Profile of an Allergy Parent: Zahra Bhanji (Top 10 Challenge Committee)

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Zahra Bhanji was a food allergy aunt before she was a food allergy mom. As a food allergy aunt, she always went the extra mile to ensure her nephew was safe and that her sister and brother-in-law trusted her with their child. Now, as a food allergy mom, she has a ‘zero tolerance’ protocol in place with family and friends (no allergens present when her daughter is around, and no cross contamination allowed). She also works with her daughter’s daycare to create a safe and positive environment for her.

AllergyBites: What food(s) is your child allergic to?

Zahra Bhanji: My daughter is allergic to egg and sesame.

AB: Can you describe the first time you realized (or suspected) she had a food allergy?

ZB: The first time we realized our daughter had a food allergy was at her first birthday. We were celebrating with a cake smash and photo session, and she began to get hives around her mouth. She was gagging too. Immediately, we realized something was wrong and we left the session. By the end of that month, she had a confirmed egg allergy followed by a confirmed sesame allergy diagnosis two months later.

AB: Has your child ever experienced an anaphylactic reaction? If yes, what happened? 

ZB: Last summer, she had an accidental ingestion and my husband gave her epinephrine while my in-laws supported him and my daughter. I met them at the hospital as I was at work. The worst part of it all was that the hospital didn’t confirm it was anaphylaxis even though we knew it was. Her pediatrician and pediatric allergist both confirmed it — she had hives, began to throw up, and her tummy was hurting — and reinforced to us that we did the right thing by administering epinephrine. I will never forget that day and that feeling. The thought of losing your child is the scariest, worst feeling in the world. I still feel sick when I remember it. I have no doubt I have post-traumatic stress disorder from that day.

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AB: After the diagnosis, what did your grieving process look like? Do you feel that you’re in the “acceptance” phase now?

ZB: When we received the diagnosis both times, I was holding my daughter in my arms and I felt extremely ill. I had knots in my stomach and a huge lump in my throat. The thought of putting her down even for a moment felt scary because food is everywhere. People who don’t experience it first hand, or those who have a lack of empathy, can’t truly relate to how it feels.

For a while I carried around a lot of guilt, and here’s why: I’m an aunt of a now teenage boy with nut allergies. I’ve been a part of a very allergy-conscious family that thoroughly cleans our homes, rinses our mouths, etc. before my nephew arrives (especially when he was younger). When I found out about my daughter’s allergy to egg, it was two days before my sister’s birthday. I’d not eaten well for those two days as I’d been worried about food around my daughter. I also felt too anxious to eat.

On my sister’s birthday, she brought over safe food for my husband and I — we always celebrate with food and she knew I’d not eaten for a couple of days. She called the restaurant and did everything a food allergy family member should and would do, and I was so thankful for it. I had asked my mom to bring home cake for my sister so that we could cut it together, but when my mom arrived without a cake I was upset.

When my mom said, “Zahra, I didn’t want to bring any eggless cake without calling the company first about cross contamination,” I felt horrible. I felt like I would never get this food allergy parent thing right. Still, I was so thankful to my mom for having thought of this and for following our protocol (calling the company for cross contamination information). I learned from that day, and I’ve used this as a learning opportunity for myself. When people show you that they are willing to go the extra mile, you love them even more. You respect them on a whole other level.

Which reminds me of the first time I took her to Jamat Khana (our place of worship) with hundreds of people present, and my brother said to me, “Don’t worry, we will keep her safe.” I almost instantly began to cry.

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I also feel it’s important to understand that sometimes food allergies (just like anything extremely important related to your child) can test a relationship. As such, I think that my grieving process was very different from my husband’s, and truthfully, it’s had an impact on our relationship. Food allergies have become my world. I’m constantly looking up every resource or support available, and while I would love for my husband to be doing the same, he doesn’t. This can often lead to conflict because it feels like our priorities are different. We are constantly working hard at being on the same page, and I am trying my best to understand that this food allergy world is newer for him than it is for me.

I guess, on some level, I have also grieved the way allergies have impacted our relationship — mostly because I hope and expect that he will one day be on the ball when it comes to what needs to be done to keep our girl safe. I know he’s trying, but seeing that we’ve been at this since 2017, I really hope he becomes even more engaged in this food allergy world. It can be a lot, but knowledge — the right knowledge — is power and it’s all to keep our daughter safe.

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AB: What are your biggest challenges as the mom of a food-allergic kid?

ZB: My biggest challenge is the labelling laws for “may contain.” The fact that it’s voluntary is scary. So many times items don’t have a “may contain” listed, and if they do, it’s not completely correct. It’s only after you call the company that you find out that it’s made on shared lines. That’s cross contamination, and we strictly avoid that! If an item does contain an allergen (in the top 10), it is required to be listed by law, so that’s helpful.

