Jennifer Fortino is a high school English teacher and the mom of two little ones. While her four-year-old-daughter has an anaphylactic allergy to tree nuts, her two-year-old son has no known allergies to date. It took her awhile to accept the emotional hardship and everyday challenges that accompanied her daughter’s diagnosis — she has witnessed first hand the lack of awareness in school settings, social settings, and even familial settings — but ultimately protecting her daughter and helping to spread awareness have become Jennifer’s new ‘purpose’.
AllergyBites: What foods are your child allergic to?
Jennifer Fortino: Tree nuts — specifically, cashews, pistachios and hazelnuts.
AB: Can you describe the first time you realized (or suspected) your daughter had a food allergy?
JF: Arianna had eczema since she was a couple of months old, but I never really thought anything of it. Over time, we noticed that she would get a couple of hives randomly, but we weren’t exactly sure as to what caused them. She had never ingested nuts besides flavoured ice cream or Nutella, which she was fine with, so we never thought there was a relation. We later realized (after she was diagnosed with her allergy) that the hives must have resulted from when we snacked on nuts ourselves and gave her kisses right after or while eating them. We did not find out about her allergy until she experienced an anaphylactic reaction later.
AB: Has your child ever experienced an anaphylactic reaction? If yes, what happened?
JF: I found out about Arianna’s allergy after giving her some cashews as a snack just before she turned 2. I didn’t think she would be allergic since she had been exposed to foods that contained tree nuts before, and there is no history of anaphylaxis in our immediate family. Right after eating one, she began to vomit and point to her throat. She also had a few hives on her face which quickly spread all over. I gave her Benadryl, as it was the only allergy medicine I could find, and called 911. She was rushed to the hospital via ambulance and quickly cared for. Definitely the scariest moment of my entire life.
AB: After the diagnosis, what did your grieving process look like? Do you feel that you’re in the “acceptance” phase now?
JF: I carried the guilt for a long time. I became scared to even leave the house, and when I was in the house, I was scared that I didn’t clean it well enough to remove all the nut residue. I replaced all baking-ware or anything that I could remember that may have come into contact with nuts. I began to read labels and call companies on the steady — it became an obsession.
I later became angry when companies didn’t label properly, or people would tell me to ‘take it easy’ or ‘relax.’ I could not understand how they could not understand. I was also sad that maybe our lives would change forever in a way that we would not be able to fully enjoy, and was fearful that my daughter’s experiences throughout her life would become limited or that she would be bullied or considered an ‘outcast’ among her peers.
I also couldn’t help but feel that maybe there was something I should have done when she was in utero… maybe I should have eaten a larger variety of foods while pregnant. Or maybe I should have exposed her to nuts at an earlier age. And then there were the questions: Why did I encourage her to try the cashew? Why did this have to happen to her? Where did I go wrong? How could I have prevented this?
I definitely feel that I am now in the acceptance phase of this journey. My husband and I have learned to navigate life with a food-allergy child in a way that does not feel completely restricting. We are a lot more comfortable and confident with experiencing new restaurants and places. I have wholeheartedly made it a mission of mine to make life for my daughter (and us) easier and enjoyable, not one limited because of food.
AB: What are your biggest challenges as the mom of a food-allergic kid?
JF: My biggest challenge has been getting other people to understand. We have encountered a lot of difficulties with others, even with those that are supposed to be family. We need to weigh our risks everywhere we go, and make decisions based on that. We have come to realize that no risk is worth it, so we have lost some relationships along the way.
AB: How has your child dealt with her food allergies?
JF: Although Arianna is only 4 years old, she has definitely developed a lot of anxiety over trying new foods, and she is an extremely picky eater. I know that some of that anxiety comes from seeing her parents and relatives worry about the foods she is being given — but I would rather her be safe than sorry. On a more positive note, she has become very good at advocating for herself already. Before she accepts food from anyone, she asks if it is nut-free and then runs to me to double check. I am confident that she is gaining the necessary advocacy skills she needs in order to deal with her allergy once she is older and more independent.
AB: How often did you eat out before the food allergy diagnosis? How often have you eaten out since?
JF: We ate out quite a bit, and still do! We are just a bit more limited in our choices. We have our ‘go-to’ places, and are always on the lookout for other spots that are accommodating. We really try not to let her allergy interfere with her ability to enjoy life and strongly believe that life is not enjoyed only through food. While it is a large part of what brings people together, we often encourage our friends and family to get together at places other than restaurants so we can still build those memorable experiences.
AB: Where are your go-to SAFE eating spots in Toronto and beyond?
JF: Our go-to eating spots are: Jack Astor’s, Swiss Chalet, Wendy’s, Pizza Margherita, Scaddabush, The Keg, and Chipotle. (They are NOT nut-free, but they are all very accommodating).
AB: Can you tell me why Scaddabush makes you feel safe?
JF: All the restaurants I listed have been accommodating and reassuring. I especially love Scaddabush as they have a great allergy guide (scroll down to the bottom) which shows which dishes may contain certain allergens.
AB: What are some fun facts about your food-allergic kiddo?
JF: Arianna is super sassy and incredibly smart — sometimes too smart for her own good. She loves to dance and sing, and will definitely excel in drama. She is in her 3rd year of ballet and also attends swimming lessons. She is currently in preschool and will be starting Junior Kindergarten in September.
AB: Tell us a little about what you aim to do under your alias, the Not So Nutty Mom.
JF: My greatest hope is that I will be able to educate or influence others to understand the seriousness of food allergies and spread awareness. I myself was not as knowledgeable or empathetic until I had my own personal experience with my daughter. Naturally, people are more interested in something when it impacts them directly, but after going through what we did, I can now understand and appreciate that when it comes to food allergies, everyone can make an impact. So many unnecessary reactions and fatalities can be avoided if there is more awareness within society. As a teacher and mother, I know the everyday stresses and challenges that are present, but these become even more pronounced as a food allergy parent.
I chose the name ‘notsonuttymom’ as I believe that parents can easily drive ourselves crazy overthinking and over-worrying, so my mission is to help both food allergy parents and non-allergy parents find things, strategies, and places that are less ‘nutty’ — literally and figuratively. If I can provide even one person with a better understanding of allergies, and make them become more aware, then I am one person closer to ensuring a safer world for my daughter, and others.
AB: Why did you decide to help organize #AllergyMom Meetups in Toronto?
JF: Being a food allergy parent can be challenging at times, and often, relationships are lost along the way because others don’t always ‘get it.’ I love the idea of getting together with parents that do get it, without worrying about feeling like a burden. I like the idea of sharing experiences and ideas, but also being able to vent a little if need be, with people that are experiencing similar situations. I believe that it takes a village to raise a child, and I appreciate the ‘teal village’ that helps one another keep food allergy living under control. I also think it is important to recognize that you are not alone in what can be a very challenging situation. And I think it is equally important to be able to put aside the worries for a little while and enjoy some time without any fear or stress. #AllergyMom meetups are a perfect opportunity to spend some worry-free time with people that truly ‘get it.’
Friendly. Supportive. Encouraging.
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