At the age of 4, my oldest son was diagnosed with a peanut allergy. He was also determined to be allergic to dairy, chocolate, and eggs, i.e. The Four Kid Food Groups.
The allergies weren’t life-threatening. The biggest problem was that he’d get congested, the fluid would clog up his ears, and, in addition to recurring infections, he ended up suffering a hearing loss and speech delays before we caught on and removed the above four products from his diet. (The amount of time that it took us to notice goes under the heading Parenting Fail. I have many.)
For his entire elementary school career, he was extremely diligent about his diet. Even as a 5-year-old, he knew that he couldn’t partake in the pizza, cake, and ice cream served at most birthday parties. If my husband and I could arrange it, we’d send him with his own treat (my husband, the engineer, had figured out how to bake his own cakes out of more or less flour, sugar…and air). But, if it wasn’t possible for us to pack him a special meal, he just abstained. The practice taught him amazing self-discipline that I can only hope will come in handy now that he’s a typical, risk-taking teen.
When we visited other people’s homes, if someone inquired about allergies ahead of time, we’d explain the situation. But, if they didn’t, I wouldn’t bring it up. Instead, we’d ask what was in the food once we arrived, and then we’d pick and choose what my son could or couldn’t eat. It was a conscious decision never to request that anybody change their menu or make any other special accommodations for us. My son’s allergies were our problem, not theirs.
Over the last year, my son noticed that now when he was exposed to peanuts—not ingesting them, merely smelling them in someone else’s food or wafting out the door of a Chinese restaurant even—his mouth and throat began to itch. When he told his doctor this, she feared that his allergy was getting worse, and wrote a prescription for an EpiPen, which hadn’t been deemed necessary earlier.
The same week that we got my son’s diagnosis came the news of a 4-year-old girl traveling by airplane with her parents. Though they’d alerted the flight crew and an announcement was made that there was a highly allergic child on board, another passenger opened a bag of mixed nuts, which was enough to send the girl into anaphylactic shock.
While the girls’ parents were quick to call the other passenger “incredibly selfish,” there’s always the possibility that they either didn’t hear the announcement (let he who has never sat under headphones during a flight cast the first stone), or didn’t speak the language it was made in, so I’m not going to leap to any conclusions.
In a separate incident on a different flight, a child who’d never exhibited symptoms previously also suffered an extreme reaction. She was injected with adrenalin and the plane turned around so that she could be rushed to a hospital. The girl recovered. But when her family tried to return home, they were told by the airline that they could not guarantee them a nut-free flight. Though no peanuts are served on board, United said they would not ban customers from bringing their own food.
For what it’s worth, my son’s school is not a nut-free zone either. And, as I wrote earlier, despite the dairy allergy, he was still told to take milk in the cafeteria “and throw it away” if he wasn’t going to drink it.
Quite frankly, the deliberate waste of food when so many people around the world go hungry upsets me more than the lack of a nut-free environment.
My husband has asthma. Cigarette smoke can set off an attack. But, rather than ask people not to light up, he simply walks away from the situation. I get headaches from most perfumes. It’s gotten to the point where I don’t even pick up certain magazines, because I know they’ll be doused in the stuff.
It’s the same with my son and the school cafeteria. If it bothers him, he should be the one to leave while the other kids finish their lunches.
I realize that an airplane is a unique environment. For one thing, you can’t just step outside for a breath of fresh air. And for life and death situations, it’s appropriate to ask for accommodations. But the airline, being a business, can decide whether or not your patronage is worth alienating potentially dozens of other customers. And then you can decide whether or not you want to fly that airline, or choose one that will go along with your request.
But what about public spaces? Can we demand that areas meant to be shared by all are scrubbed clean of every possible allergen? Can we legislate what kind of cuisine restaurants may serve lest someone wander in accidentally or trigger an allergy they didn’t even know they had? Can buses be made nut-free zones (then why not diary-free? Or gluten-free?)? What about parks? Stores? Museums? Streets?
I don’t have any answers. All I’ve got is a kid with a new EpiPen, and the niggling suspicion that while his needs are important, so are other people’s.