(Susan will be speaking at the March 19 PTA meeting at 8:30 in the cafeteria)
When parents make life-threatening mistakes all we can do is learn from them…
When I tell a new acquaintance about my son Eden and his multiple and life threatening food allergies, this is one of the first questions I’m asked: “Have you ever had to give him an Epipen?”
My answer is: “No. A doctor gave him an injection during his first anaphylactic reaction.” And if the person asking is more than a causal acquaintance, someone who may have any role in Eden’s life, anyone from a teacher to a sitter to a play date parent, I might add: “But there were an occasion when I probably should have.”
That isn’t an easy admission. Why would any parent of a child with multiple life threatening food allergies choose to not give them an injection of life-saving medication? The answer is this: A few years ago Eden had a very severe allergic reaction. Instead of administering his Epipen, I gave him doses of antihistamine, which did not exceed his advised quantities, but came very close. And Eden was (is) fine. So why was my decision a mistake?
To begin with, my husband was away on the West Coast that week. When I walked the children home from school that day, I was tired from parenting solo. I didn’t feel like cooking. But I always cook for my children. So I stopped in a familiar Mom and Pop prepared food store, intending to buy something ready-made for myself. That’s when my daughter saw some twice-baked potatoes in the display and asked me to buy one for her to eat with dinner. Before I could answer, Eden chimed in, “Oh mom! Can you ask them if it’s safe for me? It looks so good!”
I almost never buy Eden prepared or restaurant foods. Almost never. But I gave in and asked, assuming the potato was whipped up with butter and milk and so we wouldn’t be buying it anyway. “Neither!” Answered the proprietors. “Never! We use only olive oil. A little water. Much healthier!” Of course I repeated Eden’s long list of allergens (including nuts) and asked them again. And again they repeated, “Olive oil and water.” So I bought one for the children to split.
Fast forward a few hours and two bites to our dinner table where Eden says, “Mommy, there’s something in that potato!” His throat began to itch; his body began to hive. I ran the ten feet of floor to get his emergency kit and I gave Eden a dose of Benadryl. Then I grabbed his asthma inhalers because he asked for them. And while Eden reported relief, hives covered his chest and back. It was time for the Epipen and I knew it.
I also knew something that most non-allergic people don’t. My two children and I were leaving for the emergency room after I pulled out the Epi. It would be an all-night vigil. The moment a child is injected, parents must go the nearest hospital for monitoring. So I held off. I gave Eden more Benadryl for his hives. He said he felt less itchy but they were still there – red and angry. Based on Eden’s initial throat and breathing symptoms alone, even without those awful hives glaring angrily, his emergency treatment form indicated use of the Epipen. I held off another minute. The hives began to recede. They receded more. And after a long evening, eventually the Benadryl knocked Eden out into a deep sleep.
Not me. I walked into the children’s darkened room every hour throughout that night to check his breathing for wheezes, his skin for swelling. By the morning Eden looked as if nothing had happened. But when I called my allergist after his drop-off, she told me plainly that something had happened: I had been lucky. My son was on the verge of anaphylaxis (impossible to know how close his body was teetering) and I had pulled him back with the wrong medication. “That’s the kind of situation where you should use the Epipen,” my allergist answered after hearing the details. “I know it’s hard to know. But it would have been a safer choice with those symptoms.”
Sometimes we know the moment we do something that it is a mistake. In this case it took me too long to realize that in not doing something I had erred on the side of danger. And for the wrong reason — I didn’t want to disrupt my children’s lives that night. I didn’t want to take my children to the emergency room and give them that memory. Yet I still shiver at the thought of a different outcome. I can see that potato with crystal clarity in my mind’s eye. So now I tell anyone who asks, “It’s better to be wrong about giving Eden his Epipen than to be wrong about not giving it.” I should know.
Susan Weissman is the author of Feeding Eden: The Trials and Triumphs of a Food Allergy Family (Sterling Publishing, available where books are sold.) Susan was a middle-school English teacher before turning to writing full-time. She writes for The Huffington Post, Psychology Today, Allergic Living, and various sites on the topic of allergies and parenting. Find resources for parents and children with allergies at http://susanweissman.com