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My kids’ allergies have turned me into a bag lady

TARYN GEE/The Globe and Mail

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Among family and friends I am affectionately known as a bag lady. When I arrive for a visit, two children in tow, three bags strapped over my shoulders, they can rarely resist commenting.

"Did you bring enough bags?" is the usual refrain. I don't bother with a reply. The heavy bags I carry are just part of being what I call an "allergic parent."

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My diaper bag goes way beyond Pampers and fresh wipes: It also holds two epinephrine injectors, a bottle of Benadryl and an inhaler with a breathing chamber.

In a reusable shopping bag I tote snacks to which my two kids are not allergic. To buy food on the go, at a restaurant or bakery, could put their lives in danger.

My goal is to make sure a trip to the park doesn't also become a visit to the emergency room.

I call myself an "allergic parent" not only because my children have been diagnosed with having anaphylactic reactions to certain foods. My daughter was 3 when we found out she couldn't eat peanuts. My son was six months old when diagnosed with a severe allergy to bananas. But the phrase also refers to the adverse reactions I get from daycare workers and other parents when I try to explain the precautions needed to keep my kids safe. Raised eyebrows, eye-rolling and skeptical grunts are the standard reception I receive.

That's exactly what happened when, with great trepidation, I dropped my daughter off at a new friend's house for a playdate recently. I had previously spent an afternoon with the family, so they knew about her allergies. I was to leave her at the house for an hour while I did some shopping. I reminded the adults in the house about the allergies, not just the anaphylactic reaction to peanuts, but also her less severe allergies to all dairy products.

I unpacked her bag of medications and left written instructions on dosage and use of an EpiPen. I also left a snack for my daughter and asked them not to give her any other food.

As often happens, my instructions were met with the condescending response: "Don't worry. I'm sure nothing will happen."

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Just over an hour later, I picked up my daughter. I immediately knew something was wrong. She was dizzy to the point of falling down and said she had a stomach ache. At the time I didn't know that dizziness was one of the most dangerous signs of anaphylactic reaction. The drop in blood pressure can lead to death, but no doctor had ever mentioned this symptom to me. Breathing problems had always been the focus of the discussion.

Our house was a few minutes away. As we got out of the car, my daughter threw up in the driveway. She was starting to get some welts on her face, but her breathing was still fine, so I simply treated her with Benadryl.

About 20 minutes later, after a second dose, there was no improvement. At that point I knew we were in trouble. My husband and I bundled the children into the car, as the hospital was fortunately only a five-minute drive away.

When we arrived at the emergency room it was pretty crowded. Standard procedure is to wait in a chair until a nurse is ready to see you. Instead, I announced in a loud voice that we were having a severe allergic reaction and needed to see a doctor immediately.

If you think the squeaky wheel gets attention, you should try the screaming mom. The nurses took one look at my daughter, who couldn't stand up on her own, and ushered us into the treatment area. I said a silent prayer of gratitude for modern medicine.

Our daughter was given epinephrine, plus the hospital version of Benadryl and something to make her stop vomiting.

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At that point, we were scolded by the doctors for not using an EpiPen and for not having called an ambulance.

Of course I was embarrassed and ashamed at how my daughter had almost paid the ultimate price for my ignorance. But I spend most of my life surrounded by people who don't take allergies seriously. The less they care, the more precautions I have to take.

We never did find out what my daughter ate on the playdate that caused the anaphylactic reaction. We assume it was some chocolate with a peanut in it.

Now she doesn't go on playdates unless I'm staying at the house. I also had to pull her out of daycare because they refused to stop serving peanut butter. They thought that she, at the age of 4, should learn to manage her own allergy. I'm all for letting kids learn from mistakes, but not if the consequences can be fatal.

My son is now 1, and we've found a playgroup where they've asked all parents to keep bananas out of the classroom. But if people have trouble appreciating my daughter's peanut allergy, bananas are even more of a stretch.

As an allergic parent I have become used to the weight of the bags I carry around. It's nothing compared to the weight of worry in my heart. There is a simple way for you to lighten that load: The next time an allergic parent tells you about the food their children can't eat, or the dosage of medication they might need, please don't roll your eyes and say "nothing is going to happen."

Pay attention, write down their instructions. That will make it more likely nothing will happen. And if it does, that everyone will survive for another playdate.

Jean Paetkau lives in Victoria.

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