Allergic Living’s Gwen Smith: Julie, how did you first become aware of your child’s food allergies?
Julie Bowen: I was at work on Boston Legal and my husband was at home. He sent me a text saying, ‘I think we have a problem with our son and peanut butter.’ I said, ‘but he’s had it before,’ and then he said – ‘and he got stung by a bee’. And I was thinking, ‘What is going on over there?’
AL: You mean he was stung at the very same time he was reacting to peanut butter?
JB: Well, it is California and our doors are open all the time. So he [her son Oliver] had wandered out eating peanut butter and was stung by a bee. I was one to think this was no big deal until my husband sent me a picture of our son’s face, which was clearly in distress. It was swollen and disfigured.
My husband rushed him off to the emergency room and he was treated with epinephrine, and after that we learned that Oliver had allergies to all sorts of nuts and peanuts and probably also to stinging insects – but that’s a different series of tests.
After the anaphylactic reaction, I know that my job is to be aware and to be prepared for the next reaction – whenever that may be.
AL: These days you’re a big TV star, you’ve won a second Emmy and the show is a huge hit. But facing anaphylaxis, is that the great leveler?
JB: You know, I think being a parent is the great leveler. People often ask me how my life has changed since Modern Family. And I say, ‘Having three kids in three years was a much bigger change than having a lovely, lovely job.’
AL: What ages are your kids?
JB: Oliver is the older boy and we have twin 3-year-old boys. [So far, no life-threatening allergies have been diagnosed with the twins.]
Next: Bowen’s decision to get involved in the “Get Schooled in Anaphylaxis” campaign.
AL: How did you get involved in Mylan Specialty’s “Get Schooled in Anaphylaxis” campaign?
JB: It was an easy fit for me because I was one of those people who had thought that allergies were things that crazy, hyper-involved parents made up. You would hear about the very dramatic cases of somebody having peanut or something they’re highly allergic to and dying.
But I didn’t know any of those people, I just knew nervous Nellies. I thought, I’m not one of them, so my kids will be fine. Then there’s my big, strapping, gorgeous kid being rushed to the emergency room with a swollen face and almost not breathing and you realize – this is real.
That made me understand I needed to get educated. [She spoke to doctors, including their pediatrician.] At first I realized, I don’t know anything about this. And that’s what this awareness campaign is about. It’s about getting people educated. It’s supposed to help you be aware and prepared, but not scare you with a huge amount of long words.
The idea is that it becomes as common as CPR education or the Heimlich manoeuver so that people just know what it is. You say ‘anaphylaxis’, and they will say, ‘I know what that is.’
AL: I’m sure you’d like to think that if your allergic child started to react, people around would know what to do.
JB: Yes, exactly! I mean we’re always very careful, and Oliver takes his epinephrine auto-injector in his little backpack on playdates and they have it at school. But you hear these terrible stories about people who aren’t aware that their child has an allergy and the child is at school or a game and a reaction occurs. There are plenty of adults around and you hope that they’ve become educated and know how to respond in situations like this.
AL: A lot of moms are nervous about sending a food-allergic child off to school on the first day. How did you feel?
JB: I wasn’t the least bit nervous, since I also really want Oliver to live a happy, active life. We’re very straightforward with him as far as, ‘you do not eat nuts’. They have a table at the school for kids who can’t eat nuts – and by the way the table is packed.
Food allergies are a big deal, but it’s not like he’s a kid sitting alone sniffling into his nut-free cereal. He is surrounded by friends and living a perfectly normal life. He just has to be a bit educated. He’s better about asking about food than just about anyone I know.
The good part about so many kids having allergies now – is that there are so many kids. One day volunteering at snack time, I saw them all crowded around at one table – I didn’t realize at first it was the no-nut table. It looked like the cool kid table for 5-year-olds. They were hanging all over each other, laughing, and it was a large group of kids.
AL: How would Claire Dunphy on Modern Family manage allergy parenting?
JB: [laughs] I imagine she would have gone more in the direction of having things being color-coded and scheduled and organized. I share that with her to a degree, but I know things get dramatized for TV. Her neuroses are great for comedy, but I don’t want that as much in my life.
In our life, we’re aware, we’re prepared, we know what to look out for and how to treat [a reaction], and that’s what I want for everyone and why I’m telling them to go to the website at anaphylaxis101.com .
AL: Thanks for sharing your experiences with our readers.
JB: My pleasure.
Editor’s Note: For stinging insect allergies, which cause about 40 deaths a year in the United States, allergy practice parameters recommend that patients consult an allergist about venom immunotherapy in addition to carrying epinephrine auto-injectors.