When Food Turns Deadly
By BETSY BETHEL
Associate Life Editor
When Jami Robinson of Moundsville drops off her 7-year-old daughter, Audrey, at school, her fears go beyond hoping she will use her manners and obey the teacher. She worries Audrey will make it home alive.
“I have met mothers who watched their child go off to school one day and did not see them again,” said Robinson, co-leader of the Ohio Valley Kids With Food Allergies Network support group, which is celebrating its first anniversary this month. When a child has a food allergy like Audrey, despite all the precautions taken to keep them safe, an exposure may occur that could trigger an allergic reaction and possibly even anaphylactic shock, which can be deadly.
In the case of a 7-year-old student in Virginia in January, a severe reaction after eating an allergen at school sent her into cardiac arrest, which proved fatal. A teen boy in Georgia last fall died from anaphylactic shock after taking a bite of a cookie in his aunt’s car while she shopped at Wal-Mart.
According to a Mayo Clinic study in Minnesota, 150 to 200 people die every year in the United States from allergic reactions to food.
Robinson’s daughter was diagnosed at age 2 with a peanut allergy, which put her among more than 3 million people in the U.S. allergic to peanuts, tree nuts (such as almonds and walnuts), or both. Later, doctors discovered she also is allergic to tree nuts and sesame. They discovered the peanut allergy after she bit into a granola bar.
“Within minutes, her face swelled up so the bridge of her nose went straight across. Her ears were just flaps of skin sticking out. Her body was just one big hive. … It was just so surreal. If I had just walked in the room and looked at her I wouldn’t have recognized her,” Robinson said. She and husband Sam rushed Audrey to the emergency room where she was administered medicine and released. They followed up with an allergist the next day. Her allergies are considered severe.
Robinson is hyper-diligent about what Audrey consumes and comes into contact with. She chaperones field trips, brings “safe” food to birthday parties Audrey attends and is in constant contact with the Our Lady of Peace Catholic School in Mount Olivet, where Audrey is in first grade.
“You have to be at the top of your game all the time,” Robinson said.
In addition, Audrey has a mental checklist she goes through every day.
“There are so many things she has to remember. She brings her water bottle to school because she cannot drink out of the water fountains; she has to make sure her epi-pens are with her at all times; she watches her friends to be sure that they wash their hands in the morning and after lunch; she knows not to play with the kids at recess if they have just eaten a peanut butter sandwich; she cannot eat anything unless it comes from home; she has to be very aware of how her body feels because she could have a reaction anywhere, any time … and an anaphylactic reaction could take her life within minutes.”
Robinson started the support group one year ago as a way not only to find support for herself and help educate the schools and the public about the seriousness of food allergies, but also to bring Audrey into contact with other children who understand her condition and can relate.
She has bonded with one boy in particular, Angelo Pasqualla of Clearview, who also is 7. Angelo is allergic to dairy, eggs, peanuts and tree nuts. His mother, Meggan, is co-leader of the support group with Robinson.
“It’s a lot to have on a 7-year-old’s shoulders,” Robinson said of the allergies. “She has had to grow up way too fast.”
She related a story that when Audrey was 3 they were in the waiting room at Wheeling Hospital and she questioned her mother about the bishops whose portraits hung on the wall. When Robinson told her they had died and were in heaven, Audrey said they must have eaten peanuts.
Robinson and Pasqualla both have two subsequent children who have not been diagnosed with food allergies. Why their oldest children have them is a mystery, they said.
They both hope through the support group to raise awareness about food allergies and help people understand that their diligent behavior to keep their children safe is not “over the top” any more than a mother who insists her child be strapped into a car seat is “over the top.” They are seeking to improve communication between schools and parents to avoid unnecessary risks, and they are planning to hold their second Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network fundraising walk in September.
For more information, visit the FAAN website at www.foodallergy.org. The Ohio Valley Kids With Food Allergies support group meets once a month at Covenant Community Church and also has a Facebook page. For information, contact Robinson at jdrobin email@example.com.