I was at a restaurant in a town I don’t know when one of my daughters had an anaphylactic reaction. Despite my best efforts, despite my writing down her allergies for the server to see, despite my careful ordering, despite the fact that I wiped down the table and her chair, cross contamination happened somewhere.
It started off as a little bit of wheezing, which isn’t completely unusual because she has asthma. As I walked her outside (no, I didn’t pay, I dealt with it later), she went into full-blown anaphylactic reaction.
Sometimes anaphylaxis doesn’t look like hives and swelling. Sometimes it presents as panic and sweating and wide eyes and an inability to talk. Sometimes it presents as something similar to a seizure. Sometimes children are disoriented, walking in circles. Sometimes they lose complete control of their bowels and have no idea where they are and can’t focus their eyes on your face even as you scream their name.
As someone called 911, I plunged an Epi-pen right into her thigh. She didn’t even notice the pain. Someone had yelled for my husband (he was next door) and he ran to us, grabbed her, and — after someone identified a fire station across the road — we ran towards it.
Except we weren’t at an entrance, we were at the side, and there was a large retaining wall. I ran towards it and climbed up. He handed her off to me, and I ran into the fire station clutching her and an extra Epi-pen.
Firefighters assembled with amazing haste. They put her on oxygen right away; we heard ambulance sirens come toward us. Sat levels were still in the 80s. I looked at her behind the mask, starkly pale and sweating, and I absolutely fell apart.
I’ve done this before. We’ve done the ER trips. We’ve done the 911 calls. My girls have dealt with allergies and asthma and pneumonia and kidney surgery, and I’ve always been level-headed and calm and rational. I’ve saved the tears and the decompressing for later at home, on the couch, in a pair of old sweatpants, mindlessly watching a movie.
This time was different. This time, the reaction was different.
I cried as I paced, cleaning myself off with paper towels. They put her in the ambulance; I climbed in behind her, whispering what I hoped were words of comfort. My husband back to the parking lot to tend to our other two daughters, who were crying along with me.
They had asked what hospital I’d prefer, and I had requested Yale Children’s, since that was the hospital we knew. The doctors and nurses are familiar. Two minutes later, the paramedic leaned in.
“Her oxygen’s still low. Heading to Bridgeport. It’s closer.”
I nodded and shed fresh tears, realizing the gravity of her condition. The difference in travel time was five minutes; seven at most.
She cried as they put a needle in her arm. I sat behind her, buckled in, making use of a stack of wet wipes, answering every question the paramedic asked.
As they wheeled her down the hospital hall, a woman stopped me and said I’d need to register her.
“I need to stay with my daughter,” I said, watching them push her further away from me.
“She’ll be fine; we need to get her registered.”
“But we’re already in the system,” I replied, irritated with this woman who had her hand locked on my arm. I yanked the insurance card out of my wallet, slapped it on the counter, and turned to catch up with the paramedics, ignoring whatever was said next.
Ninety minutes later, I sat in a chair in the dark with my knees up against the ER bed, hand clutched around a styrofoam cup of lukewarm tea, staring at the rhythmic and peaceful rise and fall of her chest as she slept with her bear tucked right under her arm. She was completely stable, completely fine, doctors coming in periodically to check on her. Oxygen levels were back up in the high 90s, and we could probably leave in a few hours.
And in that moment, that moment that you know that your child is ok, in the clear, safe, you let yourself breathe a little.
Inhale … exhale … tuck the heated blanket around her … and cry it all out.
The next morning was Saturday, and every Saturday morning, like usual, the first thing she did was pull off her pajamas and pick a skirt to wear for the day. She asked for extra syrup to go with her allergen-free pancakes, and played with her sisters as if nothing had happened at all.
Children are resilient. They recover quickly.
A parent’s heart probably takes a little longer.
We talk about Epi-pens and 504 plans and nebulizer treatments and safe playdates and all of the things we can do to help our kids thrive, but we don’t talk much about how it actually affects parents. Studies show that parents of food-allergic children often deal with greater anxiety and stress levels. Stay tuned for a running series on Scratch or Sniff on managing stress, finding a support system, and investing in self-care. We love this community and we’re happy to have you be a part of it. :)