By Morgan Baker
I can smell peanut butter a room away. I know where the open dish of nuts is at a party, and it’s not because I’m salivating for the food.
When I gave birth to my oldest daughter, I knew I’d teach her safety tips like how to look both ways before crossing the street, but I didn’t know I’d teach her how to read ingredients on food packages, and to remember her EpiPen (a shot of artificial epinephrine to jump start her system should it shut down) when she left the house.
When Maggie was 11 months old, I slathered peanut butter on some crackers, tossed them on the high chair tray and watched her lick the crackers clean. I left her in the high chair (something mothers are warned not to do) and ran to the bathroom. When I returned, she was unrecognizable. Her face was swollen to twice its size and covered in hives. Her eyes were almost swollen shut and her lips were puffed out.
I poured liquid Benadryl down her throat and called the pediatrician who was at lunch. The answering service recognized the significance of my call because the pediatrician called back and asked, “Is she breathing?”
Maggie, I learned later, is anaphylactic to tree nuts and peanuts. If she eats one by accident her body can shut down. Her blood pressure can drop, her heart rate can slow and her throat can swell up without a shot of epinephrine in the first 15 minutes of a reaction, she could die.
I know this from meeting with doctors, reading lots of literature and watching my husband almost die several times as his allergies continue to change and develop as he ages.
I grew up on peanut butter and Fluff and ate Snickers bars throughout my pregnancy, but when Maggie was diagnosed with these life-threatening allergies to peanuts and tree nuts, I tossed our half-eaten jar of peanut butter in the trash. We haven’t had another jar in the house in twenty years. My younger daughter doesn’t know what it tastes like.
I spent much of Maggie’s childhood trying to control her environment. She took her own piece of cake when she was invited to birthday parties. We chose her schools partially based on where my husband and I thought she’d be best protected. We avoided those with huge cafeterias and she ended up at a small school where I advocated for her class to be nut-free, for the middle school lunchroom to have a nut-free zone and eventually in high-school for the students to eat on trays to avoid cross-contamination. In one case it took an obituary to motivate the administration to give me what Maggie needed.
But I didn’t just educate her school and friends, I also taught Maggie how to keep herself safe. She doesn’t eat any food if she doesn’t know what the ingredients are. She carries her EpiPen with her at all times – she has a huge collection of purses – and she needs to identify herself in restaurants.
Maggie didn’t always like being singled out, but my zealous behavior has kept her from harm. She has had only two accidents since the original incident. When she was 13, she ate a congo bar at her grandmother’s memorial service on Martha’s Vineyard thinking I had made it. The caterer had made it – with nuts. A 30-minute ride to the hospital and an EpiPen later, Maggie was fine.
My job as her official advocate, however, ended when she started college. The last call I made on her behalf was to food service at Vassar. On move-in day, two kind administrators showed us around the dining center and explained which food stations would be more, or less, safe for Maggie. They also showed us the Peace of Mind station where Vegans or those who are lactose intolerant, or those who keep Kosher, could find safe food.
I knew letting go of Maggie was going to be hard, but I didn’t expect to choke up in the cafeteria when I saw the individual cream cheese containers for her in the refrigerator. While everyone else could slap cream cheese and peanut butter on bagels without paying attention to the neighboring open-air containers, Maggie could enjoy one of her favorite foods safely.
As a sophomore, she lived in a teeny-tiny single, which she obtained on her own through The Office of Disability. Now as a junior preparing for senior housing, she’s discovering not everyone can or wants to live without peanut butter. Vegetarians rely on it as a source of protein, and others depend on it for easy meals, but she’s navigating this journey with her friends, not me.
As she departs for a semester abroad, I try not to think about how she’ll communicate her allergies in a foreign language away from home.
I’m not with her all the time anymore, but when I smell peanut butter or see nuts, I catch my breath and think of Maggie. I keep my fingers permanently crossed and hope I’ve been aggressive and proactive enough, that she’ll continue to take care of herself the way I would take care of her.