Seven minutes in heaven conjures images of teens exchanging kisses in dark closets. Maybe the phrase niggles at your memory pulling bits of an '80s teen flick that you can't quite remember who was in it or what it was about.
For many, however, the phrase is ominous and sounds a lot more like "seven minutes TO heaven." For individuals with food allergies, seven minutes after the onset of an anaphylactic reaction can be the difference of life and death. Anaphylaxis is an allergic reaction involving two or more bodily systems. Severe cases involve a sudden and precipitous drop of blood pressure and/or breathing complications. People that survive a severe case received as shot of epiphedrine within 5 minutes of the onset of symptoms. People that did not recieve that shot end up a statistic of people killed by food.
Tossing out a bunch of numbers and statistics doesn't really do much to drive home the point, however. Knowing that ninety four percent of school nurses reported having at least one child with food allergies in their school is unlikely to sway you. Nor is reading that more than one third of the nurses indicated that they had 10 or more students in the school with food allergies, and 87 percent stated that, compared with other health-related issues, food allergies among school-age children is somewhat or very serious. (as reported in a 2004 study published in the Journal of School Nursing)
Instead let's break this down and make it personal - what do those numbers mean? As a parent reading you and/or your child(ren) already know or will know someone juggling food allergies. Now let me make it a little more personal.
A year and a half-ago, my daugher attempted her first peanut butter sandwich. She was a month shy of her second birthday and more than a littel intrigued by her big brother's favorite lunch. She took one bite and spit it out. She hated it. She pawed at her tongue pleading with us to get it off. It was her only response and we assumed she simply disliked the thick. stick to your mouth texture. Hours later she vomited. Somewhere deep in my gut the little word "allergic" nagged at me. I pushed it aside with the cushion of hours that her sick stomach and her exposure had between them.
A week later we were baking cookies. We had chocolate chips and peanut butter chips to toss into the dough. The kids plunged their hands into the chip bags. Megan ate one peanut butter chip. She popped a second one in her mouth and her face quickly turned from that giggling, happy smiling face she'd been wearing to one full of dread. She began to paw at her mouth again as the tears came down her cheeks. In seconds she was off the chair she had been standing on and vomiting profusely all over my kitchen floor. We cleaned her up. We calmed her down. So we thought. She began to vomit again and this time bright red hives started to emerge on her stomach and back. Her cheeks were red and her eyes were filled with tears and fear. I called the pediatrician to confirm what I knew for certain.
Megan is allergic to peanuts.
Since then, we've seen her allergist three times for general visits. She's now twice endured a skin prick test to confirm her peanut allergy and, after breaking out in a rash from body lotion that contained nut oils, to confirm an allergy to almonds and walnuts as well. She's had blood tests to confirm the skin test and to set a baseline for where she falls on the severity scale of her allergy. (On a scale of 0-6, she's a 5.) Megan goes no where without two EpiPens at arms reach and a bottle of antihistamine close by. We are pros at reading food labels and navigating eateries.
Overall, Megan is a bright, vivacious three year old. She understands her allergy better than many adults in her world. She knows that her reactions have gotten more severe and faster with each exposure - including a recent vomiting episode on the heels of eating a pretzel that came from a batch "processed in a facility that also processes peanuts." That cross contaminated pretzel confirmed a truth she already knew, it doesn't take much to trigger a reaction and while we've not yet had to confront it, the next one could be one to compromise her breathing. She understands, in a way so many grown-ups don't, that previous reactions and the severity level of one's blood test do NOT indicate the way a body will react to future exposure. That's part of what makes food allergies so scary - you can't anticipate. You always need to be prepared for the worse case scenario.
Megan won't eat anything handed to her without asking "does this have nuts?" as she points to the label on the package. And this is the part that makes me nervous. Our family, my parents, her preschool teachers, her dance teacher, even her 5 year old brother, are aware that the dreaded "may contain" or "processed in a plant that also process..." labels are as off limits for a food allergic person as the label that reads "This product contains: [allergen list]." This isn't something, however, that is top of mind for everyone else.
A recent study indicates that up to 1 in 10 products with a "may contain" or processed in" label contains enough peanut protein to trigger a reaction in an allergic person. Or, in real life terms, when the mom in our dance class, remembering the two nut allergic girls in class, put the small Snickers bars back on the shelf in exchange for the Milky Ways she still had selected goody bag candy that neither allergic girl could safely eat.
As parents you have, or you will, bring in cupcakes, cookies, and any other array of snack items to class functions at some point. If you're in Meg's class, please don't take it personally when she's sitting with her own homemade cupcake instead of the pretty bakery cupcakes you sent in. It's not a snub. It's a cross contamination concern. When we're standing off in a corner with her trying to calm her down for feeling 'left-out' please understand, for a three-year old it's hard to have a graham cracker when the rest of class is having Munchkins.
This blog post is the sort that rankles some parents. Listen, I also have a picky eater who would exist on nothing but potato chip laden peanut butter sandwiches if we let him. Although my picky eater HAS given up his staple food at home for his sister's sake, I'm not asking yours to give up his/hers. This isn't a campaign to ban peanuts from schools. Frankly that'd be awfully near-sighted of me. Food allergies are much more extensive than one little legume - there are children with deadly allergies to eggs, wheat, milk, soy, shellfish, corn, and many other less publicized foods in addition to the kids like my Megan with her peanut and tree nut allergies.
I'm not campaigning for an end to Reese's. I *AM* trying to share a personal glimpse at a growing trend. And ok, I am asking that you take the extra moment to look carefully at labels when you're providing a snack for a group of children. Sometimes the "not safe" product is seemingly innocent. It's the plain M&Ms. It's an overwhelming list of jelly bean brands. It's the bakery cookie or cupcake. It's a particular brand of pretzels. I am asking that you do your research because even if it's not YOUR kid, it's your friend's kid or your kid's friend. I'm asking that you ask questions - ask the teacher "I want to send in something for Logan's birthday next week. Are there any allergy concerns in the class?"
I am also asking that eating products with the top 8 allergens (milk, eggs, soy, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shell fish, wheat) begins to equate to "washing hands and face." Think of it this way, you're at the park eating your PB&J. You run off and leap back into the action - touching various surfaces as you go along. There is likely trace amounts of peanut butter left on your hands if you've not washed thoroughly - and THAT little bit CAN trigger a reaction in some allergic individuals. A ring of milk proteins left around your lips can transfer to an allergic person with a kiss. It may not send them into anaphylatic shock, but any reaction, for an allergic person that knows anaphylaxis is a possibility, is a terrifying reaction.
Maybe you've not made the personal connection yet to food allergies. If not, allow me to introduce myself again. My name is Sandy. This is my daughter Megan. A peanut can kill her. A walnut or almond can send her to the ER.
This week is Food Allergy Awareness Week. If you made it this far through this long post, I thank you. Now pass a link to this along to help spread the awareness to one more person.