Julie has been an allergy mom for close to 4 years now. Neither she or her husband have food allergies, so she was “completely blindsided” when her son was first diagnosed. Plus, she says she had bought into the theory that if you consume top allergens while your baby is in utero that it would help to build immunities later — which, of course, wasn’t the case. Because Julie had no previous experience with children’s health to draw on, she describes the start of her allergy journey as being “thrown into the deep end.”
AllergyBites: What foods is your son allergic to?
Julie Pliotas-Ferguson: Milk, egg, peanuts and tree nuts.
AB: Can you describe the first time you realized (or suspected) he had a food allergy?
JPF: I had just finished making myself a cappuccino and had accidentally splashed some milk on my chest. I casually wiped it off then proceeded to breastfeed my 7-month-old baby. Shortly after his face blew up like a bullfrog, turned a reddish purple colour, and he was excessively drooling. He also had a panicked expression and a face full of hives.
We immediately called 9-1-1.
AB: Has your son ever experienced an anaphylactic reaction? If yes, what happened?
JPF: That first experience was as close as we’ve come — it ended up with an ambulance ride and a brief stay in a sketchy hospital Emergency Ward. The paramedics were great, although no Epi was administered as we didn’t have one and they didn’t feel it was necessary. (Also, I don’t believe they were standard on all ambulances at that time.) After a while, his symptoms subsided and we left on our own (the wait was too long). An ER doctor stopped me as we left and wrote us a prescription for our first ever EpiPen Junior.
AB: After the diagnosis, what did your grieving process look like? Do you feel that you’re in the “acceptance” phase now?
JPF: It’s been long enough now that we have both good days and bad days. Some days we accept that the world will not cater to his needs and we just “go with it,” while other days, the entire world seems like a threat and we’re terrified. Initially, I was a wreck. We even moved cities to be closer to our allergist and to a hospital that was closer to my husband’s work (so that he was nearer). Seeking out as much knowledge/information as possible was my greatest therapy — that and finding support groups like Parents of Kids with Food Allergies in Toronto/GTA on Facebook.
AB: What are your biggest challenges as the mom of a food-allergic kid?
JPF: Honestly, aside from the COMPLETE overhaul to our diets (my husband is the son of a dairy farmer after all), the biggest challenge was making our family and friends understand why we had to distance ourselves. Trying to get people to willingly modify their environments to make it safer for your child to visit — especially while they’re as young as our son was/is — felt impossible at times. People are set in their ways and don’t grasp the severity and risks involved. We had to cut certain loved ones out of our lives until they agreed to play by our rules, end of story, no regrets. You become very solitary and it can be pretty lonely. Also learning how to grocery shop and prepare meals all over again, as if you’d never done it before, that’s an ongoing struggle as brands and labels and quality standards are constantly changing.
AB: How has your child dealt with his food allergies?
JPF: Surprisingly well for his age (he just turned 4 in December). He’s shown an extreme amount of maturity way beyond his years. Maybe his youth and lack of previous experience kept him from seeing what “freedoms” he is missing out on. Now that he’s started JK, he self-carries and is very aware of what is and isn’t acceptable in his life, whether it be food or environmentally related. Food allergies definitely force our kids to mature faster than other children their age.
AB: How often did you eat out before the food allergy diagnosis? How often have you eaten out since?
JPF: Seeing as how he was diagnosed so early, the last time we ate out at a restaurant that wasn’t safe was during my pregnancy with him. We’d maybe eat out twice a week for the sheer convenience of it. Now we’re lucky if we can make it to one of “his restaurants” once every two months.
AB: Where are your go-to SAFE eating spots in Toronto and beyond?
JPF: We live north of the city so we aren’t as fortunate as most in terms of the quantity and variety of “safe” restaurants for us to try. Sorelle & Co. in Vaughan has been our biggest go-to.
We’re also lucky enough to have Boon Burger within a few minutes of us here in Barrie. Boon is a local vegan restaurant that offers menu items that are kid-friendly and make it feel like you’re at a fast-food chain. The poutine & hot dog are main menu items we’ve taken to, and our son loves their variety of daily rotating soft serve ice cream flavours. When in Toronto, we have stopped in at both the downtown Sorelle location and Hype Food Co. as well.
AB: Can you tell me why Sorelle and Co. makes you feel safe?
JPF: The staff at Sorelle have always been great at easing our nervousness and at making our son feel welcome. He immediately fell in love with their grilled “cheese” and is wide eyed to see the selection of sweets for dessert. They sell things like granola and bread to take home, and are really good at sharing the brands of the products they use in house to help make shopping for and sourcing safe foods easier.
AB: What are some fun facts about your food-allergic kiddo?
JPF: He has a beautiful mind, and is incredibly intelligent with a steel trap memory. His vocabulary and sheer comedic timing always bring a smile to everyone’s face. For someone who has just started school this past September, he is VERY popular and you’d swear that everyone in the entire school knows who he is. He recently started karate, and it has brought him out of his shell and given him such a confidence boost. Our faces are left sore from the ear-to-ear grins we all wear while he’s in class.
AB: Why did you decide to join the Top 10 Challenge committee as a volunteer?
JPF: Until our son is old enough to speak up for himself, we will always advocate on his behalf. Changing the public’s mindset to be more tolerant and inclusive of our loved ones is a tough fight and takes a strong community to do so. Not to mention these groups and the members have been such a tremendous support system for us from Day 1 that I wanted to be able to share what knowledge I had acquired and help other parents who were new to this lifestyle and as scared as I was.
Friendly. Supportive. Encouraging.
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