Last April, while on a short spring break vacation to Hershey, PA, I made a mistake. A mistake that I don’t usually make. One that could’ve sent my six year old son to the hospital, or worse to an early grave.
My son was diagnosed with life-threatening food allergies at the age of four. He must avoid all nuts and Stevia to be safe. He also has environmental allergies, and asthma which further complicates things.
Now given this information you may think that it wouldn’t be a good idea to take him to Hershey’s Chocolate World in Pennsylvania. But as I became informed about food allergies, I realized that I could not keep my son in a bubble. He must live his life and enjoy the wonderful things life has to offer.
We have been going to Hershey, PA since my son was a baby. It is like a second home to us. It is our place for fun and relaxation, and family time. When we learned that our son had life-threatening food allergies to all nuts, we panicked. We also thought that we would never be able to go back to our favorite vacation destination. A destination that is filled with chocolate and nuts.
We slowly learned that we can keep him safe there thanks to the chefs at the Hershey Lodge and Hershey Hotel, and the food management team at Hershey Park. Whenever we go away we have these six basic rules:
- Always bring the Epipen auto-injectors everywhere we go. We keep them at room temperature to ensure their efficacy. We bring back up Epipen two-packs in case anything goes wrong, or in case more are needed in an emergency.
- Always wash my son’s hands before he eats. If we can’t get to a sink quickly, we use baby wipes which are effective in removing allergens. Hand sanitizing gel does not remove allergens.
- Make sure he knows not to eat anything that we do not give him. We read ALL labels of food that we give him, and do extensive research before eating out/trying new foods. This includes all food samples.
- We try to wipe down his table before he eats, or put down napkins under his food.
- We tell him often to try to keep his hands out of his mouth, nose and eyes to avoid contact with allergens.
- We only stay at places which are in close proximity to a hospital, with a quick ambulance response time.
We have been living by these basic rules for years now, and so far we have kept him safe.
I am especially vigilant when it comes to his food allergies because I have a food allergy myself, and almost died from anaphylactic shock after eating shellfish at the age of 28. I know what it feels like when your throat begins to close, and you feel death approaching rapidly. I also know what it feels like when the epinephrine starts to work, and you are able to breathe again.
I never want my son to go through that, so I do the best I can to try to keep him safe.
I sometimes fail though because I am only human.
I failed as an advocate for my son last week at Hershey’s Chocolate World. When we go there we always avoid the chocolate making activities, and always tell our son to say no thank you to any offered treats or samples.
After the fun free ride that takes you through the chocolate making process, they always offer a free sample of chocolate. I always tell them no thank you on behalf of my son, and am teaching him to do the same. This time after I said “no thank you he has nut allergies,” the nice woman offered him a Twizzler instead. I know from experience that Twizzlers in a box or package from Hershey are safe, but that different sizes or samples are not. For some reason, maybe because I was all caught up in the vacation fun, I took one for him. I wanted him to have something and I momentarily forgot my rules.
As I stood there watching him take a bite, I realized what I had done, but it was too late. He took a bite of the Twizzler, then immediately spit it out because he didn’t like it. It was old or spoiled or something. Moments later he complained of his mouth feeling strange and his belly hurting- both of which are classics signs of a food allergy reaction.
I felt panic start to set in as my heart raced. I had tears in my eyes as I realized what I had done. I felt like the worst mom in the world, but I had to keep it together for my son.
I told my husband that we had to sit him down on a bench and watch him closely for awhile, Epipens in hand. We monitored his breathing, checked for any hives or tongue swelling. We made sure he was not acting strangely or panicking.
He said he could not get the bad taste out of his mouth so we gave him some apple juice. That seemed to help.
After fifteen minutes he seemed fine so we breathed a sigh of relief, though we weren’t totally out of the woods. A reaction could take hours to occur. And biphasic reactions could happen days later.
I kissed his cheek and gave him a big hug, then kept him close the rest of the day.
My baby was safe and all was right with the world.
I had to forgive myself though, and quickly get back in the game. The game of keeping my child safe, while educating him how to keep himself safe. The game that we are always playing, even while on vacation.
The game that never ends with food allergies.
The game we must win.