I’ve been sitting on this blog post for a few weeks. But what happened on November 2 was just too scary, too personal, too heart-wrenching for me to write about until now. But I’m finally ready. It’s time. This is something I NEED to write. If not for anyone else, then for myself. So with that said, here it is. The longest blog post I’ve ever written and my heart on a page…
It was a balmy fall evening. My parents were here from Michigan, and we were at Ruby Tuesday’s enjoying a birthday dinner. Andrew, our 3-year-old, is severely peanut allergic, so there are very few restaurants we can frequent. Ruby Tuesday’s is one that we’ve been to on several occasions. I feel so lame admitting this now, but I didn’t even think to ask for allergy information. I was lulled into a false sense of security because we first ate at this restaurant chain long before we knew the extent of Andrew’s food allergies. Those were the ignorant, good ‘ole days when we didn’t have to badger wait staff for comprehensive allergy information, the days when we could just assume that basic food like a burger and plain fries would be safe for him. It’s only in the last year or so that we’ve become hyper-vigilent, realizing that in Andrew’s case, even the SMELL of peanuts can trigger a mild reaction.
I’ve always ordered the same thing for him at Ruby Tuesday’s – a plain burger without a bun, fruit, and french fries. I also let him drink an apple juice on this particular outing. I watched him a little nervously during the meal, knowing that commercially produced fries and fruit juice can sometimes aggravate his chronic eczema. Little did I know that within a matter of hours, the mild irritation of eczema would be the least of my concerns. We would later find out that Ruby’s fries are processed alongside peanut products, and the restaurant does not recommend them for nut allergic customers. They say “Ignorance is bliss,” but when it comes to food allergies, ignorance can also be deadly. And that was what I was that night – ignorant
It ended up being a super late night for us. After shopping for a bike for the birthday boy, the kids ate some coconut ice cream and went to bed around 11 p.m. It was a little past one when I heard Andrew fussing and went in to see him itching – around his ankles, his wrists, his elbows, his knees. I assumed it would simply be a Benadryll kind of night, but that’s not altogether unusual, especially when he eats processed foods of any kind. When I told my husband that I was getting ready to give Andrew meds, he said, “But I already gave him Benadryll when I put him to bed at 11!”
Desperate times call for desperate measures, right? This child was obviously in significant discomfort, so I proceeded to Plan B. After finding out that he’d only been dosed with 3/4 of a teaspoon of Benadryll, I made the decision to give him 3/4 teaspoon more. One and a half teaspoons was the dose ordered by the urgent care clinic in the past when Andrew had a reaction to nuts, so I figured it was fairly safe to repeat that protocol.
I gave him the medication, laid him back down to sleep, and ten minutes later I heard him crying AGAIN! At this point, I started thinking to myself, “Oh no! You are such a moron! Why did you let him eat french fries and apple juice all on the same night? Ugh, this is gonna be a long night for my baby. Poor little thing.” I was still not alarmed, just concerned for his comfort and mad at myself for not taking his eczema issues more seriously.
I brought him into our bed and lathered him up with eczema cream and when that didn’t seem to help, steroid cream (something I rarely IF EVER use!). I was doing anything I could think of to get that itching under control, but at that point, I still didn’t suspect nuts. When Andrew continued to act restless and fussy, I scooped him up to take him downstairs, hoping my husband would be able to get some much needed rest. On the way down the stairs he gave a little cough and then uttered the words every parent of a food allergic child dreads hearing…
As clear as a bell, as obvious as an elephant standing on my chest, I never for one minute doubted what he’d said. I didn’t ask him to repeat himself. I didn’t wonder if I’d heard him correctly. I didn’t hesitate. I screamed up the stairs to my husband, “Dan, get down here! We need to Epipen Andrew. RIGHT. NOW!!!”
I’ve heard doctors and parents say, “It’s not a question of IF you’ll need the Epipen. It’s a question of WHEN.” I’ll admit, I’ve always been afraid of the Epipen. Terrified, actually. I hate needles and medical procedures of any kind. I hate the idea of having to make a snap medical judgement requiring a traumatic injection and a ride in an ambulance to the emergency room. And I especially hate the thought of intentionally inflicting any kind of pain on my child. I’ve always worried that I wouldn’t know when I needed to use the Epipen, and that I wouldn’t have to courage to do it.
