My Daughter Almost Died Because Of An Allergy We Didn't Know She Had

by Christine Burke
Originally Published: 
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On a summer day in 2013, I hurriedly dropped my daughter off for a day camp at a local horse farm. At the age of 7, she was obsessed with all things equestrian, and her father and I had surprised her with a weeklong horse camp for her birthday. She was going to learn to ride, groom, and care for her favorite animal, and she was beyond excited. And I was going to get three hours to myself at Target so it was a win-win for both of us. As I watched her skip along with her group toward the stables, I dove for my car and headed for the big red bullseye.

Twenty minutes later, Starbucks coffee in hand, I was contentedly browsing the aisles of Target when I noticed my phone had three missed calls from an unfamiliar number. As I tried to figure out who had called, a fourth call came in from that number. It was the director of the day camp. “Come quick,” she said. “Something is very wrong with your daughter. She can’t breathe and she’s swelling up.”

I dropped my Starbucks and ran.

When I tore into the parking lot like a bat out of hell, I caught a glimpse of my daughter: She was wheezing, her face was swollen, her eyes were shut tight. She was the color of a sunburn, and she was scared. Hives covered her extremities. Dread filled my chest.

My daughter was having an anaphylactic reaction to a horse, and we had no idea she was allergic to horses.

As an ICU nurse, I am trained to stay calm in an emergency. Hundreds of times, I have thought with a clear head, administered treatment with capable hands, and have instructed those around me with clear, concise statements. This was different.

This was my child, and she was having a medical emergency right in front of me.

I panicked and did the absolute worst thing I could have done: I scooped her up, put her in the car, and raced to our doctor’s office. As she struggled to breathe in the car, all of my nursing training went out the window. I was terrified, could barely concentrate on the road, and by the time we got to the doctor and they gave her medication, I stood in horror as I realized how much worse I had made the situation by not waiting for EMS to arrive. To this day, I cannot believe I completely abandoned almost 20 years of nursing experience when my child was in crisis.

In the coming days, there were medications and steroid treatments, trips to the allergist, and lab draws. I tried to keep my panic at bay when her test results showed not only a life-threatening allergy to horses but also an extensive list of foods and environmental allergens that her body was trying to fend off every day. Overnight, we found ourselves with a child who had very real medical issues that had somehow delayed presenting for years.

For the next few months, armed with EpiPens and new knowledge about her allergy triggers, we quietly educated those closest to us about her new situation. Babysitters, troop leaders, and close friends were taught how to administer an epinephrine injection should they need to if we weren’t there. We worked with her school nurse and teachers to develop a care plan for her school day. But most importantly, we educated our daughter about her diagnosis. We taught her to identify the physical symptoms of an allergic reaction, and we all agreed on a hand gesture she could make if she was having trouble talking. We did role-playing so that she could practice what she would say if she was with her friends or teachers.

We did what we could, and we continue to make her allergies our problem, not yours.

Allergies today seem trendy and en vogue. It seems that every time you turn around, another kid is allergic to peanuts or has a milk allergy. Parents complain about not being able to send homemade cupcakes to the classroom because of allergy restrictions and the battle lines for allergy safety are clearly drawn. Parents on both sides argue vehemently, and unfortunately, there are no right answers.

As a parent of an allergy kid, I refuse to be “that” mom: I don’t ask for special treatment beyond what is necessary for her to stay safe. If we go to a party and she can’t eat something, she doesn’t eat it and just enjoys her friends as they eat. I don’t call ahead for playdates with her dietary needs. I quietly send food she can eat to the classroom if I know a party is coming up. We make every effort possible to approach her allergies as our problem and not society’s as a whole. She will have to deal with these issues for the rest of her life, and it’s our job to make sure she’s empowered and equipped to do so. It’s ridiculous to expect all of humanity to keep her allergens away from her because, frankly, her list is just too long.

People are often surprised to hear about her extensive list of allergies because we don’t make it a practice to broadcast her medical issues. Her allergies are a tiny part of who she is, and I’d rather tell you how she kicked ass at running the 400m at her track meet or about how cute she looks in her new glasses. And though I commiserate occasionally with other moms in similar situations, I’d rather talk about my writing or what I bought at Target when I finally did get there and wasn’t interrupted by a horse.

If you should find yourself in a sudden allergic response situation with your child, here are some tips:

1. Call 911. Leave the driving to the professionals so you can focus on your kid.

2. Try to determine what your child ate and how much as it will save valuable moments at the hospital.

3. Keep your children’s up-to-date height and weight in your phone so the medical professionals can accurately dose emergency medications.

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