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Food Allergy

Families In Control

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KERRY Ferguson, an educational assistant with the Calgary Board of Education, and husband Bill, a software engineer, are shining examples of helping to make allergies more manageable for everyone. Their 16-year-old son Matthew has a laundry list of allergies to contend with: at risk of anaphylaxis to peanut and tree nuts; Oral Allergy Syndrome to many vegetables; a possible soy allergy and gastrointestinal reactions to most legumes. Emma, their 13-year-old, has severe peanut, tree nut and dairy allergies, and has outgrown allergies to wheat, rye and oats.

Amazingly, neither teen has ever had an anaphylactic reaction. Kerry chalks it up to “being super, super cautious and total avoidance of the food (triggers).” It also helps that the Fergusons have been highly involved in their kids activities from day one. Bill was a Cub leader for Matthew, bringing his son’s food along on outings and overnight camping trips.

Matthew and Emma have long been active in sports, camps and bands, and continuously meet new people. To spread the word about their allergies, no matter how many newcomers have come into the family’s circle, Kerry and Bill devised a system. They have a form note to give to other parents which gives their names and contact information and explains each child’s severe allergies (with “severe” in large capitals). But in addition, the Fergusons accompany each note with a neon-coloured fridge magnet bearing their contact information. Neighbours say they have a rainbow of magnets from years past, when the Fergusons also used to distribute them to classmates to take home.

While Matthew has always taken his allergies in stride, Emma has been shy about hers. “She was born like that,” Kerry says with a laugh. “But of course, dairy is such a biggie.” To help Emma feel less “different”, Kerry baked. A lot. “They both went to birthday parties, and Matthew I sent with his own cupcakes.” Emma never wanted to take a cupcake because it would stand out. “So I’d make a whole cake and cut her a piece.” Kerry always checked to see what kind of cake would be served, then made a safe facsimile.

The Fergusons also strive to get their kids to speak up for themselves. While in St. John’s, Newfoundland, on a trip with the school band, Matthew had his teacher e-mail restaurants in advance to ensure they were prepared to accommodate his allergies. He also checked upon arrival at each restaurant to make sure the food was indeed safe. In one instance, the chef discovered a potentially deadly peanut product in a menu item. Matthew’s careful attention caught a danger not only to his own life, but also to that of another peanut allergic teen.

Kerry is now conditioning Emma about the need to be vigilant at house parties she will attend as she gets older. “It’s nice to be able to sit around and eat the food that your friends are eating, but mostly what you want is to sit around with your friends. The food is secondary.” By now, the kids are used to the fact that, at every pizza party, birthday, pot luck and camp, Kerry shows up with food that they can eat, or they bring their own. “In the big picture, we have done a lot of prep stuff so that the kids can walk out the door and just be kids.”

That preparation will become even more crucial in the next few years, as Matthew moves on to university. “Matthew’s thinking ahead,” says Kerry proudly. “There may be things that will have to be tailored around the food allergy that other families wouldn’t have to worry about,” but that is just the reality of living with such a condition.

While the specifics of how they deal with allergies are also tailored to their individual views and circumstances, the Fergusons, the Browns and the Dufresnes all share some common and successful strategies: educate everyone in the children’s lives; keep anxiety to a minimum; teach the kids to fend for themselves (because they will have to do so eventually); and perhaps most importantly, don’t let their allergies hold them back. “Food allergies should never, never stop you or your kids from doing anything you want to do,” says Claire. “There is always a way cope with it, there is always a solution.”

First published in Allergic Living magazine.
(c) Copyright AGW Publishing Inc.

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