Dr. Abby Herzig spent her professional life working with children as a clinical psychologist. Over the 10 years she practiced psychology, she worked in psychiatric hospitals, special schools, the court system, her own private practice, and with UNICEF. But shortly after her 1-year-old son was diagnosed with life-threatening food allergies, she walked away from it all. Why? To build an innovative digital healthcare company for parents of children managing food allergies. “It’s the most creative thing I’ve ever done,” she explains.
AllergyBites: What food is your son allergic to?
Abby Herzig: He’s allergic to all tree nuts and sesame (sigh, sesame).
AB: Can you describe the first time you realized (or suspected) that he had a food allergy?
AH: There was no time to suspect. We went straight to confirmation of the real deal. One morning, when my son was a year old, I ground up some walnuts to sprinkle over his oatmeal, and—bang!—he had his first anaphylactic reaction: hives all over, sneezing, mucous coming out of everywhere, diarrhea, and tears. I had no idea what to do, so I put him in the bath, thinking that would help. I called our (then) pediatrician and spoke to the office manager, who didn’t even tell me to call 911! So I never did. It then took the doctor 1 hour to return my message. Let’s just say it’s a good thing that most anaphylactic reactions in infants are not fatal.
AB: Has your child ever experienced an anaphylactic reaction? If yes, what happened?
AH: See above. And then there was the second time, when my son was 3 years old. This one was a real life-changer for us, mostly because it was totally my fault. I was shopping at our quaint, local grocery store in Brooklyn (where we were living at the time), and I picked out a few “homemade” chocolate-banana muffins. They weren’t labelled, as they were the ones you find piled up in those wicker-like baskets. I then went to meet my family at my son’s soccer practice. During his break, I fed him one of the muffins—which turned out to have walnuts in it. The muffins must’ve gotten all mixed up in the baskets. Within minutes, my son knew something was wrong. I think his whole body just felt wrong to him, but I knew right away something bad was happening when he said, “Mommy, my neck is hurting me.” I rushed him to the bathroom (a waste of time, I don’t advise doing that), and injected him with the EpiPen. I did it so (unnecessarily) hard that I gave him a charley horse. His symptoms subsided immediately, and we then called 911. We spent the rest of the day in the hospital, where he was monitored for hours and given steroids, to prevent a biphasic reaction.
A year before that incident, his allergist had given me this advice: “You will never hurt your son if you give him epinephrine. There is no danger in using it, so even if you are unsure, just inject.” That was the greatest and most critical advice anyone had ever given me with regard to this whole situation and probably what saved my son’s life that day. Too many people are still afraid of injecting epinephrine so I’m on a mission to spread this same message and empower others to feel that same way.
AB: After the diagnosis, what did your grieving process look like? Do you feel that you’re in the “acceptance” phase now?
AH: I didn’t go into mourning after he was diagnosed. I really felt like I could handle it. And he was my first child, so it was all I knew. I was really fine with it until I sent him to school for the first time a couple of years later. That’s when I felt an emotional shift.
However, after that second anaphylactic incident at the soccer practice, I felt incredible shame—shame that I, the mother, the protector, the mama bear, had put my son in danger. And the seed for my new company had already been planted, so I wasn’t only his protector, I was supposedly the one building a platform designed to protect him, and there I was, the one who had put him in anaphylactic danger.
I learned that day to never let my guard down. That just because you’ve grown comfortable with a place or a situation does not mean it is safe. It sounds obvious, but trust me, it’s easy to get complacent with familiarity. My son, unfortunately, will never have the luxury of being able to let his guard down. But, side by side with my shame from that incident was a greater sense of empowerment. I can’t quite explain it, but having to stab your 3-year-old child in the thigh takes the fear out of ever having to do it again. I recommend that any parent with a food-allergic child try it out on a willing participant. You’ll see, it really is no big deal. Am I allowed to give that advice?
AB: What are your biggest challenges as the mom of a food-allergic kid?
AH: Handing him over to other caregivers. New counsellors, new camps, field trips, sleepovers. When he is with me, I feel so in control. I like to protect people I love and I lose faith when they are not in my care. I don’t take it for granted when he comes back home every day. I can’t imagine how hard his adolescence will be for me.
