When an Anaphylactic Reaction Happens

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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.

When An Anaphylactic Reaction Happens

[photo credit]

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.

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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. :)

Roo Ciambriello

If Scratch or Sniff founder/editor Roo Ciambriello could list all of her favorite things, they'd include her sweet little family, food trucks, and every AMA Snoop Dogg has done on Reddit. Roo is a copywriter out of New Haven, Connecticut, and loves writing fun stories on the backs of potato chip bags and cereal boxes in Whole Foods, Target, Nordstrom, Kroger, y mucho mas. Roo creates voices for brands, ghostwrites for celebrities, writes a personal website, and is (much to the chagrin of those around her) pretty active on Twitter. You can also find her providing commentary on advertising/branding at Adweek and eating fajitas on deadline days.

28 Comments to When an Anaphylactic Reaction Happens

  1. Jennifer O

    My heart just broke reading that. My children do not have life threatening allergies, although we do deal with asthma and having a child turning blue or gray is pretty much one of the scariest things I’ve ever experienced. What I’m trying to say, not very well, is that I sympathize, I empathize. I can not know exactly how you felt, but oh, the tears on my face seem to have a pretty good idea. Know that this mom’s heart in Utah is thinking of yours, and my arms will squeeze my kids a little harder tonight since I can’t hug you. (And yes, that sounds stalkerish, but it’s really just mom solidarity, I promise)

    • Roo Ciambriello

      I will 100% take that hug, Jennifer, and all of that amazing mom solidarity. :) It happened a little while ago, but I wanted to write it because I think stories like this help increase empathy and understanding for the allergy community. :)

  2. HUGE hugs to you! I completely understand about waiting to let it all out once she is fine. I hope writing about it helped a bit too. I just saw your comment that it happened awhile ago but you never really forget those feelings.

  3. Oh, Roo. Thank you for sharing this story. It is completely heartbreaking. Like Jennifer, my son doesn’t have any allergies, but right after his first birthday he suffered a febrile seizure and that still, to this day, is the worst day of my life. The doctors at the hospital said he’s prone to these, so every fever he gets should be treated as very serious, so it makes me really frustrated when our pediatrician berates me for bringing him in with a fever of less than 104. (Really??!)

    Regardless, there is little worse for us moms than to see our babies in extreme pain and immediate danger and feel so utterly helpless. Sending so much love.

  4. Britiney

    Oh, mercy. I had a mini-panic attack just reading this. Sending hugs for you and your sweet sweet girls. xo

  5. Cassandra Whiting

    I love you Roo. Thanks for sharing these things. You have such a gift of writing that draws me in and makes me feel so connected. I hope I don’t have to know these things personally, but I love learning from you.

  6. What a powerful and gut-wrenching post, Roo! I can’t even begin to fathom what you went through. How is she today? How are YOU today? I’m sad you had to go through this but thank God she has you for a mom. What a beautiful person you are to her. Thank you for sharing this. I hope this educates and brings awareness. <3

  7. Leigh

    I have tears in my eyes and can picture how scared you must have been. Hugs to you.

  8. Tams

    All the hugs to you my friend.

  9. So glad to have found this site. I recently started a facebook page/project titled “Liam’s Story” that chronicles the journey we have been on with our now 10 year-old son who was essentially a bubble boy for the first 6 years of his life, dealing with a host of health issues, including, but not limited to life-threatening food allergies & asthma. His father, my husband, has anaphylaxis to mango, pistachio and cashews and I share the impact of this challenging life-reality in my post , “Until Death Do We Part” http://losogradysinmexico.com/2014/08/until-death-do-we-part-2.html#sthash.8HsFbBjp.dpbs
    I am grateful to have found a community I can share with and I know they’ll get it.

    Cheers,
    Katie O’Grady

  10. Brandi H

    Thank you so much for sharing! Both of my kids have allergies. I’ve yet to have to use an Epi-Pen, and I’m always dreading the day that I might have to see their bodies being attacked like this. The fear and anxiety is intense for me. It definitely helps to have a good support system!

  11. Melanie

    Thank you for sharing. Reflecting on your story to see if I could relate brought a flood of emotional memories of my baby’s bout with croup. I can’t imagine the stress of this being an every day concern. As you said, a good support system is super critical. Sounds like you have a good one. Grateful for mine locally, and to be learning from the amazing community forming at SnS!

  12. Jessica

    This broke my heart and I can’t imagine how hard it was for you and your husband. My daughter has asthma but luckily it isn’t severe but when she was almost 2 she was very sick and had to be taken to a children’s hospital about 45 minutes away by ambulence. Days later we finally learned her appendix had ruptured and she needed emergency surgery. At the time I was sleep deprived and didn’t even feel human and was just relieved for a diagnosis. It took several weeks for her to recover and come home but looking back now I don’t honestly know how we did it. People ask and the only answer I have is we just did. As you said, looking back I still get upset about it but at the time I just pushed through almost in a fog. Glad your babies are ok!! Praying you don’t have to go through that again or least not for a very long time!

  13. Kristen

    Thank you so much for sharing. I was not with my daughter when she had her first (and so far only) anaphylactic reaction 5.5 years ago. That day still haunts me as I didn’t find out about it until several hours later and I truly do not know how severe the reaction was. I do, however, know exactly what you mean about taking longer to recover. The feeling of coming down off of an extended adreneline high after dealing with an unrelated serious illness 3 years ago (that landed us in the ER with our daughter two times and a hospital stay) is exhausting. I did exactly what you described once we had her home and safely tucker into her own bed. This post had me holding back tears after the first few lines – I have become a nervous wreck about dining out, but keep that anxiety tucked away inside me where I sometimes feel it is best kept – sometimes my husband doesn’t even know about my feelings. I am so glad I found this blog (at the suggestion of a mommy-friend who has no children with allergies, asthma or eczema – such a kind, loving person to find it and share it with me) and I can guarantee I will be back!

  14. Oh, Roo, I just read this. So sorry you all had to go through that. We have had hospital visits for asthma (some scary, some not so scary) so I can empathise a little but I will join in the Mum solidarity and send virtual hugs!

  15. chase fuller

    terrifying. thank you for sharing your story, Roo. Tears in my eyes. Big hugs to you and all the other parents who have to deal with this.

  16. Leah Butler

    With tears in my eyes, I have nothing to offer but a fist bump for climbing that wall. And a high five for not slapping the intake clerk. And a big hug because….well because….

    We’re moms, we know.

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