When I was three years old, I went to birthday party for a friend who lived up the street. Our moms met at the grocery store while browsing through the cereal aisle. I grew up running in their backyard, playing with toys and climbing the ladders and slides on their jungle gym. It was a place of laughter; summertime sunshine, bruised knees, birthday cakes, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
That afternoon, I told my mother I was hungry. So she went over to the food table and plucked a few various items here and there to give me a variety of choices on my plate: maybe some mac n cheese, or a chocolate chip cookie. Some potato chips and a couple vegetables, just to give it a shot to see if I'd have any of it. And, of course, half of a peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwich. When my mother presented my plate, I went with the PB and J. It took one bite.
Within five minutes, my mom noticed the swelling red marks dotted on my skin. Across my arms where my hands had grazed, across my mouth and my cheeks.
The allergist did prick tests and blood tests and all sorts of checks. After two weeks, I was diagnosed with a peanut allergy. Although my allergy was minor at three years old, with time it would worsen. They said that within a few years, if I ingested a peanut, I was capable of experiencing anaphylactic shock: my throat would close in on itself, oxygen would fail to reach my lungs, my body would self destruct. To parents of a young child, this is obviously terrifying.
I was prescribed an epinephrine pen; we had an 'EpiPen' in every room in our house. There was one at school. There was one at my summer camps, and at the homes of close friends. From then on, I was designated to sit at the dreadful 'peanut free' table in the far corner of our elementary school cafeteria. At restaurants, our waiter was always drilled on the chef's awareness to allergies, what oils they fry their chicken in, or what kind of nuts are in the dressings. So much for desserts; who knows if the ice cream scooper delved into the Reese's before the cookies n cream. There was too much of a likelihood of cross-contamination; it's not worth the risk. The repetitive statement I was lectured upon as a young child- avoid peanuts at all costs-eventually left a permanent mark in my existence.
From then on, my plate at birthday parties often consisted of food brought from home; processed in a nut free facility, brownies made from scratch. Maybe I'd be lucky if there was pasta available. Or sometimes, there'd be nothing at all.
At one point, the allergy seemed to brand my existence, becoming part of my identity. Around the time I was diagnosed, my parents noticed how much more shy I became. I would often seclude into myself, much like how we strove to stray clear of any potential threats to my safety. It just simply became another quality, as obvious as the color of my eyes. I was trained to always check the ingredients on granola bar packets and move to another seat on the school bus if even the slightest trace of peanuts crept up my nose.
And so for my entire childhood, I was that girl with the peanut allergy. Things can clearly be worse. I didn't suffer, I still grew to be happy and healthy without skippy jars in our pantry. By the time I was in high school, it was just the way it was. In the grand scheme of things, my allergy was an inconvenience, a reminder of childhood insecurity, and a perpetual fear of a potential disaster.
When you avoid something your entire life, it's strange when someone tells you it's okay to eat it. Especially your parents.
As I progressed through my high school years, my parents became concerned about my allergy while I was in college. Despite their faith in my independence, they feared that lacking a safety net in the form of themselves could result in some sort of allergic reaction, if I was accidentally careless in the university cafeteria or out late for dinner with friends.
That's when my parents heard about a treatment plan headed up at Stanford, called the oral immunotherapy study, or OIT for short. Doctors realized a connection between patients ingesting allergens as a form of treatment for their allergy. Focusing on children, doctors would present an allergen in the smallest dosage imaginable, and the patient would eat it. Over time, the dosage would gradually increase, until they were able to consume more every day. And after the dosage reached a certain capacity, these children were considered allergy free.
My mother placed me on a waiting list, and for three years we waited. Over the course of this time, I experienced initial reluctance to undergo this treatment. I respected the reasons why my parents were so adamant about the treatment, but, to be honest, I was kind of scared. When you're told your whole life that peanuts can kill you, it leaves an impression. What if I was a case where it didn't work, an exception? Or what if I ingested too much too fast?
As I considered undergoing the treatment, I thought about how different things would be. It may not seem like much. If you really think about it, though, it's crazy that I never knew what a kid's staple lunch meal tasted like. Sure, I had almond butter and sunflower butter (my friends loved to tease me for this of course), but that's not the same. And there wasn't a single meal that went by where I looked down at my plate and knew I was safe. Strange to think about how much uncertainty I endured.
So when I was the next patient on the waiting list, I decided to try.
For the next year, my parents and I would make a monthly trek to Long Beach Children's Hospital. The office was welcoming. Each room filled with families and kids, just like me, younger and older, about to undergo a life-changing endeavor. Dr. Inderpal Randhawa introduced himself to us. He had successfully cured thousands of patients with allergies to nuts, dairy, egg, soy, wheat, seeds, shellfish, and others. I was next.
To begin, they first confirmed my immunity to other allergies, which was tested with various food challenges. Afterward, I was awarded my first dosage of peanuts. Within a small plastic vile mainly comprised of water, the slightest trace of peanut protein dissolved itself in the solution. Each day I drank from a little vile. Gradually, over weeks and weeks, the dosage of peanut extract increased. Until, finally, I had reached a tolerance great enough to ingest a single peanut.
When I ate it, my mom burst into tears. It may seem ridiculous. It's just a peanut. It wasn't always just a peanut, though. It was dangerous and life-threatening. But now, yes, that's all it was. For a parent who had lived in constant worry of a potential reaction, who had rid any peanuts, peanut butter, 'manufactured in a facility,' 'may contain' or 'contains' from our kitchen, this was a big day.
By the next week, I was eating three peanuts a day. Then five; ten; twenty; thirty. Like medicine or vitamins, I consumed the food every day. I was giving exactly what my body hated most until it learned how to process it. Eventually, I was incorporating other products into my diet: peanut butter, Snickers, Reese's, trail mix, peanut butter protein bars, you name it.
In total, the treatment took about two years, and I successfully completed the whole process last summer. I can honestly say I love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. When I go home from school on weekends, there's peanut butter in the pantry, one of my brother's staples now. I can eat Thai and Chinese food without a hint of stress. And I only have one EpiPen, just in case.
Growing up, I was lucky. I never experienced a serious reaction like many, never experienced an emergency trip in the ambulance. In the grand scheme of things, I'm a minor case. Regardless, this treatment has changed my life. For those who have numerous allergies, or more serious ones, I'm sure it would change theirs even more so. For the rest of my life, I will never be held back from dinner dates with friends, or traveling to foreign countries, buying groceries or sharing food with roommates. For anyone who has an allergy, I can't stress enough how wonderful it is. The reward is greater than any fears you may have. Sign up, take a leap of faith. It's worth the wait.
Yeah, I missed out on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for eighteen years. But I'm catching up on them now, and it won't be a problem.