On a day that was as routine as any other, while eating a snack of apples and peanut butter, my nephew James went into full-blown anaphylaxis. He had never had a reaction to peanut butter before that day, and that first reaction could have killed him.
Since that day, my own awareness and education regarding food allergies and food safety has increased exponentially. I had no idea how many foods may possibly contain peanuts and are therefore unsafe (Tons! They are in everything!). I had no real clue that a person who is highly allergic, like James, could have a reaction from touching a table where someone had recently eaten a peanut butter sandwich just from peanut proteins left behind from the sandwich.
I am ashamed to admit that I understood the argument that parents of those without allergies would make… “They can’t be shielded from peanuts forever! They’re going to have to learn to deal with it. Why can’t MY kid have a peanut butter sandwich for his lunch? It’s all he likes to eat!”
A potentially deadly mistake
And apparently, the teachers at my nephew’s school must feel that same argument as well and made a serious error in judgment. It was an error which could have killed my nephew.
All kids love class parties … and class parties tend to generate a lot of junk food. So James’ teachers took a proactive approach and created a list of foods and items needed for their class Thanksgiving feast … paper plates, napkins, vegetable tray, fruit tray, and … peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Oh, but these are a crowd pleaser. All kids like them. We know that no kid will go hungry that day because everyone loves a good PB&J. James can just sit at a table away from everyone else and have ?? Something else? Anything else? Or nothing because of the risk of cross contamination from serving utensils. Or he can stay home. Whatever works for you, Mom.
Now here’s where I tell you that James’ school is a private program that does not accommodate food allergies at all. When he enrolled, preschools that did follow a nut-free protocol were full, so this was the only option available (public preschool is only available to a select few in their area). That said, instead of doing the responsible thing and saying, “We have a child in here with a life-threatening allergy; this room is now peanut free” the school has apparently decided that he must run the risk of a reaction based on whatever kids bring in from home. During his first year at this preschool, the teachers were proactive to a point and emailed parents informing then that a child with a severe peanut allergy would be attending, although peanut products were not officially banned. This year though, no such notification was made and no one was informed. This alone is problematic enough (and would never fly in public school), but the fact that for the Thanksgiving feast the teachers actually REQUESTED a food that could literally kill him is just mind boggling.
It seems to suggest that because they have not seen him have an anaphylactic reaction, they do not believe he has an allergy, as they are being awfully cavalier with his life.
Here’s the grim reality of what COULD have happened for the Thanksgiving feast day:
James brings in his own food because he is excluded from eating everything else his friends are eating. Because he is a child, it is completely natural that he would want what the others have. It would not take any time at all for him to get his hands on a sandwich.
Oh, but maybe they would have been very careful. And maybe he would have sat at a table just with teachers who were not eating peanut butter sandwiches. And then, as the class would line up to walk out, James would reach out and touch one of the tables or touch the door behind a kid who didn’t REALLY wash his hands after eating.
At that point, the contact reaction would happen. Hives would break out on his hands and quickly make their way up his arms to his face. Panicking, he would begin to cry and those little hands that still have peanut protein on them would make their way to rub his crying eyes or maybe even a hand in his mouth to stop himself from crying out.
And as soon as that peanut protein would make its way into his eyes or mouth, it would be over. His throat would begin to swell and his face would swell and he would struggle for a breath. And if these teachers who could not even ensure him a safe peanut-free environment, took one minute too long to retrieve his Epi-pen (from the nurse’s office … so not on the teacher’s person) and administer it quickly, James would die.
It really is that serious.
So back to that argument about how these kids with allergies are going to have to learn how to cope with them and your kid NEEDS his peanut butter and jelly sandwich? Well, the thing is, kids like James need to LIVE. They didn’t choose to have a peanut allergy, and they’re not requesting you bring an alternative to make your life inconvenient or difficult.
Imagine if you brought your child to school and there were razor blades hidden in just a few locations. The teachers tell you that they are on the lookout to make sure your child won’t touch them and injure themselves. But wouldn’t it be better to just make the school razor blade free? This is essentially what food allergy parents are asking: for our help in keeping their children safe and alive. And it is up to us, who are blessed beyond measure to not have to fight that battle every day, to give them a safe environment to grow up in so that they can make it to adulthood, at which point they will have the emotional maturity and resources to cope with their allergy. It is up to us to teach inclusion and not exclusion. Why, at 3 and 4 years old, should James have to sit alone and left out because of something totally beyond his control? Maybe for us, it means that we pack our kids a lunch of something besides peanut butter sandwiches. Because James, and all the kids like him, deserve to have a chance at this thing called life.