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What Happens When Your Teen Has an Allergic Reaction and You're Not There?

06/27/2014 04:06 pm ET | Updated Aug 27, 2014
Kate Ryan Williams

I was nervous about sending our oldest son, The Redhead, on his first trip out of the country to London without us. We checked and double-checked that he had his Medic-Alert bracelet on his wrist (I would have glued it there if I could have), that Benadryl was stashed in various spots that he could get to easily and that he had his Epi-Pen and inhaler, just in case. He had instructions to parse out two Benadryl each to his uncles so that if he somehow managed to screw up and forget his, he would still be covered in an emergency. The Uncles are familiar with his food allergies -- his most serious ones are to all nuts and fish. They've watched him grow up and seen us navigate the world with dietary restrictions.

He did, of course, have a fabulous time. From what I can gather (and that comes in bursts of information at random times because that's how teenage boys communicate), he saw the Tower of London, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and some castle. He took the Tube, went on a river tour, and stayed in a flat. He sampled every British candy bar that exists, it sounds like, and is particularly fond of something called the Wispa. The Uncles took him to see numerous theater productions, most of which he slept through, but seemed to appreciate all the same. But I have trouble focusing on these travel tales because it is all such white noise for me compared to the fact that he had a severe allergic reaction and I wasn't there.

On the last day before he arrived home, I got this text from him:

Guess who fed me cashews

And the world stopped spinning.

Despite being very careful to tell the waitstaff at an Indian restaurant about his allergies, he sampled a mint coriander sauce from someone else's plate. The sauce contained a small amount of ground cashews.

This is how it happens. Innocently, as part of sharing a meal. We humans do it three times a day. It is a necessary part of life. And for someone with food allergies, this very act of existing involves inherent danger. And no one's to blame. No one is at fault. It is just reality that things can go from normal to life threatening in seconds.

I began firing off texts to assess the situation and stationed myself in front of my laptop for a quick refresher on the stages of allergic reactions. The texts flying back and forth between me and The Uncles involved me performing a pointless triage: Did this just happen? Has he taken Benadryl? Is he drooling or having trouble breathing? Did his eyes swell? Tongue? Any hives? And on and on like that. The Uncles responded calmly and kindly the entire time, letting me know that the Benadryl had worked and The Redhead was doing just fine.

But not me. No, sir. At the same time that I'm texting, I'm searching Google for things like "stages of anaphylaxis" and getting images of the human body that highlight swelling of the lips, tongue and throat and lightheadedness and loss of consciousness. Not helping.

I was also looking up cashew allergies and finding articles that proclaim cashews cause the most severe reactions, are worse than those to peanut and are strongly related to anaphylaxis. Of course I knew all of this already. The Redhead's worst reaction ever was to a cashew nut disguised under a layer of chocolate on Halloween when he was a wee toddler. I am quite familiar with all of the horrors. And I couldn't stop myself from looking it up. And you know what else I looked up? The distance from our home to London.

4,745 miles, folks.

I hadn't looked it up until that moment.

And that's when I fell apart.

Tears came along with the terror of the realization that I could do nothing for my child. Things were beyond my control, out of my hands. I was crying so much that I had to wipe away the tears to be able to focus on the texts I was sending and receiving. I felt compelled to send The Redhead a text telling him that I loved him.

I felt sick to my stomach. Then I just gave over to it and sobbed, my head in my hands on the desk.

As I surrendered to helplessness, the desperation I felt reminded me of a scene I had just read in Mary Karr's memoir Lit that details her battle with alcoholism and spirituality and her finally giving in to praying. A pivotal moment for her was when she got down on her knees in complete agony to pray for the first time. I understand this resistance to prayer. But in that moment, I dropped to my knees on the floor beside the desk and whispered, "Please don't take him, God. Please don't. Not now. Not like this. Don't do it. Please. I'm begging."

I felt worse. Uttering the words "take him" made me feel like I was opening that possibility up to the universe. I jumped up, ran to my bed, and got back down on my knees with a new request. "Please, God, protect him. Send a cloud of goodness around him that nothing can penetrate." I visualized this cloak of healing and recovery, bathing him in light. "Protect him. Protect him. Protect him," I chanted. And that made me feel better. But I kept right on crying.

The Uncles were able to FaceTime with me later so that I could lay eyes on The Redhead, who looked exhausted but perfectly safe. He had slept through another theater performance after eating an entire bag of malted milk balls. This made me cringe. I wanted him to eat nothing but plain rice until he got back to me.

The next afternoon, he was back. He gave me a blow-by-blow account of the whole episode and filled in some of the details -- like the part where he threw up all over the bathroom and took two more Benadryl after throwing up the first two that hadn't had a chance to work. That might be why he slept through the theater. Just a guess. But it may have saved his life.

And it's the life-taking/life-saving part that gets me. All parents worry. I know that. But I have a very legitimate reason to worry. Food allergies mean that something your child eats can kill them. It's just that simple. Which makes parenting just that complicated.

So I'm extra grateful that The Redhead returned safely and had this amazing international experience at the tender age of 15 thanks to two wonderfully generous and caring individuals who also happen to be his uncles. He's back to his old self. After a short honeymoon period wherein he sweetly shared his British candy bars with his brothers, he's back to fighting with them nonstop. He hasn't showered since he came back to America. That sounds really dramatic, doesn't it? It's the reality of living with a teenage boy. And I know how lucky I am to experience it.