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Orange is the New Red – Parenting Our Food Allergic Teen

stop specialneedsIt used to be that managing our daughter’s food allergies was all about the control.  Stop!  Read the label.  Alert!  The waitress did not write that down.  Monitoring the environment was a constant challenge and it was difficult to let other people be responsible for feeding her.  We lived in fear of a “possible allergic reaction.”

As she grew older and expressed an interest in cooking, we began organizing the kitchen – with red!  We designated a red cutting board, red measuring cups, a little red skillet, and so on, for her use.  The red was a signal – Stop!  Don’t cut cheese on there.  Alert!   Use a different pan for eggs.  Restrict! – for dairy-free, egg-free, peanut-free, and sesame-free use only.

The color organization system simplified the transition to her kitchen independence.  She learned to use the oven and stovetop.  She was soon making her own desserts, helping prepare dinner, and beginning to experiment with flavor combinations.  Over time, she took over my role of preparing alternative treats for school parties and other special events.  I relinquished control.  It was easy.  And I was proud.

Where it was not going as smoothly was everywhere else.  How do we insist that she Stop! and ask the fast food employee to change his gloves before making her sandwich?  (Awkward for anyone, but especially a tween.)  How do we not Alert! the manager when the waitress does not seem to be paying close enough attention to her dietary needs?  (OMG!)  How far do we Restrict! the food at a family function?  (She always carried Epi-pens and Benadryl in her Vera Bradley Crossbody, but we didn’t actually want her to have to use them!)  It seemed we were always on high alert – always, “seeing red.”

One evening our daughter, now a teenager, did not tell the waitress she had allergies and we did not kick her under the table to insist that she did.  It was just a plain hamburger (no bun – so no dried whey, sesame seed, or egg wash issues) and green salad.  The menu advertised “100% beef.”  Yes, my husband and I could have talked to the waitress ourselves, but  we did not.

Within a few bites, her throat was itchy.  We guessed it was a little cross-contamination in the salad.  She assured us she was fine.

By the time we got home, everything had changed.  She was sneezing repeatedly and agreed to take Benadryl.  On high alert, I paced and my stress mounted.  After an hour, her gut reactions began.  Our daughter’s face was swelling and, suddenly, she was vomiting.  An actual serious reaction!  We had never seen one.  That was when we learned we were all too afraid of the Epi-pen to actually use it!  My husband drove our daughter, who was quite panicked and hysterical, to the hospital (a five minute ride).  I called the restaurant and learned they mix raw egg into the hamburger mix.  Ugh!

In the end, she had what I imagine to be a pretty typical ER visit for someone in her situation.  They administered epinephrine, lectured my husband and daughter about using the Epi-pen, and kept her under observation for several hours.  She was released with a prescription for a few days’ worth of steroids.

As we talked about what happened in the days that followed, we were surprised at how much less stress we were feeling.  The high alert feelings were taking a back seat to a less stressful, “proceed with caution.”  It seemed that our teen, armed with new first-hand knowledge as to WHY she needed to speak up for herself, would be more confident doing so.  The world outside our controlled bubble was not to be restricted and feared, but to be entered with caution.   A yellow-colored caution was mixing into our high alert red.

The next time there was a reaction (because there is always a next time – we missed the sesame seeds in the Coconut-Cranberry Granola), we were in “proceed with caution” mode.  We mixed in the yellow with our red.  We were no longer approaching reactions on stressful high red alert.  We were now alert with caution.

The reaction was minor.  The Epi-pen went unused.  She still took the day off school and I cancelled my client to stay with her.  But we took it in stride.

Because orange is our new red.

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