By Christine Coppa
Photo: Jeff Wasserman/Stocksy
It’s almost Valentine’s Day and if you’re a kid that means homemade glitter glue Valentines, Sponge Bob cards with lollipops inserted inside — and tons of candy. It’s an allergy mom’s worst nightmare — the candy part. Here, one mom’s story of how her daughter almost died from eating Reese’s candy from a school goody bag.
“Kelly, currently 7 and in first grade, was never a good eater once she transitioned to regular food,” her mother Rachel tells Yahoo Parenting. “When she was 2 ½ I gave her a small scoop of peanut butter on a teaspoon and she immediately started to inhale it. But within under five minutes time Kelly’s face was swollen and she was covered in hives.”
Rachel and her husband, Charlie, panicked, picked her up and drove to a nearby hospital. She says the drive seemed to take forever while Kelly was gasping and wheezing the whole time. An ER nurse rushed the New Jersey family into a room and gave Kelly a liquid dose of Benadryl.
“She responded immediately to the medicine and after an hour wait, the doctor told us we could go home, but to follow up with our regular pediatrician the next day. “I was a mess, so the doctor gave her another dose of Benadryl and I slept in her bed that night — I was so scared.”
The family followed up with their doctor the next day, who told them to avoid all nut products and see an allergist. Kelly was diagnosed with peanut and tree nut allergies.
Now it was time to sit down with the administrators at the franchise daycare Kelly attended since she was 8-months-old. “The school had forms that the doctor filled out and there was a plan in case of an emergency: Call 911, give Kelly liquid Benadryl and administer the EPI Pen,” Rachel says. But, the daycare wasn’t nut-free or even nut-free for specific classrooms where kids like Kelly spend their day and eat their food. Rachel felt safe keeping Kelly at the daycare because she’d been there for nearly two years without incident.
“All of the teachers Kelly had as she transferred up to new classrooms were extremely protective of her and very good about examining lunches and keeping my daughter away from kids with PB&J.” That is until Kelly transferred up to her final classroom in September of 2012.
There was a brand new teacher at the school in the classroom that year — and although the assistant teacher had been employed at the daycare for years, she never had Kelly as a student.There weren’t any major issues in the classroom, until January 11, 2013, Rachel tells Yahoo Parenting.
“Kelly came home and asked me if she was allowed to eat coconut. I told her no and asked her why. She told me that her teacher told her that it was OK for her to eat coconut they were using for a project.”
But spitfire Kelly, just 5 years old at the time refused to eat it and told her teacher multiple times that she was not allowed to.
According to James R. Baker, Jr., M.D., CEO and chief medical officer of Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE), the FDA categorizes coconut as a tree nut, but in reality coconut is not a botanical nut but rather a fruit. Dr. Baker, however warns that anyone with a peanut or tree nut allergy who has been told to avoid all nuts should consult with their own allergist regarding the specific question of whether eating coconut is safe.
“I spoke to the owner of the school following the coconut incident, telling her that under no certain terms was any adult to tell my child what she could and could not eat — and that it was completely inappropriate that they were even using food in the classroom without my knowledge/approval,” says Rachel. (A teacher that no longer worked at the daycare at the time of “the coconut incident” always alerted Rachel to food projects and allowed her to review packaging.)
The very next day they changed their policy and said that any allergy child was not allowed to eat any food that was not approved by their parents. In fact, Kelly is not permitted to eat anything that isn’t sent in from home. “My daughter ate pizza from a very young age from all local places, so I did allow her to participate in the pizza days. On warm days the Kona Ice Truck came to the daycare and she got to enjoy a snow cone because I checked that out.”
But the action plan Rachel had in place for nearly two years — and this so-called new rule that said allergy kids can’t eat anything that is not approved by the parents — meant nothing on Valentine’s Day 2013. “I felt really good about the day because I had made the nut-free cupcakes and another allergy mom made nut-free brownies for the whole class,” says Rachel.
“I sent a written note into the teacher and assistant saying that Kelly was to only eat the cupcakes from me, the brownies from the other mom, fresh fruit and juice at the party. She was not allowed to open or explore any goody bags. Plus the owner was well-aware of what took place weeks ago with the coconut.”
Rachel tells Yahoo Parenting she picked up Jake, her 12-month-old son and then grabbed Kelly as usual. But things seemed weird on the ride home, because Kelly drifted off to sleep in her booster seat. “I thought it might be a reaction from the chicken pox vaccine she received a few days earlier.”