AB: How has your child dealt with his food allergies?
AH: Having an anaphylactic reaction at a memorable age can have a positive impact on food-allergic children. And by positive, I mean that in a twisted, ironic way, they become a little more anxious and little more aware. We don’t want our kids to have anxiety, but having a little bit can help keep them safe Kids who have never had a reaction (or at least one they can remember) sort of live in disbelief that they have an allergy at all. When we have no anxiety, when we let our guard down, that’s when the bad incidents occur (like with me at the Brooklyn grocery store). That’s actually one of the reasons so many fatal allergic incidents occur in adolescence. The neurobiology of the teenage brain makes them feel invincible, so they don’t have the necessary anxiety (yet) that could help protect them—and yet they are expected to be independent and self-reliant. So coming back to your question, due to having that reaction at age 3 (which he still remembers), he’s anxious just enough so that he never eats anything without asking first if it is safe. He’s quite excellent about that. His allergies do not define him at all but I know if he could have one wish, it would be that he didn’t have them at all.
AB: How often did you eat out before the food allergy diagnosis? How often have you eaten out since?
AH: We ate out a lot before and we eat out a lot now too. We don’t believe his diagnosis should stop him—or us—from living our lives. That being said, we don’t eat at Asian restaurants (with him) because we’d be delusional to think that we’d find anything safe for a child with sesame allergies. But we go almost everywhere else, unless we’ve been given good reason not to. We are clear with servers about his allergies, we teach him to self-advocate so that he’s able to order on his on, we check the meal before he eats it, and we’re always sure to have epinephrine on us. The other day, the server assured us that the cheese ravioli did not have any nuts or sesame in it, but when she brought the bowl of pasta to our table, there were these artisanal crackers (covered in sesame!) dipped deep into the bowl. You can never assume others will get it right. And you should never eat unless you have epinephrine with you.
AB: Where are your go-to SAFE eating spots in Toronto?
AH: Oh boy, I wish we had places I could say were definitively safe, but I can’t guarantee that for anyone. That being said, Toronto has 2 new places that are totally free of top allergens: Sorelle and Co. and Hype Food Co. We’ve been to Sorelle once, which was lovely, and I can’t wait to try Hype at the next allergy mom meetup.
AB: Can you tell me why Sorelle and Co. makes you feel safe?
AH: When I took my son to Sorelle, I looked at him and said “Whatever you like baby.” You don’t realize how restricted and tense you are until you are not.
AB: What are some fun facts about your food-allergic kiddo?
AH: My son has the coolest birthmark near his eye that we are all in love with. I hope he never removes it. He is a true renaissance man. He’s a star athlete, a sensational dancer, an artist, and he excels at school. He builds, creates, plays the piano. He has it all. I have to say that, despite his allergies, he’s very lucky.
AB: Tell me about Belay.
AH: Where do I begin? Belay wants to change the way families live with food allergies. We have built a very comprehensive platform to help parents manage food allergies and to keep children (like my son) safe. We just launched the first piece of our ecosystem, our mobile app, which addresses that same struggle that I have and the impetus for Belay, namely making sure food-allergic children are safe when they are not with their parents. The app enables parents to send their children’s life-saving information to any caregiver’s smartphone so that they always have it in their back pockets—and caregivers never have to download the app.
People often ask me how we came up with our name. Belay is the technique used by rock climbers when they tie the knot that holds them so that the rope catches them if they should fall. Belaying is also about being connected and that’s what we’re about. We help connect parents to caregivers and connect the community around the child so that they are always safe, despite the ubiquity of food. Not only that, but rock climbing is forever cool, admirable, and requires strength and tenacity. And so, more than anything, the name reflects our philosophy that we all need to keep living our lives—whether it’s going out to restaurants, getting on airplanes, enjoying the birthday party, or climbing that mountain—we just need to do it safely… and Belay will be there with you as your safety net. It’s my mission to create a “belay” for people. And to put it simply, I just want kids with food allergies to feel totally badass.
Friendly. Supportive. Encouraging.
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