A food allergy mom recalls the terrifying moment when she discovered her small son had a food allergy. All she had wanted to do was share the homemade pea soup she'd loved as a child, never thinking her son could be allergic to peas. Learn how she handled the surprise and her parenting takeaways.
When my son was young, my husband and I both worked in New York City, 1.5 hours from home. We were fortunate to entrust our son's care to our wonderful nanny who cared for him as if he were her own. It was 1998.
As soon as I got home from my long commute and even longer work day, our nanny would fill me on my son's day, sometimes reporting he’d rub his eyes after a meal. “No big deal, he was tired,” that little voice in my brain would tell me. He had red ‘acne’ flare-ups all around his mouth and his left ear would get bright red after he ate certain foods. Our son also had eczema on his legs and arms and our pediatrician advised switching up the soap we used at bath time.
Looking back, I feel like we explained away every symptom, “Maybe we didn’t clean around his mouth properly after he ate; an ear infection is brewing; he’s sensitive to the soap we’re using.” He was my first child. What did I know? I was parenting by the seat of my pants, voraciously consuming every parenting book I could find, a habit that began when I was pregnant and read “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”.
It was a Saturday and I made some homemade soup to introduce a new food — peas. Split pea soup was one of my favorites when I was growing up and I hoped my son would love it as much as I did. My son was 12-months old at the time. He was in his high chair. I gave him two spoonfuls and he began to rub his eyes. I was sort of paying attention, but I was not really paying attention. Another spoonful. Hives appeared around his ear—not just red, but HIVES. That got my full attention. Then the labored breathing, really labored, started.
I called my husband who’d been an EMT in a prior life. He took one look at our son and catapulted into action, pulling him out of the high chair. “We have to go to the hospital,” he said, radiating stress and tension. I began to do that mom-thing, gathering the snacks, the bottle, the diaper bag. The baby’s breathing sounded even more labored. “Tracie, you don’t have time to put your shoes on! Get in the car!” he barked; voice choked with panic. “Get in the back of the car with him and talk to me about what’s going on.”
The local hospital was 4-minutes away. The whole time my husband drove I gave him the play-by-play on our son. By this time his breathing sounded like he was 80-years-old with emphysema. His eyes were huge. I could tell my little guy was scared, though I tried to put a calm face on and soothe him with my voice.
The minute we ran into the ER we were rushed behind the double doors. The ER team gave him epinephrine. His breathing eased within seconds. His body relaxed. It was 7 PM. Shortly after he was hungry (“Of course he’d be hungry! He was always hungry! And no snacks to be had!”)
He was cleared and released at 2 AM.
The ER doc reassured us that we’d done the right thing, driving him to the ER ourselves. (Where we lived, EMT’s had to be certified and trained to administer epinephrine and epinephrine wasn’t carried on every ambulance, though legislation has since changed then.) The ER doc insisted we see an allergist for testing asap and gave us a referral. He told us to ask for an emergency visit and, in the meantime, to just feed our son things he’d successfully eaten before.
We took our son home. He slept all the next day.
If my husband hadn’t been an EMT, our story might have had a tragic ending. I had been on a completely different page. “Hives? Should we run out and get some Benadryl?” My husband’s urgency — seeing and knowing what was going on with our son — saved our son’s life.
We were able to schedule an emergency appointment for allergy testing on Monday and tried to keep our son calm as the allergist pricked his tiny back with 16 tiny needles arrayed in two columns with 8 rows. That image is indelibly imprinted in my brain. We sat there for an hour, his dad holding one hand and me holding the other, watching in disbelief as weals grew where he was pricked — some the size of dimes, some the size of nickels, some the size of quarters. He was so itchy he wasn’t interested in the toys I’d brought to distract him. The hour seemed to last hours.
The diagnosis, later supported by the blood test results, was multiple food allergies. Not just to peas, but to peas and peanuts, soy, the rest of the legumes, and tree nuts. We felt like we’d been hit by a truck. Nothing from our pediatrician’s office or mainstream media had prepared us for this. We thought peas were our worry.
When I brought the diagnosis to my pediatrician — a top notch pediatrician — I found I was educating her on food allergies. Thankfully our pediatrician was open to the information and the knowledge, instead of dismissing it. I was grateful because food allergies were a quickly evolving field for pediatricians in 1998.
If you have to have food allergies, I’d trade a 2021-diagnosis, with all the knowledge and data that go with it, to a 1998-diagnosis any day. Here are some thoughts I’d like to pass along to you:
1. If you observe unusual symptoms after feeding your baby, pay attention.
Anything that seems left of ‘normal’, note it. Don’t shrug it off. Always question. Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. Don’t stop asking questions until you are satisfied with the answer.
2. You have powerful research tools at your fingertips. Use them.
3. Whenever in doubt about your child’s health, call your pediatrician.
Pediatricians today have a tremendous amount of data-backed knowledge about atopic disease, its onset, its progression, and management options that didn’t exist in 1998.
4. Don’t blame yourself. Quiet that little voice in your head.
After such a life-shattering series of events — surviving anaphylaxis, diagnosed with multiple food allergies, handed a new ‘normal’ that drastically impacted every aspect of our life — I became introspective and blamed myself. I made a list of everything I ate while I was pregnant —English muffins with peanut butter, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, my father-in-law’s special cannellini bean dish. “Clearly, I am the cause…it’s all my fault,” was reverberating in my head and heart until our pediatrician told me to "stop being ridiculous!" I listened.
About the Author: Tracie Rigione is a wife and mother of two with 35 years of professional marketing experience. When her oldest was born with multiple, severe food allergies, she quickly added the titles of food allergy advocate, educator, and problem solver, along with creative chef to her resume. An experienced food allergy mom for 24 years, Tracie taught her son from an early age how to manage his food allergies in school and social situations, and how to self-advocate to stay safe. Tracie is a real estate agent in Fairfield County, CT
Images: Thank you Burst and Tracie Rigione for use of the images