When death could be only a mouthful of food away . . .
Parents of children with a food allergy have to find a balance between over-anxiety and complacency
James has numerous allergies, ranging from dust and pollen to eggs, peanuts, hazelnuts and kiwi fruit. He was diagnosed after being referred at 10 months old by their GP to a specialist because of asthma. They were advised that he should avoid these substances but Emma says the seriousness of the situation did not really dawn on them initially.
So far his worst reactions have been with her at home in Monkstown, Co Dublin. Once she gave him a bread roll without checking the label, which stated it contained egg. Another episode was sparked when she gave him a piece of toast after handling an egg – even though she had washed her hands first.
He has also reacted to chickpeas and lentils. Emma realises now that they are the same legume family as peanuts but “nobody tells you these [things]”. She spends her days reading labels. “You get almond oil in soaps, so it’s never ending – it doesn’t just stop at food.”
Like most parents of children with food allergies, Emma tries to strike a balance between over-anxiety and complacency.
“You want them to lead a normal life and still be responsible – and that’s very hard.” However, James, an only child, is very logical and not anxious.
Inevitably it falls to the mother to do most of the worrying.
“My heart is in my mouth every time we eat out,” Emma admits.” I wasn’t always like that, I’ve just seen the reactions getting worse and it scares the life out of me. I worry about him on play dates, even though the mums are great and we agree ahead of time what he can eat.”
While other parents are very supportive, she doesn’t believe you can really understand the implications unless you have a child in a similar situation.
“To look at James,” she adds, “you’d think he is fine. But within minutes it can go horribly wrong and he could end up fighting for his life.”
The first time Deirdre Doyle’s daughter, Sarah Clark, had an allergic reaction they were in the cafe at Collins Barracks in Dublin on a summer’s afternoon in 2008. Aged nearly two, she tasted a bit of the gluten-free cake being eaten by her mother, a coeliac.
“As I was looking at her, her face started to go blotchy,” recalls Doyle. “I have never really understood the expression ‘bee-stung’ lips, but I did then. And she started scratching her tongue.”
She rang her health insurer’s helpline to ask whether she should bring her to the GP or to the children’s hospital in Crumlin but was told to ring for an ambulance immediately as it could get worse.
The ambulance was there in minutes and once inside the little girl vomited all over her mother, probably clearing it out of her system.
“That was a bit of a traumatic introduction to a food allergy, bearing in mind that I have been aware of food and ingredients my whole life, being a coeliac.”
Tests suggested that Sarah, who had some eczema as a baby, was allergic to milk and eggs as well but growing out of that and there was no need to exclude them.
However, they were told to avoid all nuts – and anything that contained nuts. But they knew she had eaten foods containing almonds and cashew nuts and when they got her retested by another specialist a few years later, he was able to say it was just peanuts she was allergic to and she could have a less restricted diet.
Sarah, now aged seven, keeps adrenaline pens at school as well as at home but Doyle admits they had become a bit lax in bringing pens with them at all times and that Emma Sloan’s death (see main article) has been a real “wake-up call”.