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Food Allergy

Families In Control

The Browns have learned that talking is the key to keeping their on-the-go kids safe. Angela makes sure that every time her daughter goes to a friend’s house, the friend’s parents know exactly what Brigit is allergic to. Angela reviews over the phone the list of what her daughter can eat, though it’s a very short list of trusted friends who actually cook for either child. She gives out her cell phone number and encourages questions. Both children wear MedicAlert bracelets and carry their own EpiPens. As well, Angela regularly trains the parents of playmates on the EpiPen.

The Browns know that the challenges of the teenage years lay ahead, but they take comfort in the fact that the groundwork of caution and vigilance has been laid. For now, at least, the daily rituals of dealing with food allergies are something the family takes in stride.

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LIKE THE Browns, Claire and Pierre Dufresne of Longueuil, Que., parents of three, learned a lot from experiences with their first child. In 1991, at the tender age of three months, Olivier was diagnosed with a milk allergy, and subsequent tests revealed egg, peanut and tree nut allergies. Claire had been breastfeeding Olivier. “Then one night my husband and I decided to go out for dinner,” she recalls. “We fed him with milk formula instead, and he got so sick. It was unbelievable.”

Determined to prevent allergies in the next child, Claire, who is now the general director of the Association Québécoise des Allergies Alimentaires (Quebec Food Allergy Association), followed a strict diet during breastfeeding and avoided as many allergy triggers as she could. Félix-Antoine, the Dufresne’s 11-year-old second son, has environmental allergies, but can eat whatever he wants. Convinced that her breastfeeding regime was effective, Claire was later dismayed when her youngest child, Justine, would test positive for peanuts in 2001 at age 5. “I asked her, ‘how do you feel?’” says Claire. “And she replied, ‘I’m so happy! I wanted an EpiPen like my brother.’ I was crying and she was happy.”

Faced with two food allergic children and one non-allergic, Claire has set some ground rules at home. Teasing and taunting are not tolerated. And though Félix-Antoine, Claire and Pierre sometimes enjoy peanut butter at breakfast, everyone knows to wash their hands thoroughly, brush their teeth and not to give kisses for long periods of time. Claire and Pierre believe that Olivier, who’s now 13, and Justine, now 9, need to face their triggers. “I personally feel it is very important that the children learn to deal with having peanut butter around. My son is at the age that he goes out with friends, he goes to restaurants; he needs to know how to deal with it. That’s why I felt it was so important to travel with the kids, and to teach them to cope when they’re outside the house.”

The Dufresnes travel often, and not just on car trips with a cooler full of safe food, though they’ve done those as well. Three years ago, the family rented a cottage near Tuscany. To manage safely, they bought fresh local produce and cooked most of their own food. But the Dufresnes don’t shy away from eating in restaurants, at home or abroad. Olivier and Justine wear their MedicAlert bracelets and carry their EpiPens, and the whole family is very careful around food. “Every time we go to a restaurant we ask questions, we ask everything,” laughs Claire. “But we’re very selective.”

On home turf, Claire has ensured that when Olivier (who has outgrown the egg and milk allergies) goes out, his friends are just as prepared as he is for an emergency. Not only does she explain his allergies, she trains them on an EpiPen Trainer, and Olivier wears his auto-injector in an E-Belt at all times. Justine, who plays soccer and takes violin lessons, spends a lot of time at friends’ homes, often taking part in sleepovers. “She feels comfortable everywhere,” says Claire, who notes that Justine is seldom without her once longed-for EpiPen. “She’s not as responsible as her brother, but she is responsible.”

They’ve learned well from their parents, who have had to come to terms with their own anxieties. It’s important for parents not to let fear win the battle, says Claire. It’s easy to let feelings take over when speaking with teachers, camp counselors and restaurant staff. “Parents who go to the schools and not only ask, but demand things, they get rejected. This closes doors.” Much more effective, she says, is offering to come in and help out, and to teach the staff how to prevent exposure to allergens and to handle an emergency. That kind of knowledge makes life easier on everyone involved.

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