Brothers Nathan (left) and Michael.
OK, so your child has been diagnosed with a food allergy. You’ve fearfully witnessed the reaction that alerted you to the allergy, you’ve been to the doctor’s office and sat anxiously watching his arm for that telltale bump to appear and you’ve suddenly become the “food police” as you read, re-read and read again the labels on every food product that enters your home.
Your allergic child knows not to share food, to ask questions before eating and now carries an epinephrine auto-injector that he can administer to himself should the need arise (gulp!).
In all of the craziness, the worry, the anxiety, the fear and even the guilt there’s one little thing that often goes unnoticed: the siblings. It’s not that we mean to “ignore” them, it’s just that the immediate medical needs of the allergic child can easily – and understandably – take priority. But we need to remember that it’s not only the allergic child’s life that is changing, but also the lives of all the children in the family, so I would like to tell my story of a super-amazing little brother.
One day last summer, we finished our dinner and headed off as a family to watch my younger son Michael’s soccer game. As usual, my older son Nathan took along his own soccer ball to go and practice his shots on an empty net as his younger brother joined his team.
About 20 minutes later, I felt a tugging on my elbow. There was Nathan looking like a puffer fish, for lack of a better description: a red, swollen face and covered with hives. Luckily, I had allergy medication in my bag, so I administered it as the two of us left the soccer field, leaving my husband and Michael to continue with the game.
Just before leaving the house, Nathan had tried a pecan-based chocolate and he was now having an allergic reaction to it. Fortunately, the over-the-counter medication worked fairly quickly and we were able to touch base with a doctor and return to the soccer field just minutes after the game ended. As we pulled into the parking lot I could see the anxiety on Michael’s face as he now knew why mom was suddenly missing from the sidelines.
Yes, Nathan was exhausted from the physical demands of the allergic reaction. Yes, my husband and I were both riddled with anxiety over what Nathan had just endured. But, yes, Michael too was feeling the emotional demands of the situation. He too was afraid, upset and full of questions.
Over the next few weeks we went through what every family does when a child has been diagnosed with a food allergy, and Michael went through just as much as the rest of us.
Next: Tears of pride
He went along to the allergist appointment to confirm the diagnosis and listened to every word the doctor said just as intently any of us. When it came time for the doctor to show Nathan how to use the auto-injector, Michael was right there watching. When it was Nathan’s turn to try the trainer he accidentally forgot to remove the cap and it was Michael who piped up first, “Wait, Nathan, you forgot the cap,” and proceeded to remind him of the correct steps.
When the allergist congratulated him on his helpfulness you could see that, despite all of the regular, normal brother “battles” that my sons endure, they really did make a priority of looking out for one another. It was one of those moments when I had to quickly glance away and pretend that I had something in my eye so they wouldn’t see the tears of pride welling up. I was amazed at how Michael – especially being the younger brother – was stepping up to be his older brother’s guardian.
Following the diagnosis, it was Michael who helped me painstakingly go through every food item in the house to read every label. It was Michael who pushed in front of Nathan to teach the grandparents how to administer the auto-injector. It was Michael who went to the mailbox every day to see if the carrying case had arrived. And it was Michael who often asked Nathan, “Do you have your EpiPen?” when we left the house.
But despite Michael’s eagerness to be helpful we needed to acknowledge that his life had changed in many ways, too.
Suddenly we couldn’t buy his favorite flavor of ice cream because it came with an allergy warning. He had to say goodbye to his favorite nut-based chocolate bars. Suddenly, he couldn’t order that scrumptious dessert at a restaurant because it had nuts on it. Going out for ice cream – a favorite treat of his – wasn’t as easy as it once was. And I know that when the boys went out together with friends, Michael often asked about the safety of the snacks, too.
We needed to remember that along with the changes and emotions Nathan was going through as he dealt with his allergy, Michael was going through just as many changes and we had to make sure that he knew just how much his empathy, compassion and understanding meant not only to Nathan, but to all of us.
So, in response, I hunted down Michael’s favorite ice cream flavor from a nut-free company. I stocked our house with all of the necessary ingredients for awesome – better than restaurant – ice cream sundaes for dessert at home after a dinner out. I became a “baker” and made learning how to make his favorite desserts my priority.
We made a rule that Michael could “let down his guard” when he was out with his own friends. The rule was that he could eat what he wanted then, but just had to be sure to wash his hands before coming home. And I’m proud to say, that not once have I had to remind him about the hand washing rule. In fact, he’s come home before telling me that he washed his hands at his friend’s house, but wanted to wash them again at home “just to be safe”.
And just the other day, he came back from a bike ride to the corner store with a buddy with a box of candy and announced, “Don’t worry Mom, I checked the label.”
But aside from all of the treats, baking and rules the most important thing that we have tried to do is to constantly tell Michael how proud we are of the understanding way that he has accepted the changes to his life. Not once has he “blamed” his brother for the changes and we have tried our best to tell him as often as possible how much we appreciate his maturity and empathy.
There’s no doubt that the diagnosis of a food allergy – or any other medical condition for that matter – changes the affected child’s life and the lives of his parents and it’s a change that often lasts a lifetime. But that same diagnosis also changes the lives of siblings and it’s very important that we acknowledge their fears and emotions too so that they are not left to wonder … “but what about me?”
Sue Marchand and her family live in Holland Landing, Ontario.