Another challenge is explaining to people that food allergies aren’t just limited to nuts, and explaining to them where egg and sesame can be hidden (paint, makeup, lip smackers, etc). It’s a challenge when people don’t take the time to learn about food allergies or listen to you. So many times I’ve explained things to people only for them to forget or not follow our protocol. It’s frustrating and hurtful. I happily abide by other parents’ rules and watch them raise their kids the way they want, and I expect them to abide by my rules when it comes to my kid. Simple.

AB: How has your child dealt with her food allergies?

She is almost 3 now, and is still learning. But she knows how to administer an EpiPen and she knows her allergies are egg and sesame. I am also encouraging her to ask family and friends who already know about her allergy if the fruits they offer her are safe by saying: “I have food allergies to egg and sesame. Is this safe for me?” She’s still too young to ask about cross contamination, but that’s the next thing I plan to teach her when she’s developmentally ready for it.

IMG-20190924-WA0003AB: How often did you eat out before the food allergy diagnosis? How often have you eaten out since?

ZB: When I lived at home, I barely ate out unless it was on date night. After getting married, my husband and I ate out a few times a week, and the other days, I ate homemade food from my mom or sometimes my mother-in-law. Eating out hasn’t affected our family life so much because we still eat after my daughter’s asleep (her bedtime is early). And while I’d like to eat out with my daughter once in a while, I’ve never wanted to take her to fast food places (I hate them).

I also think it’s very important for her to eat homemade food and to enjoy it so that she grows up wanting food made at home. This doesn’t have to do with her allergies as much as it has to do with my values. I find comfort in my mom’s cooking, and I hope she finds comfort in our homemade food too. And it’s all around healthier! Once she’s older, I’m sure we will eat out once in a while and we will find a whole set of new challenges in that, but I don’t want it to be often.

AB: Where are your go-to SAFE eating spots in Toronto and beyond?

ZB: So far, we have safely eaten at Churassco Portugril, Hype Food Co., The Keg, Chipotle, and Swiss Chalet. Of course, we ensure the food is safe even if my daughter doesn’t eat it.

AB: Can you tell me why Hype Food Co. makes you feel safe?

ZB: We absolutely love is Hype Food Co. Everyone there is so welcoming, and everything on the menu is safe! We love that our little one can eat a healthy meal or indulge in a little bit of a dessert safely. It’s also so amazing that there’s a play area where we don’t have to worry about invisible allergens! The best part is when we open the door and she enters. She looks at everything and asks for one of everything (not that we let her eat one of everything, lol). It’s an amazing feeling knowing everything is safe.

IMG-20190924-WA0002AB: What are some fun facts about your food-allergic kiddo?

ZB: Alina speaks two languages fluently (Kutchi and English), and she’s always got an answer ready for you (which can sometimes catch us off guard, lol). She’s shown empathy to her peers, according to her preschool teachers, which means SO much to me! (I hope she builds on this skill.) And she really surprised me one day when we were eating a carrot loaf from Hype Food Co. — she asked if the seeds on top were sesame! I was so blown away. Then I reminded her that the carrot loaf was safe because a) I was giving it to her, and b) it’s from her favourite “Cupcape dukan” (she doesn’t say cupcake yet and dukan means store/restaurant). This opened up a whole conversation about different seeds!

AB: Why did you decide to help co-admin the AllergyBites Community on Facebook?

ZB: I had been off of Facebook for a few months (with zero regret) until I found out from Food Allergy Canada about a support group for Toronto parents. I ended up rejoining Facebook under a completely different account and a different name (Arhaz – which is Zahra spelled backwards) for the sole purpose of being a part of the group. (I don’t have any contacts on my private account and I love it). It’s through that support group that I heard about and joined AllergyBites, and when Kathleen announced she may shut the group down, I immediately contacted her because I LOVE the group she created. This group has helped me SO much, and for me to be able to help our community AND work with Kathleen? I feel honoured. It’s a privilege!

AB: Why did you decide to join the Top 10 Challenge as a volunteer?

ZB: Giving back to the food allergy community in any way makes me feel like I’m making a difference. I was previously successful in creating food-free rooms for people with food allergies at my local community centre after a very scary incident. My role isn’t just to advocate for my daughter’s egg and sesame allergies, but to educate and advocate for all food allergies.

The Top 10 Challenge helps raise funds towards allergy research (via Canadian Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology Foundation), and this past spring, I participated in the challenge which helped me raise awareness about food allergies through this initiative more than anything else. I loved it. When the opportunity was presented to join the committee, I couldn’t say no. I hope that my time towards this committee helps others and together we can one day find a cure for food allergies.


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