Thursday, June 26, 2014

So This is What Panic Feels Like

The Redhead and Second Favorite Uncle hanging out in London.

I thought I would be writing about how The Redhead went to London with Favorite Uncle and Second Favorite Uncle and had a fabulous time. But I'm not.

He did, of course, have a fabulous time. From what I can gather (and that comes in bursts of information at random times because that's how teenage boys communicate) he saw the Tower of London, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, and some castle. He took the tube, went on a river tour, and stayed in a flat. He sampled every British candy bar that exists, it sounds like, and is particularly fond of something called the Wispa. The Uncles took him to see numerous theater productions, most of which he slept through, but seemed to appreciate all the same. But I have trouble focusing on these travel tales because it is all such white noise for me compared to the fact that he had a severe allergic reaction and I wasn't there.

I was nervous sending him on his first trip out of the country without us. (To complicate matters, Aquaman left the day before for Alaska where he'll be commercial fishing for the whole summer with limited communication. But that's a whole other post.) We checked and double-checked that he had his Medic-Alert bracelet on his wrist (I would have glued it there if I could have), that Benadryl was stashed in various spots that he could get to easily, and that he had his Epi-Pen and inhaler, just in case. He had instructions to parse out 2 Benadryl each to The Uncles so that if he somehow managed to screw up and forget his, he would still be covered in an emergency. The Uncles are familiar with his food allergies - his most serious ones are to all nuts and fish. They've watched him grow up and seen us navigate the world with dietary restrictions. Favorite Uncle was our nanny one summer when we lived in Alaska and fed, diapered, bathed, and cared for all three boys like a pro. I couldn't have asked for better circumstances under which to have The Redhead venture beyond America's borders.

The Redhead goes International!

This trip was a gift from The Uncles for The Redhead's 15th year. He is old enough to travel without parents and young enough to still want to travel with relatives. Aquaman and I didn't go abroad until we were 18, so he beat us by 3 years, which is some kind of awesome. I dropped him off at the airport on Friday and he flew to Chicago to meet The Uncles. They continued on to London, arriving Sunday. We had limited communication, but I got texts and pictures periodically when they had access to WiFi (international cellular charges can be brutal and are best avoided). A lot of the pictures are of The Redhead sleeping, everywhere they went. Which is probably more because he's a teenager than because of the 6 hour time change.

Teenagers sleep anywhere.

A rare moment of The Redhead awake and Favorite Uncle explaining something British.

Things were going well. I had worried for nothing, as mothers do. Then, on the last day, I got this text from The Redhead around noon:

Guess who fed me cashews 

And the world stopped spinning.

My response?

Oh shit. Are you ok?

And I'm thinking he's GOT to be okay because he's texting me. But maybe it just happened. But still. He's texting. It can't be THAT bad, right?

He texted back that they were at an Indian restaurant and had explained his allergies to nuts and fish. They had all ordered the same thing, but The Redhead's was a smaller version. When the food came, The Uncles saw there was a particularly tasty mint coriander sauce missing from The Redhead's plate. So, naturally Second Favorite Uncle took a chip, dipped up some sauce and handed it to him. "You gotta try this!"

You can hold your breath at this point. I know I did. Like I said, I wasn't there. But here's what I've managed to piece together.

The sauce was definitely tasty. And then tingled the roof of The Redhead's mouth where it first made contact. And then his tongue felt funny. And then his throat felt tight.

"There was definitely something in that," he announced. "Yep. I'm allergic to something. Bad." He popped first one Benadryl, then another for good measure.

The Uncles were floored. "Are you sure it's not just spicy?" they asked.

I snorted at this part in the story. Amateurs. (Perhaps I have some built up resentment that all parents of allergic children have? Or maybe it's just bitter old me. But the fact is no one else really gets it - truly - until they've seen it in person.) This is how it happens. Innocently, as part of sharing a meal. We humans do it three times a day. It is a necessary part of life. And for someone with food allergies, this very act of existing involves inherent danger. And no one's to blame. No one is at fault. It is just reality that things can go from normal to life threatening in seconds.

"Nope. This is the real deal," The Redhead explained. After having to request water and drinking his soda to try and get some relief in his mouth, he announced that he would be throwing up. He made it down the stairs and opened the door to the bathroom and barfed everywhere. (This means he threw up all of the Benadryl he had just taken before it could work.) He had to stay down there for a while until he felt like he was done throwing up and could stand up and walk, during which time several men tried to come in the bathroom and were confronted with a slick of vomit. The Redhead finally made it back upstairs and The Uncles had interrogated the waiter and discovered that the sauce was intentionally left off of The Redhead's plate because it contained cashews.

So I abruptly stopped getting texts from The Redhead and instead got a picture of him sent by Second Favorite Uncle. I think the picture was meant to reassure me, but all I saw was my baby with a slightly swollen eye and lip, which happens during a severe reaction. So I began firing off texts to assess the situation and stationed myself in front of my laptop to quickly refresh myself on the stages of allergic reactions to cashews. Here's a sample of some of the texts flying back and forth between me and Second Favorite Uncle:

Did this just happen?
Has he taken Benadryl?

SFU: (I think it's funny that Second Favorite Uncle's initials contain FU)
He took it
He's ok

Is he drooling
Or having trouble breathing

And we will watch him closely...try not to worry

Did his eyes swell

He is fine
To all 3
I promise I will tell u if he has any trouble

How long has it been since he took a bite

15 mins

And about 15 min since Benadryl?

