continued The seriousness of food allergies is often not understood until someone has witnessed the adverse effects. "One year, at asthma camp, there was one little boy who was allergic to dairy. I'm talking very allergic. We had to monitor his diet, read all the labels. That's very important, because you often don't think of casein and things that are milk proteins as milk or dairy. He knew and we knew. What he did was, there were corn peels -- you know those orange things with a lot of powder on them, it's a snack food -- Chee-tos or Doritos? We always called them corn curls. He didn't eat any. He just touched one and went into anaphylactic shock. We were in the San Bernardino mountains, and we had to get him down the hill to a hospital. He was very close to being 'trached' [getting a tracheotomy -- a breathing tube inserted externally into the throat] right there at asthma camp. The camp is staffed by nurses and doctors and respiratory techs, and a doctor drove him down. We had him intubated and were 'bagging' [assisting respiration] him all the way down. I've never forgotten that.
"The parents of kids who have these severe food allergies know that their kids can die. They may become overprotective or compulsive. It is very appropriate that they take the measures that they do. It's very appropriate that the whole school know -- the teachers, the bus drivers, all the people. They've had to rush their kids to the hospital because a mistake has been made, and they know their children can die. Other people, those who don't understand this, need education. Take M&M's. Some kids are allergic to nuts but not to chocolate. But in M&M's, the chocolate has ground nuts in it to make it thicker. Parents have to be careful. A child in my school a few years ago was allergic to fish. One day he thought he was eating chicken nuggets in the cafeteria when, in fact, he was eating fish. I don't know why he thought it was chicken, but he came to my office and his tongue was two inches thick and his lips were closed. It was a 911 call that ended up at Balboa Hospital -- the whole deal. I've had kids at asthma camp, where if there was food cooked in peanut oil, they couldn't be anywhere near it or they would go into anaphylactic shock. I take parents very seriously. They may seem to overcompensate, but they don't want to lose their child."
When the allergies are severe or unique enough, relations with other children can be a problem. "We had a child, several years ago, with a skin allergy. He had asthma and was on nine medications. His eczema and atopic dermatitis was so severe that he looked like a lizard. I would go into the classroom every year and talk to the class. Let's say his name was Ben. I would say, 'You can't get anything from Ben.' I would touch him and say, 'Ben's my friend. He has a skin problem, but he's just like you and me.' Sometimes his mom would come in with me. She tried to keep him in long sleeves. After things were explained, he got along fine with the other kids. But when you first see a person like this, it's really frightening, especially to young kids. Older kids can understand this. We protected him from the sun and made sure he took his medication and used his skin cream, but we had to explain it to the kids. As a result, 'Ben' was shy and needed help to break into the group, because he knew he was different. It's horrible. He grew up to be a fine young man, and now he's been diagnosed with Crohn's disease. I am very sorry that he's continuing to have medical problems."
Allergies are not always easily identified and often require detective work. Wright recalls one student who was missing a lot of school with no apparent explanation. "He had asthma. His mother was a nurse, very competent. He got good medical care and was on the right medication, but he would come to school and start wheezing. It was so severe that I'd send him home and to the doctor. Two days later, he'd come back, and it would happen all over again. Now, they had rats and guinea pigs in the classroom, and although he was not allergic to those animals, I thought the protein in the urine or the dander or whatever was probably causing this. I couldn't get the teacher to remove those animals, because the child didn't test allergic to those animals, but after five weeks, I knew there had to be a connection. I started to read and even wondered if the kid was allergic to the print on the page -- I'd had a kid some years earlier who was and had to wear a mask when reading. When everything's in place and the child doesn't get better, we've got to become detectives and figure it out. Finally, I found out that the feed of guinea pigs and rats had peanut shells, and, therefore, the oil and skin of peanuts. This young man was anaphylactically allergic to the feed. He had come in with hives several times. After I figured that out, they were immediately removed. He was much better after that. For a kid who's never had a guinea pig or dogs or cats, the parents may not even know."
Wright believes informing the schools is the strongest tool in fighting allergies. "It's an important problem. Schools can manage if they know. We need to know the children who do have allergies. We need to know how they react. What kind of allergy is it? Do they get hives or do they stop breathing? We need to know all that information. Don't tell us your child has an allergy when they get an upset stomach from milk. Tell us what we're dealing with. We want allergic kids to have Epi-pens. We're capable of giving them and training others to do so. We'd like them to have everything written down and ready for the teacher, so we can teach room mothers and other people what we're doing."