Back to School With a Life-Threatening Peanut Allergy

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My youngest daughter was born by emergency c-section on May 30, 2001.

She was small and fragile and had breathing difficulties from the start. She was also the most beautiful baby in the whole world -- all red-headed and chubby and happy all the time. By the time she was 14 months old, we had spent several weeks in and out of the hospital for intestinal troubles and several bouts of pneumonia. She was on a constant stream of medications. Inhalers and hospital-grade breathing equipment became part of the furniture in our home.


As we started to introduce solid foods, her asthma became worse, so we backed off, and she was almost completely breastfed (aside from fruits and veggies) at 18 months. One evening she found a honey-nut cheerio on the floor and popped it in her mouth. Within a few minutes, she was covered in angry hives, her lips and tongue were swelling and she was coughing and gasping to catch her breath. An ambulance arrived approximately 8 minutes after she ingested the cereal and administered epinephrine. Over the next few years, she had three more reactions from undetermined sources, and in each case the reaction was faster and more intense. She was diagnosed with life-threatening allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, and dairy. (She outgrew the dairy at four years old.)

I didn't put her in preschool, and she never left my or her father's side for the first five years of her life. When the time came to enter her in kindergarten, I agonized over making the choice between homeschooling her or sending her to school. She was socially lagging because of her allergies, and we came to the decision that school would be best for her. I researched public and private schools, and was more comfortable with putting her in a private school with very small class sizes and a core belief in parent participation. I met with the principal and the kindergarten teacher early in the summer to create an action plan to deal with the allergies. This school was amazing in their willingness to do anything to make my daughter safe.

We agreed to make the school peanut and tree nut free, to have direct supervision of my daughter during snack times, and to alter the school's cooking program to create a safe environment. I am aware that there is some controversy surrounding nut-free environments -- that they create a false sense of security -- but for me, it was the safest possible solution, as even peanut butter on another child's breath held the possibility of causing an allergic reaction.

I purchased "Nut Free Zone" stickers for every door of the school, and held a special training session with every staff member. I brought oranges and expired epi-pens and had them all practice. I explained in detail how to handle an emergency situation. The public health nurse joined me, and we also had a video for them to watch.

As the school year approached, I sent a letter to every parent in the school and followed up by phone to ensure they all understood the severity of my daughter's allergy -- that the school needed to be nut free from day one.

I was turning into "that" mom. But I didn't care. My daughter's safety and my apprehension about leaving her alone for the first time ever were my number one priority. About a year earlier, we had purchased a new home, and on our first morning sitting around the built-in kitchen table, my son reached under the table and brought his hand back up covered in peanut butter. Luckily, my daughter was safe that morning, but the shock of realizing that nowhere is ever 100 percent protected was etched into my brain. On the evening before school started, I went into my daughter's classroom and scrubbed down every surface. Every pencil, book, chair. Everything.

She spent three years at that school, and we never had a single incident. Every summer, I would go through the same ritual with the parents and the staff, and every eve of school starting, I would scrub down those classrooms. My daughter felt safe and secure. In the end, our paranoia actually eased her anxiety. She was able to play and learn and create without thinking about her allergies.

When she entered grade three, we made the transition to public school.
There were no longer nut-free classrooms, nor a small enough school population to be in contact with every parent, but we had grown older and more confident enough in our own ability to create safety that the transition was not as difficult as we anticipated.

My daughter got a cute little epi-pen holder that she wears to school, and she is completely comfortable with its use and the idea of using it on herself. We put her in classes with other children with allergies (a bonus of the bigger school), and they eat together in a separate room.

Her teachers are aware of her allergies, and have all the children wash their hands after eating. They don't allow baked goods with nuts at class parties (my daughter never eats anything anyone else makes without asking me first). She also sits at the same desk every day, and the janitors wipe down all the desks in her class daily.

As this summer winds down and she gets ready to enter grade four, we are going on three years since she's had any serious allergic reactions. We go through most of the year without having to use inhalers. Next spring, after she turns ten years old, we will have her tested to see if she is outgrowing any of the allergies -- something we used to dream about. But nowadays, the allergies have become so much a part of our lifestyle that I don't think the result of that test, either way, will change our lives very much.

Jess Howard writes at Hope Bomb.


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