Just before Christmas, a 13 year old Chicago girl with peanut allergies headed off to school for the final day of classes, and a class party. The teacher had made several calls to the Chinese restaurant of choice, and verified that the meal would be safe for the peanut allergic children in the classroom.
There was a mistake.
She never came home.
Katelyn Carlson was taken to the hospital that afternoon, where she died from anaphylaxis.
This story happens to strike a chord with me. Maybe it's because Penguin's in seventh grade, too. Maybe it's because I've spent the last third of my life learning everything I could about food allergies and intolerances. Maybe it's just because when Bumblebee was little, and still potentially anaphylactic to peanuts, everyone rolled their eyes and told me how overprotective I was. Or maybe it's that Penguin's been feeling more left out than usual on the social scene.
I'm ridiculously grateful that my kids didn't show positive to the IgE portion of the allergy tests. Which means that while reactions might make us all uncomfortable, scratchy, nauseated and stuck near a restroom for a few days (or in my case, a week or more), it means that in worst case scenario, if I get a call saying they're having a reaction, the odds are incredibly high that I will pick them up, hug them, talk to them and tuck them into their own beds to wait for it to wear off.
I know that I'm lucky, and yet this story still haunts me.
I wonder why it is that food is so predominant in our society. Why is it that we think of class parties, and we think of food? Celebrations aren't about music or dancing or chatting it up. They're about taste, and flavor, and treats. In little kids, the focus is sugar...brightly colored sugar, presented in new and intriguing ways. Crushed candy canes, melted hard candies, chewy candy rolled out like a fondant and molded into roses, or leaves, or whatever decoration is desired for cupcakes and cookies. In older kids, savory foods aer desirable...adults look for restaurants to order from in bulk, for chips and dip and games become very food focused.
So far this year, our middle school has hosted lunch time games such as a gum search (where a small piece of bubble gum is hidden in a pile of whipped cream and the participants hands are tied. They race to eat their way tot he gum, and be the first to blow a bubble), cramming marshmallows into their mouths, and of course...multiple pizza parties.
Licorice is given out as an incentive. Brownies are baked as a reward. Science labs have included oreo taste tests, and chip comparisons.
Calls to the school have resulted in assurances that at this age...food really isn't present in the classroom. And no...I don't need to bring in something comparable for my child.
Either the admin is totally clueless, or they really just don't "get" it. The kids have trouble separating what is important parts of the curriculum and what's just important to them.
I think, in many ways, that's the point of food related projects. They involve extra senses, and get kids excited about school. They create a positive atmosphere...for the kids who can participate, anyways.
Somehow I don't think the classmates of Katelyn Carlson will ever look at class parties the same.
I find myself asking what can I do? What can I do to make sure this doesn't happen in our school?
I like food as much as the next guy. I love fun food. And I'm not naive enough to think that there is a perfect solution. In my mind, the real issue is education.
While I was looking for more information about the Chicago teen, I found an article about a young boy in Australia who died from an allergic reaction while on a class trip. He began having an anaphylactic reaction to Beef Satay on an army cadet camp. The army cadet officer, who was trained in first aid, stated that he had only been taught that food allergies could cause mild symptoms like a rash or coughing. He had no idea that they could be fatal.
Unfortunately, this perception is common here in the US as well. And although the FAAN has increased awareness of anaphylaxis, the general public remain unconcerned. If they are aware of the seriousness of allergies, they are convinced that only eating peanut butter with chunks of nuts in it could possibly cause a really serious reaction. They don't believe that any of the other top 8 allergens are potentially serious or life threatening. And they really doubt that anything NOT on the top 8 list could even cause a health problem.
They want a magic cure.
We all want to live in a safe bubble. Where there is no such thing as dangerous food. Where we can share any treat we make in our kitchen with anyone and the only thing we need to be concerned about are tastebuds.
But that's not going to happen. Food allergies, intolerances and anaphylaxis are on the rise. The only way to protect ourselves is to arm ourselves with knowledge. As much as I hate my nemesis, corn, I'm not all for banning it across the board. I'm simply for full disclosure on a product label, including prescription medication, so that I can make an informed decision.
As much as I want Penguin to fit in and eat what everyone else is eating...I'm not advocating that we deny the rest of the middle school their pizza parties. But it'd be nice if they serve a fruit plate and shake things up with a top 8 friendly taco bar every now and then.
I also want more epi pen awareness. From what I understand, giving an epi pen requires a follow up at the hospital. But the earlier an epi pen is administered, the less severe the reaction has a chance to become. And if an epi pen is given in error, the risks are small. In fact, if a person is having an apparent allergic reaction, the risks of giving the epi pen are far outweighed by the potential benefits. Which means, it's even a good idea to have epipens on hand in first aid kits when medical help might not be readily available and they should certainly be stocked in medical rescue units.
I'm concerned by discussions on parenting boards that indicate that medical rescue units don't always know what to do in the case of an allergic reaction. They want to wait and evaluate and treat in a hospital setting. But getting epinephrine into the bloodstream is essential in halting, or at least slowing, a life threatening reaction.
I don't suppose there's much I can do about making epinephrine more readily available to those who might need it. But I can be aware myself. And I can educate others in the potential severity of food allergies.
Some people stop breathing after 25 years of eating daily pb and j without incident. They inexplicably develop an allergy to the protein.
Others never develop more than a few hives, but hive out pretty consistently.
And still others have varying reactions...sometimes vomiting, sometimes swelling, sometimes hives. The fact is that you can't rely on having the same reaction, or the same severity, every time you're exposed. And you can't be relied on to think clearly or rationally in the midst of a reaction. You need to rely on the people around you to make good decisions, like finding and using an epi pen, or dialing 911 and contacting family members for more info. Or simply encouraging you to relax, or get help as appropriate.
So I guess my contribution is to be more aware. To continue to speak up for allergy awareness. And to remind others to do the same.