Safeguarding & Empowering Families with Food Allergies
Long before marriage and kids, I had the desire to help children. As to what extent, I didn’t know. I just wanted to help children, millions of them all over the world. On July 6, 2002, I gave birth to the most precious baby boy who had a laugh that uplifted my soul. I named him Tristan. Little did I know he would be the start of my journey. I grew up in a family with no food allergies and no environmental allergies. Our skin was smooth as silk, our appetite as normal as the next kid, and our kitchen cabinet void of any allergy medications. The word “allergy” was never even muttered in my house.
When my son was three years old, I gave him a piece of toast with peanut butter. A minute later, he handed the toast back to me and he had hives all over his face. I didn’t know anything about hives. I just looked at him and thought he must be allergic to peanut butter. I didn’t feel any urgency to rush him to the ER because I didn’t know the magnitude of its consequence. Luckily, the hives dissipated, so I didn’t think of it again.
It wasn’t until we moved to Virginia that my life changed in so many directions. Tristan was four years old and I also had a five-month-old baby girl. I found a new pediatrician who tested Tristan for allergies because he had eczema. That’s when I found out he had food allergies. I was given an EpiPen, but I still didn’t feel the consequence because Tristan looked fine and acted like any other boy. However, when he was five years old, he came home from school scratching his arms. At first, I thought it was his eczema bothering him again, so I applied cortisone. After a few days of constant scratching, I noticed how voracious his scratching would get and how uncomfortable he was feeling. At that point, I knew something was wrong.
I brought him to an allergist who later told me he had multiple food allergies. He couldn’t eat peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, soy, wheat, shellfish, beef, chicken, watermelon, apples, carrots, and string beans. He was severely allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, and eggs. I had to put my son on an elimination diet to clear his system of these allergens. Suddenly, I felt like I was caught in a tornado sweeping me in crazy directions filled with fear, confusion, helplessness and disbelief. Sleepless nights became my new normal as he would wake me up with bloody arms and sheets from all the scratching, and I found myself cleaning him up every night.
Tristan’s schooling was affected. The social worker said Tristan was delayed developmentally and wasn’t focused in class. They referred me to a pediatric specialist who later told me he had Asperger’s and needed to take medicine to keep him focused at school. I was shocked and numbed with disbelief once again. I read all the literature about Asperger’s, but I couldn’t bring my heart to agree with the doctor. I felt something was not right and that the doctor had been too quick to diagnose and medicate my son without giving him a chance to heal and live. After numerous visits to the pediatrician and endless prescriptions for new steroidal medications, I cried out to Tristan’s pediatrician about how the medications were turning my son into a little monster. She told me the medications were just band-aid fixes—Tristan needed to heal from within. Looking straight into my eyes from one mom to the next, she said, “Go with your mama instincts. You know your son the best.” I decided to stop all medications except for one antihistamine that I gave Tristan once a day.
I tirelessly resorted to the internet and researched everything there was about eczema and food allergies. My pursuit was relentless as I tried to figure out what was going on with my son and what I needed to do to help him. I started a food allergy journal and wrote down every food, medicine, and activity he was exposed to. I was determined to get educated and to heal my son.
Meanwhile, my son’s condition worsened. His eczema spread all over his body with hives. Then his beautiful olive-colored skin became pale. His eyebrows were falling off and his stomach was always bloated. I was frightened because suddenly I saw a different child who was slowly deteriorating in front of me. Despite what was obviously happening on the surface, Tristan remained surprisingly happy and energetic. His little sister, Nina, made him laugh every day. The amazing thing about kids is their resilience and their spirit to live. God bless them!
I found an amazing woman online who wrote a book about eczema and how she had healed her body of it. She became instrumental in my learning. She was patient with me and gave me unlimited coaching whenever I needed to talk to her. I will be forever grateful to her for propelling me to learn more about food and its healing properties.
Through my journal, I learned Tristan had delayed reactions to wheat, which explained the nightly scratching that resulted in bloody sheets. I switched to gluten-free pastas and breads. I also learned that soy contributed to eczema, so I eliminated all the culprits and cooked his food from scratch.
I also took him to someone who analyzed his blood and found that he was not digesting his meals wells, so I started giving him enzymes. Then I learned about probiotics, so I focused on healing his gut while eliminating allergens. His skin started to heal, his hair started to grow back, and he started to thrive once again. At ten years old, we celebrated when the social worker, his teachers, and special education coordinator all agreed he didn’t need special education anymore. His grades had earned him a place on the honor roll for the first time. Tristan was on top of the world when we told him he didn’t need to be pulled out of class for special education anymore. He started to excel in all his classes and in sports.
I finally understood my son. I accepted who he was and what he needed to eat in order to survive and grow into a handsome, happy young man. I remind Tristan that food allergies do not define who he is, and I encourage him to advocate for himself and for his little sister.
When my daughter, Nina, was ready to enter pre-school, I learned she had peanut and tree nut allergies as well. I wasn’t as nervous and unprepared as I had been with Tristan. She was ahead of the game because food allergies had become common knowledge in my family. Nina knew how important food choices were to the health of the family. My two kids are a dynamic duo as they remind each other to grab their EpiPens before we leave the house and to read all labels. They’ve also become my cooking assistants and are on their way to cooking full meals for the family.
Four years ago, I started to draft my first book. My daughter, a gifted artist, sketched out amazing characters with creative names for my story. I hired an illustrator to make them come to life. That first book is still in draft mode because I felt the characters were meant for a different purpose. I turned those characters into tags. I placed the tags on my kids’ lunch bags, athletic bags, and book bags. Other kids found them adorable and creative, and the tags allowed my kids to advocate for themselves in a non-threatening and fun way. I later created silicone bracelets to wear to school and athletic games too. Necklaces soon followed with various colors.
Because my creations were a hit with my kids and their friends, I knew many kids would benefit from them too. Suddenly, I started to receive custom orders. I realized kids needed support for various medical challenges as well. This was when “Allergy Kids Central” was born. This website serves as a resource and online store for kids and parents living with food allergies and other medical challenges. It has been an amazing journey watching my site develop and connect to many incredible families, peers, and similar support groups.
Empowering kids with safeguarding products is a first step to spreading awareness. However, providing knowledge, encouragement, and support will foster confidence, independence, and self-worth. Raising kids in a society of fast food chains can be challenging, but providing healthy substitutions can be just as rewarding. There can be challenges at school when certain events call for certain foods that are off-limits to my kids. It’s not always easy, but I’ve learned that planning ahead and communicating effectively can turn that dilemma into a success for everyone, including my kids.
This led me to writing my first book, Dear Diary, I’m Going to a Birthday Party! I felt kids living with food allergies needed a voice to express the emotional roller coaster they go through with food allergies. It begins with an “All About Me” page describing Nina Packer’s all-time favorites and the names of her school, her best friends, and her food allergies. I chose this beginning to let the reader know that kids with food allergies are no different than the next. It ends with a positive note and an empowering message.
It has been fifteen years since my journey began. It took ten years to figure it all out. But, today, I realize that in order to help my kids, I needed to learn and experience their way of life. One thing I know about all kids is they are unique individuals possessing different needs. My products are a reflection of those needs. My book is the first of a series I plan to write that will help kids to voice their feelings in this world full of uncertainty. But, one thing for certain is that this mama will continue to advocate, educate, and empower kids through her fun products, kid-friendly website, online resources, and encouraging books. Growing up, my mom always said, “Dream big!” However long it takes, my goal to help millions of kids will come true. Until that day happens, my heart will continue to overflow with love and gratitude for each child touched by my creations.