D.A.Ding it with Food Allergies 👨👧🐩
Becoming a father for the first time is the most exciting but possibly the scariest moment in your life. Instantly, if you weren’t before, you become a worrier. They send you home from the hospital with this tiny new being and from then on, you inevitably and constantly worry about their health and development. In fact, you feel almost examined by all the public health nurses (PHNs) and visitors coming to see how you are coping as a new parent. It’s funny when I think back to the moments just before these inspections. We would be milling around the house with Henry the Hoover and panicking over finding a place to hide the clothes horse that was taking up half the hallway. I remember grabbing the dusty can of Mr.Sheen polish from under the sink, something that rarely saw the light of day, as we frantically polished the fireplace mantel. Sweeping everything under the carpet, literally and figuratively. God, I love the smell of Mr.Sheen.
Now imagine, finding out that your little one has a health challenge they need to face, for the next few years anyway and possibly for the rest of their life. There are different degrees of health challenges all parents can face and if I’m honest, our obstacle is one I would almost have chosen if given an option, as it’s manageable and possibly curable. However, I will still never forget the day we found out that Sally suffered from both Cow’s Milk Protein Allergy (CMPA) and an Egg Allergy. The diagnosis came a bit late (as it almost always does with allergies) but the feeling of dread I got when thinking my child had to be limited in some way was still immense.
It was on a typical day out shopping that we first discovered Sally had an issue. Against Donna’s protests, I gave Sally a tiny amount of ice-cream on a spoon from a McDonald’s McFlurry. Sally was only 5 months old and it wasn’t until we were in the car travelling home that we noticed something was amiss. Sally developed distinct red blotches on her face, which progressively got worse and developed into hives. We headed straight for the out-of-hours Doctor and by the time we got there, her lips were swollen in a condition we now know as angioedema which is essentially a histamine induced fluid build-up under the skin tissue. It was one of the most frightening moments I’ve ever experienced, not knowing what was happening to my child.
We didn’t get a diagnosis then and even went to Spain on holidays without the knowledge that our child was suffering from serious food allergies. It wasn’t until we tried to wean her from breastfeeding at about 7 months, that the severity of her condition became apparent. I had been so looking forward to feeding her myself, pretty much for the very first time and although we had antihistamine medication on hand (just in case), we genuinely did not believe Sally was allergic to standard milk formula. We just didn’t think that it existed. We had heard about people being allergic to peanuts and fish but never to dairy. Unfortunately, Sally clearly was and after only 1oz of formula milk from a bottle (a bottle she was actually enjoying too), the redness started to show again but this time, the hives and swelling were much worse. Queue another emergency trip to the Doctor, then to the Emergency Department and then finally, a diagnosis (via an expensive blood test) that confirmed Sally was and still is severely allergic to dairy and eggs.
An allergy is essentially, an inappropriate and exaggerated response by the immune system to substances (or allergens) in the environment that are seen as harmless. During an initial exaggerated response, antibodies are released and attach to the immune cells so that when the body is exposed to the same allergen again, it triggers the immune cells to react causing an allergic response. This can come in the form of mild symptoms (skin rash, itching or hives) to severe (difficulty breathing, swelling or anaphylaxis). The prevalence of food allergies has risen sharply in the past three decades, increasing fivefold since 1996. There are approximately 7% of the World living with a food allergy (26 million diagnosed in America alone).
The process of changing our home to a Dairy and Egg Free zone was difficult at first but it is normal now. However, every meal still requires meticulous planning and attention to detail. The anxiety we feel each time we feed Sally something new never goes away, although it is easier knowing we have the prescribed Adrenaline Autoinjectors (or Epi-Pens) available, if things do go wrong. Eating out is even more stressful. Before Sally’s diagnosis, I might have ordered a plate of battered mushrooms and garlic dip without hesitation or concern. Nowadays, we are those ‘special’ diners who almost interrogate the staff before ordering. This is necessary though as a lot of people confuse allergies with intolerances. We might ask “What the batter on the mushroom contains?’ and the response might be, “It’s ok, the batter is not made with eggs and it is lactose free”. I would then try to explain in the nicest way possible, that lactose is not the problem and it is not sugar we are battling with, but the milk protein that is our major concern. Not to mention the egg hiding in the mayonnaise garlic dip. Essentially, this would not be something we would order these days.
We never leave the house without our grey backpack that contains all the necessary medication and a selection of dairy and egg-free treats. A somewhat unusual ‘nappy bag’. This is just in case we stop off at a place that we have not researched extensively beforehand. It is important to live a life without limits and to recognise that whilst the risks of exposure cannot be fully eliminated, we can be prepared to treat and act quickly in any situation where exposure may occur. It is also important to find a healthy balance between safety and social integration but this would be so much easier for us if awareness in the general public was increased.
This is my fourth blog post and I guess I needed to tell this story for two reasons. Firstly, to take note of how far we have come since Sally’s first reaction. Our beautiful girl is healthy and one of the happiest almost 2-year olds I’ve ever known. I think we, as a family, should be very proud of how we have faced this challenge and continue to do so every day. Secondly, and always on my mind, I need to raise awareness. In 2015, our Taoiseach and the then Minister for Health Leo Varadkar, introduced a bill into law allowing trained members of the public to administer life-saving rescue medicines including adrenalin if necessary. Public facilities such as schools, colleges and sports venues are now permitted to hold Epi-Pen medication, yet many remain oblivious to this legislation. More awareness is needed and better legislation too but for now, my focus is on the public and specifically, parents with non-allergic children.
I was in the playground last week and I observed the sign ‘No Dogs Allowed’ so Carlsson the Poodle had to be tied up outside (much to his annoyance). In the same playground, some other parents did not observe the ‘No Food Please’ sign. There were four children running around with ice-creams and sandwiches in hand, despite the fact that there were lovely benches set up just outside for their dining purposes. I never criticize other parents because let’s face it, parenting is tough but I would just like to encourage people to think more about potential risks to others and simply, observe the signs. If you go as far as wiping down your table or clearing your area, that would be even more appreciated. As I sit here writing this, I am looking at the television, full of dust. Think I need to get that bottle of Mr. Sheen out again. God, I love the smell of Mr.Sheen.