October 29, 2012

Close calls and lessons learned

So grateful to see my boys happy and full of life!

"I don't have 'an impending sense of doom'..."

The sentiment of these words are supposed to relieve but I can assure you, this was not a statement I ever wanted to hear from my 7-year-old.

On Friday afternoon I packed the kids, our costumes, and some safe treats and began our long drive to my husband's workplace which was hosting a family-friendly Halloween party.  About ten minutes into our 50-minute commute, I realized that I had forgotten my sons' two EpiPen Jr. Auto-injectors at home.  This created an annoying but necessary 20-minute detour back home.  EpiPens -- absolutely can't leave home without them especially if the destination includes the possibility of eating anything.

Prior to the party I had exchanged email with my husband's office manager who organizes all the parties.  K is aware of my kids' milk and nut allergies as she suffers from celiac disease and an allergy to soy, so at company parties, there is always a safe dessert for my kids.  I always double check anyway especially since peanuts and tree nuts are allergens not shared by K and my kids.  K confirmed that there would be whoopie pies that would be dairy-free, gluten-free, soy-free, and nut-free except for coconut.  Awesome.

When we arrived at the party, food was still being set up by the company's caterers.  K, always the hostess with the mostess and so protective of our kids, showed me the allergy-friendly buffet section.  The area had been designated although there weren't any signs to give guests a heads up.  There were trays of designated safe desserts that my kids immediately helped themselves to.  And K showed us boxed meals of spaghetti and meatballs that were supposedly made with Daiya Vegan Shreds.  K looked over the boxed lunches and realized that some had regular sugar cookies in them -- she quickly let me know that the cookies might not be safe so avoid those.

My husband picked up a couple of boxed lunches (all of the other party food had dairy except for the guacamole and chips) and headed back to his office with the kids so that they could eat there.  As I was scoping out the rest of the buffet offerings, the catering manager came out to check on the set-up.  He paused at the allergy-friendly table and said to no one in particular, "The staff shouldn't have put these boxes here.  This pasta has gluten."  I froze up.  Then asked, "I was told these boxes are all dairy-free.  Is that right?"  "No, no.  The pasta is dairy-free but these meatballs have cheese on top. See?"

I flew out of the room, literally yelling out for my husband, "JARVIS!  JARVIS!  THE FOOD HAS DAIRY!  DON'T FEED THE KIDS!  THE FOOD HAS DAIRY!"  Looking back at it now, I can laugh at my dramatic Star Wars-like proclamation but at that moment it was serious, heart-pounding panic.  I was glad to have our homemade safe foods although the kids were so enamored with the sweets and cool cherry fizzy water and captivated by music, costumes, and festivities that they didn't really want to sit in a private office and eat dinner.  Fair enough.

An hour into the party after munching on a whole lot of guacamole and chips I finally had a chance to let my guard down.  We took a break from the heart-thumping music and foosball and retreated back into my husband's office.  I popped in one of the bite-sized allergy-friendly cupcakes we had picked up.  Yum!  Then I bit into a whoopie pie.  I could definitely taste the coconut but then a familiar texture and taste made me slow down my chewing.  Then I completely stopped in disbelief.


At that moment, I went into adrenalin-pumping, disaster-ready mode.  "THERE ARE WALNUTS IN HERE.  DID YOU GUYS EAT THIS?!?" I blurted out.  Ryken looked horrified - probably mirroring my own expression - and cried, "Mommy, I ate one!!"  Ryken and Callan had both eaten the whoopie pies -- Ryken may have eaten two.

I quickly got the EpiPen Jr. packs ready, a move that immediately brought on cries of protest and flinching from Ryken.  We quickly assessed when it was that Ryken and Callan ate them (one hour before and, for Ryken, just minutes before) and whether they felt funny.  Callan did not feel anything.  However, Ryken admitted, "My tongue felt itchy.  I told Daddy that my tongue felt itchy."  "Does your mouth or throat feel itchy, funny, or thick?  How's your stomach feeling?"  Apparently this particular reaction never advanced past his tongue and lasted for a little while after consumption.

As time passed and there were no new symptoms, I calmed down a little.  I asked Ryken, "Did you think that the itchy tongue might be an allergic reaction?"  He admitted to us, "It felt like that time when my mouth was itchy after Trader Joe's."  That had been his first and only experience with walnuts, when he had eaten a small sample containing walnuts.

My immediate questions:
(to Ryken)  Why didn't you tell Daddy it felt like when you had eaten walnuts before??
(to my husband)  Why didn't you stop what you were doing and make sure everything was okay??
(to myself)  Should I have talked directly with the catering manager??  Should I have completely avoided the food altogether??

As we waited longer and the kids seemed to be out of danger, we talked as a family about how lucky we were to have avoided anaphylaxis.  And then we talked about what we could all do better next time.  We reviewed the common symptoms of reaction and came up with important steps in the future:

For my kids:  Speak up immediately, loudly, if they feel something is not right.  Be very detailed about how they are feeling.  If you feel the way you have felt during another reaction or if you are feeling something in your throat, mouth, or stomach, this can be a serious allergic reaction.  Getting a shot can be scary but never let that stop you from telling a grown-up right away.  The EpiPen may seem scary but it will save lives -- but only if it is administered in time.

For my husband or any other caregiver:  If someone complains of feeling funny especially in their throat, mouth, or stomach, stop what you are doing.  Make sure you have the EpiPen ready.  Reactions can progress swiftly and they will not be the same every time.  Remember: side effects from an unnecessary epinephrine injector are minimal (increasing heart rate followed by extreme tiredness).  Potentially saving your loved one's life is priceless.

For me:  It is a huge risk to feed my kids' party food even when I have tried to track down all information on ingredients and their safety from potential allergens.  If I haven't been able to communicate directly with the chef, how can I trust the food?  Catered situations run an even bigger chance of cross contamination from the same hands handling multiple buffet items, mix-ups in the placement of allergy-friendly foods (like the gluten-full, cheesy spaghetti and meatballs lunches in the GFCF table), and lack of communication between party guests and head chef who may not be there at the event.

As the walnut exposure drama unfolded, I couldn't help but think of Brian Hom, who lost his 18year-old son BJ in an allergy-related tragedy.  Meeting Brian Hom and hearing him retelling his final minutes with his son, BJ, are forever stuck in my mind.  Ten minutes transpired between the moment that BJ complained that his throat was hurting and when he passed away from anaphylaxis to trace amounts of peanuts in a buffet dessert.  Ten minutes.

I am really grateful that we avoided disaster.  Aside from sharing my close call with others, all I can do is critique our actions and better prepare ourselves for the next allergic reaction.  This is a good reminder for all of us to stay vigilant and keep reviewing prevention and symptoms of reaction with your family, especially in this high season of food-centered holidays.  And always carry your EpiPens.



  1. Glad that they were okay, Irene. Thanks for all the great points that you make. They are very good reminders for us. Dramatic or not, your reactions would have been mine exactly if I was in the same situation.

  2. Thanks, Michelle. Good luck with the onslaught of peanut candies and holiday goodies. Very nervous-making!