I just discovered an artifact that spelled out my fears of a food challenge as a kid. And all because my 5th grade teacher made us keep a daily journal.
When I was 10, I had a mystery allergic reaction.
It was an incident that never made sense. It may have been tree nut cross contact. Or possibly it was a “perfect storm” of factors that all needed each other to cause a bad reaction. But in any case, it made us afraid that I’d developed a new allergy to peanuts.
I’d shown a mild sensitivity to peanuts at my one and only skin test (at age 6,) but I ate peanut butter almost daily. This reaction, though, made us worry that I’d crossed the line into being allergic, and our doctor decided to do a food challenge.
My parents recently brought over some keepsakes from my childhood. Among them was a journal my 5th grade teacher made us keep every day that year. Within its pages, I found an entry I wrote after that reaction, and in anticipation of my peanut food challenge. This provides a window into my 10-year-old mind as I went through the experience. I thought I’d share.
This first journal entry was from the first day back to school after the mystery reaction. (It happened at the end of Spring Break.)
March 31, 1992
Today is the last day of March. Tomorrow is April fools day. On Sunday I had an allergy reaction to something. It was either Cindy’s cat or peanut butter. It could have also been my lungs reacting to a sudden bunch of exercise. I’m going to the doctor on Thursday. We are going to [do] what the doctors call “Challenge the Food.” I’ll eat some peanut
butter at the doctors and if I react, I’m already under care. I don’t want to do it. If I react I might get an adrenalin shot. I have what’s called a “epi pen” at home. It’s another adrenalin shot except you push it against your leg and the adrenalin shoots out. My dad took the old one apart and you should see the spring. It is huge. I don’t like the epi pen because of the spring. I also don’t want to try peanut butter. I want to breath. Half of me wants to be able to eat peanut butter but the other half wants to never see peanuts or peanut butter again. I’m sort of scared about what will happen. 🙁
And next from the day of my Challenge.
April 2, 1992
Today we finally got to play a game all through gym. I have to square dance for parents. Today I’m leaving at 2:45 because I have to go to the doctor and challenge food. I hope it comes out ok.
My teacher called my mom after reading this journal entry. He was concerned. I don’t know how much he understood about food allergies–though certainly he was aware that I had some.
Tree nuts are, relatively speaking, easy to keep out of the classroom, so he didn’t have to do a lot of accommodating. But also remember that there were no 504 plans or even anaphylaxis action plans in 1992. My mom considered it a victory to have a single EpiPen in the nurse’s office, though she has expressed doubt that anyone there really knew what to do with it.
It’s funny to look back on an allergic reaction 27 years later. I do remember being scared of the food challenge, but I don’t remember never wanting to see peanuts again. Here’s what I recall of the actual incident:
I’d been playing at my friend’s house, and she had a cat. I’m allergic to cats–they make me itch and sneeze and aggravate my asthma. When it was time to leave, I rode my bike home–on a chilly day in March–without a jacket. Upon getting home, I helped myself to a few mini peanut butter cups and sat down to eat them.
As I recall, I stopped breathing.
It wasn’t a gradual thing, like feeling my chest getting tight. It was more like my lungs were powered by a switch, and someone flipped the switch off. In fact, this reaction was completely devoid of the tingly, distinctive feeling I usually felt in my mouth/throat during a reaction.
Panicked, I ran into the kitchen and next to the refrigerator. This is where we used to keep my inhalers, so I think I reflexively ran to a space I associated with breathing. But once there, I didn’t know what to do.
My parents ran up beside me, asking questions that I didn’t hear and thinking God-knows-what. After standing there a minute, my lungs kicked back into action, and I probably began to cry.
We didn’t epi. I don’t remember whether they gave me Benadryl. Again, this reaction was devoid of any familiar symptoms from my previous allergic reactions, but I’m not sure my parents realized that. I don’t think I was communicating very well.
At the food challenge, the doctor had me eat more mini peanut butter cups. Best to challenge the food in the form that had caused my reaction in the first place. I remember being very scared before eating the first one, but when nothing happened with that first bite, I began to relax. I made it through the day without any symptoms, and felt relieved by the end of it. Reese’s and peanut butter sandwiches were still on my menu.
Interestingly, my follow-up journal entry was nowhere near as enlightening:
April 3, 1992
Today I get my pizza party for the poetry contest. I found out yesterday that I “can” eat peanut butter. We had our spellathon yesterday. I hope I got 100%. We made our checkbooks yesterday. My tooth is loose.
Clearly, I moved on.
The best we’ve ever been able to deduce is that all of these factors, taken together, were enough to cause a reaction. A “perfect storm,” as our doctor implied. Or maybe the peanut butter cup had tree nut contamination–there were no cross contact labels in 1992 either. The case is cold now, so we’ll never know for sure.
If you’re wondering what your kids think about a recent allergic reaction, maybe ask them to write it down. They might volunteer details they’re hesitant to say out loud. Or you might discover that a detail you find unimportant is what bothers them most (like me and my fear of the EpiPen because my dad took one apart and showed me the spring.) This depends on their age and willingness to write, of course.
I’m glad my parents found this journal. For the benefit of my readers and myself, I appreciated this look into my 10-year-old mind.