He just threw up but he is not having trouble breathing


Yes he took it right away 

Good that he threw up

His eyes are not swelling

Any hives



He is moving around just fine

He is probably freaked out
He may have stomach ache later and diarrhea.
And be very tired.
15-20 minutes is usually the time frame for major reaction so if passed that good

It has

But watch him for next 24 hours. I have heard of secondary reactions later. 

He is already joking around again.

Ok. Take care of my redhead. He's the only one I've got.

Be ready if things get worse. Use the epipen and get to an er if it isn't getting better.

And during the time that I'm texting, I'm searching Google for things like "stages of anaphylaxis" and getting images like this:

Wikipedia image. Creative Commons.
Serious shit, alright? 

Probably not the most reassuring image. I was also looking up cashew allergies and finding articles that proclaim cashews cause the most severe reactions, are worse than those to peanut, and strongly related to anaphylaxis. (This New York Times article about radical treatments for severe food allergies only made me feel worse, but in good company with other parents.) Of course I know all of this already. The Redhead's worst reaction ever was to a cashew nut disguised under a layer of chocolate on Halloween when he was a wee toddler. I am quite familiar with all of the horrors. And I couldn't stop myself from looking it up. And you know what else I looked up? The distance from Dallas to London. 

How bout they just say, "A long fucking way, Momma."?

4,745 miles, folks.  

I hadn't looked it up until that moment. 

And that's when I fell apart. 

Tears came along with the terror of the realization that I could do nothing for my child. Things were beyond my control, out of my hands. I was crying so much that I had to wipe away the tears to be able to focus on the goddamn texts I was sending and receiving. I felt compelled to send The Redhead a text telling him that I loved him.

I felt sick to my stomach. Then I just gave over to it and sobbed, my head in my hands on the desk. 

As I surrendered to helplessness, the desperation I felt reminded me of a book I had just finished reading. Mary Karr's memoir Lit details her battle with alcoholism and spirituality and her finally giving in to praying. A pivotal moment for her was when she got down on her knees in complete agony to pray for the first time. I understand this resistance. And in that moment, I dropped to my knees on the floor beside the desk and whispered, "Please don't take him, God. Please don't. Not now. Not like this. Don't do it. Please. I'm begging." 

I felt worse. Uttering the words "take him" made me feel like I was opening that possibility up to the universe. I jumped up, ran to my bed, and got back down on my knees with a new request. "Please, God, protect him. Send a cloud of goodness around him that nothing can penetrate." I visualized this cloak of healing and recovery, bathing him in light. "Protect him. Protect him. Protect him," I chanted. And that made me feel better. But I kept right on crying.  

The Uncles and The Redhead had to leave WiFi en route to their next destination, another theater. But Second Favorite Uncle left the theater to text me that everything was okay and to try not to worry. They were able to FaceTime with me later so that I could lay eyes on The Redhead, who looked exhausted. He had slept through another theater performance after eating an entire bag of malted milk balls. This made me cringe. I wanted him to eat nothing but plain rice until he got back to me. 

The next afternoon, he was back. I had to banish fears of him having a secondary reaction while they were on the flight from London to Chicago. I was able to breathe again when The Uncles texted that they were back stateside and that all parties were alive and well, but I didn't relax until he was safely in the passenger seat of my car at the airport in Dallas. He then gave me a blow-by-blow account of the whole episode and filled in some of the details - like the part where he took 2 more Benadryl after throwing up the first 2. That might be why he slept through the theater. Just a guess. But it may have saved his life. 

And it's the life taking/life saving part that gets me. All parents worry. I know that. But I have a very legitimate reason to worry. Food allergies mean that something your child eats can kill them. It's just that simple. Which makes parenting just that complicated.

So I'm extra grateful that The Redhead returned safely and he had this amazing international experience at the tender age of 15 thanks to two pretty amazing, generous, and caring individuals who also happen to be his uncles. He's back to his old self. After a short "honeymoon" period wherein he sweetly shared his British candy bars with his brothers, he's back to fighting with them nonstop. He hasn't showered since he came back to America. That sounds really dramatic, doesn't it? It's the reality of living with a teenage boy. And I know how lucky I am to experience it.  

The Redhead and Me.
I look squirrely. With good reason.


  1. Kate! I can feel and identify with your panic. I seriously think Mom panic is the worst feeling in the entire world. It's pretty much why I stopped having kids.

    When my oldest was about 18 months we had to rush her to the ER with a severe egg allergy. She has other allergies as well, most of which are not life-threatening, but which make her eczema flare and crack and leave her skin useless and painful. As she's gotten older her allergy to horses has grown more severe. If even a molecule of dander wafts in her direction she can't breathe and her face looks Rocky after the final fight. So, sending her to France for 18 months was really hard. Lucky for her, she somewhat outgrew the egg allergy. She can have baked goods with eggs in them. But really, the best is for her to avoid eggs altogether. We've been over this -- her entire life. The epipen, the benadryl (I've bought enough Benadryl over her life for 40 kids). So, a few months ago I get an e-mail from her saying that she had a rash on her chin and neck that won't go away. She's had it for a solid MONTH. I start quizzing her about what she's eating. Oh, omelets. Lots of omelets. ARE YOU EVEN KIDDING ME? Nope. I told her to lay off the omelets. The rash went away. Duh.

    1. Sarah, I had no idea we had allergic kids in common as well! Thanks for assuring me I'm not alone in this - or in Mom panic. I can't believe your oldest was eating omelets. Wait. Yes I can. Will we still be gently reminding them of their limitations when they have their own children????

  2. I could not decide if I should laugh or cry while reading this...I did both.
    Signed, Second Favorite Uncle

    Intentionally not signed SFU

    1. I did both when writing it, SFU :)
      Thanks for reading and commenting. And for being SFU.