Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Don't Let Food Allergies Haunt the Holidays

Photo - Chandler Swink / Courtesy of Oakland.edu

On Thanksgiving Day when most of us were eating turkey feasts and watching football, William and Nancy Swink were deciding whether or not to remove their 19 year old son Chandler from life support at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital.  A few days earlier Chandler, who was diagnosed with a peanut allergy at the age of 2, had gone into anaphylactic shock caused by a food allergy reaction when he was somehow exposed to an allergen while being at a friend's house who was baking peanut butter cookies.  Only being given a 2% chance for survival by doctors, his family allowed Chandler to pass away that evening.  What a tragic way to spend a holiday and the nightmare scenario for any parent who has a child who suffers from a severe food allergy.

Chandler hadn't led an easy life dealing with bullying from elementary school through high school by students, and the parents of some of his classmates, who were outraged that food restrictions had been placed on them by the school for Chandler's well-being.  Despite this Chandler grew up to be a great young man according to all accounts from people who knew him that was going to school at Oakland University to become a nurse so he could have a career helping people in the medical field.  More than 600 people attended Chandler Swink's funeral saying good bye to a life that ended way too soon.

We discovered my daughter had a severe peanut allergy when she was around the same age as when Chandler was diagnosed.  No one in our family, my side or my wife's, has food allergies and we really didn't know much about the topic.  Then one day while our daughter was eating peanut butter she started howling and screaming.  Her face turned red with huge hives and her head began swelling.  I raced her to the emergency room at the hospital a mile from our home.  As we raced into the hospital my daughter's eyes and throat had swelled shut.  I didn't know if she was going to live or die at that moment.

The doctors and nurses at Beaumont Hospital did an exceptional job in saving my daughter's life and preventing her from suffering any long-term injuries from the incident.  Our family now is constantly on guard about avoiding situations that could put her in life in jeopardy again.  My daughter has to avoid ingesting food that not only has peanut as ingredients but also may have been contaminated by contact with them during the production or packaging of it.  Exposure to the proteins in the peanuts against her skin could also trigger a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction so you have to be careful of residue that could come from touching a surface or another person...yes playing with a toy, using a shampoo, shaking a hand, or even getting a kiss could potentially cause a food allergy reaction.  This can be so especially challenging to get your hands around because you are dealing with trying to avoid something at a microscopic level.

Like Chandler, we've encountered many people who don't think that our daughter's food allergy is "a big deal", don't want any restrictions placed on them to help protect children with food allergies, or just don't care and believe it is just our family's issue to deal with and if something bad happens it is my daughter or our family's own fault.  While we understand that our daughter's medical condition is our burden to deal with we also believe that when it comes to school and public spaces that there should be some level of safeguards in place to allow people with food allergies to be able to live healthy and productive lives without fear that someone else's actions could hurt them. 

Unfortunately, there are plenty of people in the world who just don't care about the safety of people with food allergies.  A recent incident in Michigan where a school board member named Linda Grossman joked "just shoot them" during a public meeting in regards to the concerns of parents and staff about food allergies that these kids should just be shot highlights the problems many families with food allergy children in schools have in providing a safe and healthy environment.  The Grossman incident was  followed up by a shameful editorial by the Detroit News' Dan Calabrese that criticized school district parents for demanding Grossman resign and mocked food allergies as not being a serious threat.  I also noticed tweets and posts from people defending Grossman because she was being sarcastic and arguing parents should be doing a better job of teaching kids to protect themselves.  This shows that despite the alarming increases in children with dangerous food allergies our society still has a lack of knowledge on the topic and a great deal of apathy towards people suffering from the condition.

So why should Grossman be condemned for an off-color joke?  Why should people be upset by "just comments" made by someone.  Well actually her comments were an action.  Grossman shirked her responsibility as an elected official by not acting in a professional manner, being dismissive of food allergies being a threat to the safety of students, and by mocking the parents and staff expressing concerns.  Being a school board member is a serious responsibility that Grossman didn't treat seriously and therefore she deserved to go.  Food allergies isn't a topic that should be joked about, especially when people are dying from this medical condition.

