AllergyBites: Tell us a little bit about your food allergy journey.
Kathleen O’Hagan: Neither myself or my husband has food allergies, so I never even considered that my little one would react to a food that was once a staple in my household. Considering my biggest worry while pregnant was having a picky eater, you can imagine the surprise when we learned he had, not one, but multiple allergies. After his diagnosis, my husband and I began searching for allergy-friendly restaurants in Toronto (with very little luck), and so we decided to create our own list… and share it with the community.
AB: What foods is your child allergic to?
KO: He is currently allergic to peanuts, egg, sesame and soy. Last year, he did an oral challenge for soy (which he passed) and we’ve recently crossed tree nuts off our list. Down from 6 to 4 – woo hoo!
AB: Can you describe the first time you realized (or suspected) he had a food allergy?
KO: During his 6-month check-up, our family doctor advised us to start introducing allergens as soon as possible (as per the latest recommendations), and suggested starting with a lick of peanut butter. I remember my little guy breaking out in hives and a rash around his mouth the moment it touched his tongue. We gave him some Benadryl, and the symptoms went away pretty much immediately. Looking back, we knew nothing about food allergies and were totally underprepared for a serious reaction. I feel embarrassed to admit this now, but I actually considered giving him more peanut butter over the following days — “to build up his immunity.” Luckily, I checked in with an online moms’ group, and they were all quite emphatic about not letting him near peanuts until we got him tested by an allergist. So we heeded their advice and had no real major issue until quite recently…
AB: Has your child ever experienced an anaphylactic reaction? If yes, what happened?
KO: He had his first anaphylactic “mystery” reaction this past August. He was at a park he goes to every day with his care provider, and to her knowledge, he had not ingested anything while there. When they got home, she noticed a hive on his face (no biggie for our very reactive guy!) and that he had suddenly become quite congested. She called me to see if I could pop by with some Claritin (since I work from home). By the time I got there, Claritin in hand, his symptoms had progressed. He had red splotches on his face, leaky eyes and a runny nose, swelling around his eyes, he was playing with tongue, and when asked, he admitted to having an “ouchie” in his throat. According to Food Allergy Canada, FAACT, FARE, and my allergist, this was indeed an anaphylactic reaction. But I hesitated to give him the EpiPen… since he hadn’t eaten anything… and he was still breathing okay. Luckily, his caregiver gently encouraged me to administer epinephrine, so I did. It was quite magical to see how quickly his symptoms disappeared. Unfortunately, we had a very negative experience at the hospital. But that’s another story…
AB: After the diagnosis, what did your grieving process look like? Do you feel that you’re in the “acceptance” phase now?
KO: After the diagnosis, I was devastated. A life without peanut butter (a staple breakfast food once upon a time) seemed completely unfair. Not to mention all those delicious Asian foods we’d have to miss out on! But the funny thing is, that as my son’s number of allergies grew, so did my acceptance. And as we started to cross some of his allergies off of his list, I recall feeling happier than when he had only one known allergy. It’s really strange, but at the end of the day, it seems it’s all about perspective.
AB: What are your biggest challenges as the mom of a food-allergic kid?
KO: In addition to the typical challenges — like the inevitable anxiety that accompanies raising a child with food allergies, teaching your child to be responsible (but not fearful), the complexities of label reading and grocery shopping, how tough it is to eat out, and the way all of these challenges impact mental health — a biggie for me has been maintaining friendships. I’ve lost some good friends since my son’s diagnosis — people I thought would be a part of my life forever have essentially disappeared from my life. I don’t know if it’s because I say “no” to more social events than I say “yes.” Or if it’s because I’m usually too mentally and emotionally exhausted to make an effort to keep in touch like I used to. Or because I’m just way too high-maintenance these days.
Luckily, I have a handful of dear friends that I can go a full year without seeing, and when we do meet up, it’s like we just saw each other yesterday. It’s those friendships I’ve learned to truly value and am utterly grateful for. Because the truth is, this whole allergy mom thing can be pretty damn lonely at times.. I guess that’s why I started #AllergyMom Meetups.
AB: How has your child dealt with their food allergies?
KO: He’ll be turning 3 at the end of this year, so he doesn’t fully get it yet. He can list his allergies, and he has this cool Allerbling bracelet he likes to wear — which is probably why he loves singing along to Kyle Dine’s song of the same name — but he still hasn’t had the experience of feeling left out at school events, birthday parties, and Halloween. I’m certainly not looking forward to those times, but I’m hoping he’ll be as resilient as all these other amazing allergy kids I keep hearing about. If not, at least we’ve got a wonderful Food Allergy Therapist we can turn to.
AB: How often did you eat out before the food allergy diagnosis? How often have you eaten out since?
KO: Before having a baby, my husband and I ate out more than we ate in. Toronto has an amazing selection of restaurants with authentic cuisine from all over the world. One of our favourite things to do was to check out new restaurants listed in local publications like NOW Magazine, BlogTO and BentoBox Magazine. Once I got pregnant, my plan was to raise an adventurous little foodie. I admit, food allergies were not even on my radar! My biggest worry? Having a picky eater.
AB: Where are your go-to SAFE eating spots in Toronto?
AB: Can you tell me why Vesuvio’s and Pizzeria Defina makes you feel safe?
KO: I’ve come to learn that Italian restaurants — and pizza places specifically — are mostly a safe option for my little one’s allergies. It’s pretty uncommon for peanuts and sesame to be on the premises. And since they’re Italian, they use olive oil! (No need to worry about sunflower oil* for the most part.) My biggest concern is egg since some pizza places use it for the glaze on the dough. Luckily, this isn’t an issue at Vesuvio’s or Pizzeria Defina.
*I recently learned that Pizzaville’s sauce has sunflower oil in it — huge surprise! But this is why I always, always ask.
AB: What are some fun facts about your food-allergic kiddo?
KO: He has always been a great little communicator. I think he said his first word (“car-car”) at 9 months old, and he was talking in short sentences at only a year and a half. As a former English teacher and a current writer/editor, I am always wow-ed by his amazing vocabulary and his ability to speak in complex sentence. I absolutely adore how he will often spend ages reading, narrating, or singing (with us or by himself). Forget raising a mini foodie — maybe he’ll be the next great Canadian author! 😉
AB: Tell us about the Top 10 Challenge.
KO: While interviewing Sarah Gray of (ausEE Inc.), I learned about the Top 8 Challenge she runs yearly (in Australia) and thought it was absolutely brilliant. What really spoke to me was having participants experience a day in the life of someone with food allergies, and raising awareness and empathy as a result.
I feel like there’s still a huge chunk of society that just doesn’t get it, thinks we’re overreacting, that prioritizes snacks over safety, that rolls their eyes and sighs loudly the moment allergies are mentioned. It’s stressful as a parent, and it’s heartbreaking for our children who just want to be included and belong.
The idealist in me thinks that if society could see just how challenging it can be to spend your entire life reading all the labels, all the time and avoiding every single product that has a “may contain [your allergen]” warning… if they could imagine how it feels to live in fear of certain foods… if they could put themselves in our shoes for one meal even… that maybe, just maybe, they might to understand the seriousness of food allergies and begin to show some much-needed compassion for those living with this “invisible disability.”
In addition to raising awareness, this initiative also aims to raise funds towards allergy research. Our goal is $10,000 a year, which will be directly donated to Canadian Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology Foundation. All donations of $20 are more will receive a tax receipt.
Friendly. Supportive. Encouraging.
Want to join a community of like-minded food allergy folk? Join the AllergyBites Community on Facebook.