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Food Allergy

Families In Control

Angela Brown was anxious about returning to work after maternity leave. The day before she was to be back at her office in Toronto, she left her 8-month-old daughter, Brigit, with her new nanny for a few hours while she ran errands. “I had forgotten something and came back,” she recalls, “and that’s when it happened.”

“It” was her daughter’s first allergic reaction. Angela had fed Brigit egg yolk before but, this time, she “got hives around her mouth and then she turned absolutely beet red from head to toe.” Angela rushed Brigit to the hospital, where she was treated with Benadryl and monitored for 12 hours. The doctors recommended that the baby be tested for allergies as soon as possible. The tests would confirm the egg allergy (which Brigit has since outgrown), and would also reveal allergies to tree nuts and peanut.

“Brigit has a lot of other ones too,” says Angela, “environmental and animals. She’s very sensitive.” Angela and her husband Tad were about to discover a new way of life, built around their daughter’s allergies.

For families that include children with serious allergies, every day is a challenge. The learning curve is steep, and the stakes are high when one slip-up can mean life or death. Allergic Living spoke to three sets of parents who cope well with allergies to discover how they do it; what their secrets are to “managing” allergies. The families are from different parts of Canada, with kids of different ages, with varied lifestyles and opinions. But they share a common outlook: none are victimized or held back by allergies, and all of their children are leading full, safe lives.

Not that everyone started out with such control. After Brigit’s diagnosis in 1999, Angela felt lost. “You walk out of your doctor’s office and you’re shell-shocked. You do not know where to turn, you do not know where to start.” A neighbour introduced Angela, who now works as a sales and marketing executive with The Loyalty Group, and Tad, a lawyer who acts as in-house counsel for the University of Toronto, to Laurie Harada. Harada was leading the Anaphylaxis Education Group, a network of Toronto parents of allergic children. “That group was an invaluable resource for us,” says Tad. “Not only to gather information and practical experiences, but in creating a community that understood the issues.” The Browns are now the group’s co-leaders (while Harada today heads Anaphylaxis Canada).

For the Browns, the transition to living with allergies began with having to say goodbye to their cat, which they gave to friends. “We got rid of all of the allergens and we try to have a really clean house with hardwood floors, HEPA filters and no pets,” says Angela. They educated themselves about label ingredients, products, the dangers of cross-contamination and removed any allergen-containing foods from their cupboards.

When Garrett was born in 2001, the Browns were prepared. “We treated him as though he was allergic,” says Tad, “although we believed he wasn’t.” Tad and Angela were told to not to have their son tested until he was 3, to avoid unnecessary sensitization. With Garrett shielded from possible allergens, the Browns were lulled into a sense of comfort. When tests revealed that he, too, had severe peanut and tree nut allergies, his parents were taken aback.

Now 4, Garrett has never had an allergic reaction and is active in pre-school, swimming and sport ball. His sister, meanwhile, is in soccer, swim class, T-ball and karate, and has become a 6-year-old social butterfly, with a calendar full of play dates.

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