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The Seafood Section

Mike ‘Pinball’ & Diane Clemons on Life with Allergies

As the coach of the Toronto Argonauts football team, Mike “Pinball” Clemons has known nerve-wracking situations with player injuries and championship games. But nothing has been more challenging than having life-threatening allergies in the family. His wife Diane has asthma and shellfish allergies, and middle daughter Raven, 7, is allergic to all seafood. From their home in Oakville, Ontario, Diane and Mike sat down with Allergic Living’s Laura deCarufel to discuss coping strategies, parenting an allergic child, and what it’s like to have a reaction during pregnancy – “nightmarish”.

Conversation with Diane, before Mike arrives home:

How did you discover you had allergies?

Growing up in Florida, I’d never eaten much fish. So about 10 years ago, we were sitting in a Red Lobster. I ask Mike, “What’s clam chowder?” And he looks at me like, “Are you serious?”

So I try it. I take a spoonful, and right away my throat starts feeling funny. I take another spoonful, and I can’t swallow. Mike says, “You might be allergic.” And my throat is getting tighter and tighter. We head straight to the doctor, and the doctor says, “I don’t want you near shellfish.”

Now, if I even touch shellfish, I’ll react. One day, I went to get my nails done, and the man doing them just touched my hand, and immediately it started swelling up. I asked him what he’d eaten for lunch: shrimp.

What advice would you give to the allergic?

Walk with your EpiPen. That’s what I didn’t do at first. But I have two EpiPens and now I carry them with me all the time.

How did you find out Raven had allergies?

It was after an Argos game, when Raven was about 3. The girls and I went with the team to [a restaurant]. Raven is sitting on her dad’s lap – he’d ordered a pasta dish with shrimp – and she takes a noodle. Now, you know your kid. She got really quiet, and is looking a bit flushed.

I ask, “Are you OK?” She nods her head, but I can tell something’s not right. And then, everything just clicks.

I ask her, “Baby, does your throat feel funny?” And she nods, and the tears start streaming down her face.

What happened next?

We went right to the hospital. Mike’s driving on the sidewalk, Raven’s face is swelling up – there’s a police car following us now, sirens going. We run into Emerg, and she gets her needle.

Until you see someone else have a reaction, you have no idea. The next day, we saw an allergy specialist, and found out she’s allergic to all kinds of fish – everything, even fish sticks.

What talks have you had with Raven about her allergies?

She knows to avoid tuna, to sit on the opposite side of the room if someone has it in their lunch. She carries her EpiPen all the time, and knows how to use it.

I think about how things might change when she’s a teenager – the whole pressure of being accepted. But Raven’s her own person [laughs]. Of the three kids, she’s the best one to have them.

When did Raven last have a reaction?

Just a few weeks ago [November 2005], after a football game, the girls and I were in the wives’ lounge and Raven grabbed a couple of carrot sticks off the food table. There were tuna sandwiches on the table – not touching, a few feet away. She began to react: throat closing up, eyes getting red.

We rushed her home, gave her some Benadryl, and she was fine. But, I mean, that’s your child. The biggest fear I have is for her, not me.

Mike sits down to talk:

How have allergies affected your life?

As for my own allergies, from late May to mid-June, my nose is just a fixture [laughs]. It doesn’t work at all. But the main way allergies affect me, of course, is through my wife and child. I do love seafood, but I just eat it on the road. The adjustments I make are small compared to what the girls have to live with.

What’s been the worst experience?

When Diane was pregnant with Rachel. We were staying with relatives in Florida and Diane’s asthma was really bothering her. She was using her puffer, but still really struggling to breathe.

It kept getting worse and worse, and she’s just gasping for air. Well, the nearest hospital is 15 or 20 minutes away. We got there in time, but it was the most fear I’ve ever had. She was six months pregnant. Everything just comes into focus at moments like that.

How do you cope with having loved ones with allergies?

I try not to let it spook me. Diane and Raven are diligent in carrying their EpiPens, and that reassures me.

I also believe in bringing attention to allergies as a health issue. There are some causes that have more glamour, more cachet, but allergies can be every bit as fatal as the more well-known causes.

What can people do?

We need to think of ways to make life more liveable for those with serious allergies. At the Rogers Centre [in Toronto], I’m working on creating a peanut-free zone for football games.

I also think we need to challenge those who are in power to acknowledge the seriousness of allergies and asthma. We need to encourage the people who are working in the allergy fields, the ones who are dedicating their lives to it. We need to give them greater support.

First published in Allergic Living magazine.
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Allergic Living acknowledges the assistance of the OMDC Magazine Fund, an initative of the Ontario Media Development Cooperation.