But there were angels all around us that night. In that moment of terror, I knew EXACTLY what I needed to do and I did it without a second thought. We laid Andrew down on the couch with my husband holding his arms securely at his sides. I whipped the safety cap off the Epipen and threw it who knows where, and BOOM! I stuck that thing hard and fast right in my baby’s thigh, feeling at the same time like the worst mom AND the best mom in the whole wide world. To my surprise, Andrew didn’t freak out. He just cried out momentarily. After holding the Epipen tight to his thigh for 10 seconds, it was all over with.
We called 911 and within 10 minutes, the medics were at our doorstep. By then, Andrew was calmly sitting up watching Curious George on cable television. I felt a little embarrassed but grateful that my allergist was spot on concerning the effectiveness of the Epipen. Without question, it had halted the allergic reaction completely. But I was still extremely relieved to see those EMT’s! Knowing that the reaction COULD make a reappearance after the epinephrine wore off, we made the choice to transport Andrew via ambulance to the emergency room of the nearest children’s hospital.
Surprisingly, the ambulance ride and short hospital stay were more traumatic for Andrew than the Epipen. There were no needles or painful procedures involved. All the EMT’s and nurses did was monitor his blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen saturation levels. But he screamed and carried on like they were torturing him! I don’t know if it was the late hour, the strange surroundings, or the adrenaline coursing through his system, but I was so relieved when we discovered Nickolodean Jr. on the television in our examination room. I’m not in the habit of thanking Jesus for cable television, Franklin the Turtle, or the Wonder Pets, but I certainly did that night! To see the fear and angst finally melt away from my child was such gift!
After a few hours of observation, we were free to go. It was over. Well, sort of over. Ok, not really over. No, “It” wasn’t over at all. I don’t think “It” will ever truly be over. The fear, the gut-wrenching anxiety, the “what-if’s,” the “why didn’t I’s” and the “what-about-next-time’s” linger on not just for days but months and years. I won’t even go into the week we spent on tenter hooks following the incident – keeping Benadryll in his system around the clock to ward off secondary reactions, waking up to him itching in the middle of the night and feeling desperately panicked, letting him watch cartoons at 1 a.m. to boost his cortisol levels and control the itching when it wasn’t time for another dose of meds. Yeah, it was a long, long week. There are times when I just want to punch food allergies right in the face, and that week was one of those times.
So, what did I take away from all of this? I can’t say that I’m glad in any sort of way for having experienced what we experienced. I’m not glad. I’m sad and mad as heck! Mad at who or what, I’m not sure, but it just doesn’t seem fair that any little kid should have to worry about eating a burger and fries. And it doesn’t seem fair that any parent should have to worry about feeding their kid a burger and fries. But we do worry because we must and that’s that. Regardless of how heart-wrenching a situation like this might have been for us, there is always something to be learned. This is what I learned:
1) I learned to never, ever take anything for granted at a restaurant or with packaged food…I just found out tonight that the “may contain peanuts” or “processed on the same equipment as nuts” labels are optional. Manufacturers are not required to list nuts on the label unless they are specifically included as an ingredient. From now on, I will have to research every processed food and every restaurant items before it ever touches my baby’s lips.
2) I learned that I can trust myself as a mother and know that when push comes to shove, I can and will do whatever it takes to save my child’s life, even if it means jabbing an auto-injected needle into his little body!…For me, that’s one of the most empowering feelings in the whole world, realizing that I’m tougher than I thought I was and that the Epipen isn’t as scary as I feared it to be.
3) Most importantly, I learned that even in the midst of my fear and anger and anxiety and this ugliness called “Food Allergies,” God is still ultimately in control….He is the One protecting my child. Who would have guessed that a three year old child who had never experienced breathing difficulty would somehow find the words to express EXACTLY what he was feeling in that moment of trauma? He didn’t say, “My throat feels funny” or “My tummy is tight” or even “My chest hurts.” He said, “I can’t breathe.” In my mind, the only explanation for that is God.
Pure and simple. God.
At the end of the day, the Lord is still my hope and my salvation. Of whom or what shall I be afraid? When the fear comes hard and strong and messy and boy, does it ever come, I cling to Him. I don’t have a lot of answers, but I do have Him. That may sound glib or flippant, like some religious cliche but for me, it is the battle cry of a long, hard-fought battle with the terror that is food allergies – a battle I’ll likely be fighting for the rest of my life. At the end of the day, regardless of life’s circumstances, God is good. And He will ALWAYS be good, no matter what.