I'm so glad that Dr. Matthew Greenhawt, M.D. from C.S. Mott Children's Hospital jumped into the fray writing an editorial titled "5 Reasons We Shouldn't Joke about Kids with Food Allergies" criticizing people like Grossman and Calabrese for believing a joke isn't that big of a deal.  This doctor's critique really is a great way to make this topic a teachable moment for the community.  He writes "Food allergy is not a laughing matter, and these children should not serve as a target of derision." 

Here are Dr. Greenhawt's 5 reasons that joking about food allergies, especially in schools, is a serious matter:

1. Food Allergy is a rapidly growing chronic condition, affecting as many as 8% of children.  Reactions can be quite severe, potentially fatal and terrifying to experience.  There are no cures or treatments for food allergies.

2.  Children, especially those with chronic health conditions are fragile and vulnerable.  They should never be the butt of a joke.  This sets a horrible tone that it is acceptable to make light of someone, and demonstrates ignorance of and lack of empathy for those living with a particular condition.

3.  Accommodating multiple health concerns within a school is challenging, but us not an excuse for a public display of intolerance of any student for any reason, including a health condition, religion, race or income.

4.  School districts are a community, and members of the community must work together to solve problems.  Administrators must lead by example.  Derisive attitudes by school board members are counterproductive.

5.  Federal disability law affords children with food allergy and other conditions the right to seek accommodation.  It is the school's legal duty to comply as such.

Holidays can be a stressful time for people dealing with food allergies with there being such an emphasis on food being a part of celebrations.  Now is especially a time of year where the consideration and compassion of those who don't suffer from food allergies is appreciated by those that do.  It is also important to keep in mind that recent food allergy deaths have been of teenagers and young adults so if that age group is having difficulties just consider how hard and stressful it is for younger children preschool through elementary school age to deal with it, especially if you take the position that its the parents sole responsibility to make sure their kids can protect themselves.

Please keep in mind that an allergen doesn't need to be an ingredient to make food unsafe.  If someone has a food allergy please note that most food cooked in a bakery, processed in a facility that makes other food with allergens on the same equipment, or is made in someone's home is probably going to be off limits for someone with an allergy because of the threat of contamination.  It is more than just checking the ingredient label and seeing that there are "no nuts" to make sure something is safe.  People making and trying to give our child home made treats is one of our biggest headaches when it comes to looking out for our daughter especially around school functions, community events and even family gatherings.  It's not that we don't trust them or appreciate the offer but rather the risk of another trip to the hospital, or worse, just isn't worth it.

Kids with Food Allergies has two nice online pamphlets with tips for celebrating Christmas and Chanukah with children that have food allergy.  The web site Snack Safely also has a nice guide on checking out treats for food allergy concerns before serving them at a holiday function or party. Though the safest option at schools really is a food free celebration.

Don't let food allergies haunt the holidays!  How bad would you feel if you were involved in causing someone to have an allergic reaction?  How bad do you believe the Swink family or anyone else injured by food allergies will be hurting this holiday season?  Tis the season for us to show kindness to one another!  If you have a healthy child give thanks today and take a moment to consider how you may be able to be kind to a family that is not so blessed.

For more information about Food Allergies please visit FARE - Food Allergy Research & Education at www.foodallergy.org.


  1. Thank you so much for such an amazing and informative post!!

    Sarah Muennix

  2. My heart just breaks for that family. Food allergies are SO scary! So glad you caught your daughter's allergy early on -- that is such a fear of mine. Great info here for all parents!!!

  3. Thanks for this post. I'm luckily not allergic to any foods but I have some medication allergies ... scary stuff.

  4. This is very scary, and the sad thing is sometimes you don't know until it's to late! I'm glad your daughter was OK.