“We arrived home and Kelly asked to watch a little TV, but then she wanted a blanket, saying she was cold. At this point I just figured she was coming down with a bug. I gave her a bowl of her standard after-school snack: Pretzel crisps. My husband, Charlie, a teacher (like me) and wrestling coach came home. Came home just in time.”
Kelly started coughing — mom and dad ran into the living room thinking she was choking on a pretzel. They got her to stand up and Kelly said she was going to throw up, so Charlie rushed her to the bathroom and salvia just started to pour out of her mouth.
“At this point, Charlie and I were both in shock and I will admit I just kinda stood there frozen — it was my husband who said, ‘something bad is happening’ and he called 911.”
Rachel got Kelly back to the living room and sat her down. Her wheezing grew worse. Charlie was getting ready to give her the EPI Pen, when an EMT arrived to help. “He was a saint and quickly assessed Kelly. He gave her the EPI Pen injection as Charlie held her. Rachel was holding baby Jake and asking her if she ate something strange, but little Kelly could only whimper, ‘I can’t talk.’”
“The police and ambulance arrived — it was a blur, there were so many people everywhere,” says Rachel. My neighbor ran over in snow boots and shorts — he looked like a crazy person! But thank God for him because he took care of Jake for us. I just remember feeling so grateful for him. Charlie went in the ambulance with Kelly, as Rachel got ready to follow behind in the car. But then, an EMT approached Rachel and told her they had to call the paramedics because she was too unstable to transport.
“The Paramedics arrived immediately, got in the rig and we all left. Driving there was insane. I blew all the red lights after the rig. I just kept praying that someone wouldn’t smash into me as I crossed over the highway,” recalls Rachel.
Next, Rachel ran into the hospital where she was escorted to her daughter who was “getting hooked up to all of these IVs,” Rachel remembers.
“The doctor was really quick and commended the paramedics. He said she was stabilizing and soon we would be able to be admitted — that hit me like a punch — I thought we were just going to go home, like last time.”
The doctor explained to Rachel severe reactions like Kelly’s are “biphasic” and can return again up to 72 hours after an initial reaction. And that blanket, Kelly asked for when she was cold? The doctor explained, that her body was shutting down.
“As I was processing this, the paramedics told me what a fighter Kelly was: ‘You have a very strong little girl, my partner and your husband had to hold her down and she was fighting us like a dog.’”
Rachel tells Yahoo Parenting that her husband has never spoken to her about what happened in the ambulance and anytime she’s asked, Charlie says he can’t talk about it. Once Kelly was admitted, Rachel left to get some supplies to stay overnight at the hospital.
“Driving home I felt like a crazy person, thinking: What did she eat, WHAT DID SHE EAT? We are so careful, what happened? Once at home, Rachel immediately investigated Kelly’s backpack where she found a bag jammed with Valentines, candies and at the bottom of the bag … a crumpled Reese’s wrapper.
“I never felt so sick, angry and defeated at the same time,” Rachel says. Kelly eventually recovered, and Rachel learned an important lesson: Parents of kids with allergies shouldn’t feel bad about advocating for their children.
"It is your right, it is your job. Don’t be embarrassed, don’t be afraid to speak up, don’t be afraid to ask questions; don’t stop! I will never stop fighting for my kid. Never," she says.
Dr. Baker tells Yahoo Parenting that every allergy student should have an individual written plan that outlines how the school will address the individual needs of the child – allowing the student to stay safe and included – as well as a written emergency care plan with instructions for treatment in case of allergic reactions.
"Procedures should be in place to ensure that any incidents or failures to adhere to the written plan are promptly reviewed with the school and addressed so that additional measures can be taken to prevent exposures and reactions,” he says. “Talking to your child about their food allergy is critically important – they need to know that certain foods are off limits and could cause a life-threatening reaction,” says Dr. Baker. “But the information that you give, and the manner of communicating this information, depends on their maturity level. With young children, we suggest approaching the topic of their food allergies by talking about what’s safe and what’s not. It’s also important to tell them that they should never accept food from anyone unless it has been approved by a parent or guardian.”
Dr. Baker tells Yahoo Parenting that as the child gets older, you’ll want to talk about ways they can advocate for themselves and the importance of always carrying their epinephrine auto-injectors with them. This website has some great tips for talking to young children about their food allergies.
Disclosure: Names have been changed to protect the family and daycare franchise for legal matters.