John turns seven in one week, but he had his first birthday party today. His first birthday party with friends, that is. Yes, he’s had traditional family celebrations every year but they have all been just us and in our home. So many people have asked me why I opted to never hold a party for him and his friends. It’s complicated, but I’ll go back to his first birthday celebration in 2003.
Prior to John’s first birthday, we already knew he suffered from food allergies. He had his first reaction at seven months old after he ate a Gerber Veggie Wheel.¬† We had just moved to a new house far out in the suburbs away from the city. John was eating some cheerios in his high chair and I thought he was doing so well with his finger food, that I might give the new Veggie Wheels I just bought. I figured they had the word “veggie” in it, so they had to be healthy. Little did I know that they were coated in powdered cheese, probably to give the little Styrofoam wheel some pizazz. I handed him a wheel to “mouth”, turned my back to get something for my 3 -year- old daughter, and within a minute heard coughing.
I turned around and saw John’s sweet, red face (he had severe eczema on his face…little did I know at the time there was a connection between food allergies and eczema) covered in hives, especially¬† around his mouth. I froze for a¬†second, because I couldn’t figure out¬†what was going on with John. Was he choking? Why would choking cause his face to break out? Should I¬†pat his back? That’s what I did next, pulled him out of his highchair, patted his back, and gave him his sippy of water. I had the name of a local pediatrician¬†so I started dialing. Of course, I never thought to call 911 yet because I didn’t recognize he was having an allergic reaction. I didn’t even know what one was.
I got a hold of a nurse, who told me to give him Benadryl, and to monitor his coughing and hives. If they went away, I was to come in to the doctor’s office the following day for a check up. If he continued to struggle with his breathing, I was to take him to the emergency room. Luckily I did have Benadryl in the house so I gave him a dose, watched and waited, and the symptoms diminished. I took him to the doctor the next day who casually informed me that my son probably suffered a food allergy reaction, and gave me the name of a local allergist. I was¬†in shock. I tried to ask more questions such as, what could he have been allergic to? After going through the ingredient list the doctor said maybe it was the cheese powder, but only the allergist would be able to diagnose for sure.
I know what many of you are thinking….we were lucky. Lucky that the reaction didn’t progress to something that could have put his life at risk. Especially because the pediatrician’s office didn’t give the right instructions for someone who is suspected of suffering an allergic reaction. I should have been told to call 911 right away. What if the Benadryl didn’t work? What if his airways closed, blood pressure dropped and he became unconscious? What if I didn’t have Benadryl? Is the directive “watch and wait” good enough? Never. This is just one of many reasons there needs to be more education about food allergies. My own pediatrician’s office didn’t have a real understanding of how quickly these reactions can progress to something life threatening. I know I was lucky….it was a warning. But as many of you¬†already know, reactions can vary in severity, and just because someone has a mild to moderate reaction, it doesn’t mean the next one won’t be life threatening.
Fast forward to just a few weeks before John’s first birthday party at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. I searched for weeks¬†for a delicious dairy, egg and nut free cake recipe. I was still figuring out what John could and couldn’t eat, and at this point he had been formally diagnosed by an allergist. I was too afraid to buy anything at the store, because at that time there wasn’t the Food Labeling Act (2006) and I still didn’t understand all the code names for egg and milk. I desperately wanted to order a special cake from a bakery; the kind I always got for my daughter, complete with beautiful decorations. It would have been so much easier. But I knew that wasn’t an option. Finally I found a recipe that seemed easy to make (although I didn’t know what it was supposed to look like because most of the food allergy books then didn’t have colorful photos, a big pet peeve of mine).I made the cake and it failed miserably. It was dry, bland and not worth eating. We all ate it grudgingly, but I knew I had to do better the next time.
As John got older, I always asked him if he wanted a birthday party like his big sister always had. He¬†didn’t have any interest, and told me he’d rather celebrate with just family. Now, John isn’t the type of kid who likes attention on him, in fact, he avoids it at all costs. But I figured it had to be something more. Maybe he didn’t want to eat differently than his friends at his own party? Maybe he didn’t want to have his friends say his “special snack” wasn’t as good as a real birthday cake? John¬†never had a reason he wanted to share with me.¬†
So fast forward again to today. I asked John a few weeks ago, like I do every year, if he wanted a big present and a family party, or a party with his friends. To my surprise, he said “a Pump It Up party!” For those of you don’t know what Pump It Up is, it is a big inflatable party place. They do everything, set up your party, order pizza and food, watch your kids jump and climb and then clean up the mess afterward. I was so shocked John wanted this type of party, I asked him twice more, “Are you sure?”. Yes, he said annoyingly.
I have to say I was a little nervous. Would the kids miss the pizza? Would they miss the big Costco sized cake all the kids seemed to love? John told me to make his favorite dairy and egg free cupcakes, and said that was all he really wanted. I knew the kids would love the cupcakes, they’ve been tested over and over again over the years with so many different kids and family members. This is why it is so important to have really good allergy friendly recipes that are yummy and taste like the real thing. Kids notice, and they won’t¬†eat your food if they think¬†it is “icky”. To even out the pizza free menu, I instead offered colorful fresh fruit kabobs, (and quickly asked for the sticks once they were done as I could see it in their eyes they wanted to use them as swords), pretzels, cupcakes and chocolate chip cookies. Everything was devoured. They boys loved the treats, and no one talked about whether or not they were allergen free. They just enjoyed the treats as they would at any other party. This meant the world to me. It was a glimpse of normalcy.
I don’t take these moments for granted. To see my food allergic son be just like any other kid¬†was a gift. The party was a success and it made me wonder why¬†we didn’t do this sooner. I think John is learning to open up and I am learning to let go. And until next week when we do our family’s¬†sloppy joes/chips/chocolate cake dinner for John’s real birthday, I will count my blessings. Every year that goes by is truly a blessing, isn’t it?