Last month we hosted a dinner for a group of high school students … most of whom I’d never met before they appeared, ravenous, in our driveway. It was perfect weather that day not to allow 25 teenage boys inside the house. Soon the grill in the backyard sizzled juicy Angus hamburgers, salty franks and a few well-seasoned black-bean burger patties. A folding table was loaded with buns and condiments, plates of crisp veggies, creamy red potato salad, a huge plate covered with tiny squares of dense fudge … chocolate and peanut butter.
The kids swarmed the table, in minutes converting my lovely presentation into a scene of culinary carnage. The fudge disappeared first, of course, because these are teenage boys. My husband and I stood at the grill, shoveling calories in their general direction when one of the boys … I didn’t even know his name at the time … asked me what kind of fudge that had been on the plate. I told him.
“Oh,” was his concerned response. “I’m allergic to peanuts.”
There is likely a subset of you who had warning lights flick on in your head just listening to the description of the food I served. I didn’t know I’d done anything wrong at the time … done something dangerous. But I had.
He assured me, not looking certain himself, that he wasn’t “that” allergic. But I watched in shock over the next 10 minutes his tongue and throat began to swell and decided to get help. As we careened to the emergency room, I watched as his face faded to ash gray, and his breathing became so shallow as to almost stop. I couldn’t even see his chest rising anymore, as he lay slumped against the car window in the backseat, my husband speeding and swearing behind the driver’s wheel, and me turned halfway toward the back, telling him that it was going to be okay … even though I really wasn’t sure that is was.
I felt completely helpless as doctors injected syringe after syringe of epinephrine into his thighs, noting that his epiglottis was so swollen it entirely covered the back of his throat. I stood in the hallway, just outside the room where he lay, redialing the number he had given me for his dad, just to get voice mail over and over, attempting to leave calm messages with a shaking voice as I watched him … not moving except when someone moved his body for him. There was a conversation, in the mad flurry of needles and tubes, of performing a tracheotomy. The group hustling around the room paused, and hovered, and watched, waiting for the medicine to take effect.
Then ever so slowly … or maybe quickly … it’s really hard to tell during an emergency ... the epinephrine started to work. The offensive battle this kid’s immune system had blitzed against his body was suddenly over. The red blinking lights showing his blood oxygen level starting to creep up, and color returned to his face.
He was okay. I wasn’t. It took me a week to stop seeing that scene in the emergency room every time I closed my eyes. It took longer than that to shake a vague feeling of panic. All over a stupid plate of peanut butter fudge.
I love food. I’d never before had food turn on me like that, to be such a direct source of harm and damage. And to make it worse, I’d made light of food allergies in the past. I thought they were kind of funny, of all horrible things. I thought the people who were vocal about their allergies, and complained and nitpicked were being high maintenance and maybe a little bit controlling. I didn’t understand the real consequences until I saw them in all their actual terror.
My attitude toward food allergies changed. I’m committed to taking them seriously. There are likely people out there who unnecessarily dramatize their food sensitivities … who aren’t really that allergic. Now I know that it doesn’t matter. I’ll act like every food allergy is a matter of life and death, until I know otherwise.
And when I serve guests, I will label everything, especially foods that most often trigger allergic reactions including fish, shellfish, peanuts, and tree nuts. Problem foods for children can also include eggs, milk, soy, and wheat. An allergic reaction may be mild, but you never know – and even they never know – when it can trigger a severe reaction called anaphylaxis – that can be deadly.
The best way to handle an emergency is to use an epi-pen, and even after using one, not to delay getting emergency help … calling 911 or bringing the person immediately to an emergency room. In our case, every minute mattered.
Luckily for our friend, there are many backyard dinners still to attend, many burgers still to scarf down. And with your help, people with food allergies can feel safer at every table.