured in a facility that also manufactures products containing peanut” may not be safer than “may contain peanut”.
  • Read product labels EVERY time you purchase an item.  Ingredients and manufacturing practices change. Also different sizes and versions of same product may contain different ingredients or be manufactured different locations.  Oreos for example has some products that are safe and others that are not, but you have to read the labels to identify them.
  • Nonfood items (including lotions, soaps, shampoo, and sun screens) may contain allergens. 
  • Arachis oil contains peanuts.
  • When eating in restaurants use “chef cards” (available at www.foodallergy.org). These cards list all the ingredients your child needs to avoid.  Speak directly to the manager and inform him or her of the food allergy.  Present your chef card and discuss which ingredients to avoid as well as how to avoid cross-contact.
  • Be aware that peanut butter may be used as a thickener for pasta sauces, in chili, and to seal egg rolls. Always inform restaurant staff of a food allergy.
  • Avoid complex dishes and desserts with multiple ingredients or sauces.  These may contain hidden allergens.
  • Avoid foods that are fried in a deep-fat fryer that may have been used to fry other foods with peanut ingredients.
  • Be cautious that cross-contact is likely in salad bars and buffets.  Serving utensils may be shared and foods can spill and splash.
  • Restaurants that serve Asian foods (such as Chinese, Indian, Indonesian, Thai, or Vietnamese) are high-risk because they commonly use peanuts as ingredients.  There is a risk of cross-contact with peanuts even if a peanut-free item is ordered.
  • Mexican mole sauces can contain peanuts
  • Be aware that bakeries make products with peanuts and the use of shared equipment and close contact in display cases may increase risk of cross-contact with peanuts
  • Ice cream parlors typically offer many flavors, some of which contain peanuts or a peanut ingredient.  Cross contamination is a risk.
  • Look for food allergen information on Web sites for some fast food and chain restaurants.  Culvers does an incredible job with this … check this out.  However be aware that restaurant companies may use multiple food suppliers and ingredients or recipes may change over time.  Always reconfirm that food is safe before ordering.
I’ve had people rudely confront me that my child’s food allergy isn’t that big of a deal.  Consider this, last year more than 400 people died in the United States from food allergies and 90% of those cases were related to a reaction from either a peanut or tree nut.  As a parent of a child with a severe food allergy, I just ask others to try and keep in mind a basic rule that we are all taught at children “treat others as you’d like to be treated yourself in their situation.”
For more information on food allergies, please visit the Food Allergy & Anaphlaxis Network (www.foodallergy.org) or the Food Allergy Initiative (www.faiusa.org).  These two groups recently announced they will be merging to better serve the food allergy community so stay tuned for further updates as this develops. Click here to read about the merger.


  1. What a scary first reaction, thank you for sharing though. People need to understand that even a trace of something can hurt our children.

  2. Thank you for sharing your story and, especially, for all of the great food allergy information that you shared. I'll admit, I had tears welling up in my eyes as you described your daughters anaphylactic reaction.

  3. Thank you for sharing your story; you write with great humanity and really validate the struggles faced on a daily basis. With your permission, I would like to share your story on our fb page. I am with SunWise Foods, we make crustless sunbutter and jelly sandwiches. We are posting something new each day during Food Allergy Awareness Week. Please confirm this is ok.
    Best wishes to you & your family.

  4. Thank you for the link to your blog and for sharing your food allergy story. Awesome FAAW post.

    Re: Halloween. My 8 year old son has life threatening allergies to peanuts and tree nuts. Our Halloween routine is:

    he wears gloves to trick or treat. I've found gloves work for any costume! (Tried trick or treating without gloves one year; hives all over! Thankful it was just hives.)

    Thanks also for joining the 2012 FAAW Twitter Party!

    I buy plenty of safe candy for him to trade out for the unsafe candy. Everything made by Tootsie, also Skittles and a few other choices. Plenty of sugary candy to eat!