Food Allergies · Food Allergy Family · Wrestling with Reality

On Emery, Eczema, and Allergy Tests

Dear Joey,

Before we met Emery, I wondered about him.

Mothers do this, of course–we can’t help it, nor should we. The soon-coming-child is nearly all pregnant moms can think about, really. Will this baby have your blue eyes or my own cinnamon brown ones? Will he have a temper? Will he like math? What about freckles–will he have any? And will he have all ten fingers? Will he be able to hear me ok? What if he’s deaf? Will I be able to breastfeed? Or what if he won’t take a bottle? What if he cries and won’t stop? What if he’s born with an incurable disease? Every one of these thoughts raced through my mind before we met our boy, but they were joined by another question, a question I had a feeling I already might know the answer for: Will he have food allergies?

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The first time I was pregnant, food allergies did not cross my mind. I was aware of them, in a detached sort of way, but worried about them? Not even close. Things were different the third time around, though. By then we were no longer strangers to the food allergy world, and I wondered where this third child of ours would land on the food allergy spectrum. There’s no way to tell for sure at first, of course, and so after he was born healthy and whole (and with hazel eyes, mind you) I didn’t give food allergies much thought again until his eczema just wouldn’t go away.

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His baby skin grew increasingly patchy and rough, riddled with sore, red splotches that pained me as much as they pained him. Behind his knees and around his ankles were particularly awful; they were cracked and bloody almost always. We lavished his skin with creams and salves and kept chemicals at bay, changed soaps and serums and asked the doctor what to do, but aside from gentle salves–she didn’t have much insight for us. Nothing seemed to help; his cracked skin continued to ooze and bleed. That old hunch about a food allergy returned, but I flicked it away like an annoying bug because this was an infant, and infants often have sensitive skin. I did wonder if his skin was reacting to an allergen in my milk, but his doctor didn’t seem convinced and the information I found elsewhere was inconclusive.

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It wasn’t until I gave Emery his first (and last) spoonful of yogurt that I gave this feeling inside my full attention. How could I not? It screamed See what I mean? when the hives started popping up around his mouth. It was instant, the reaction. His. Mine. Out came the Benedryl. I contacted the doctor and cried. The hives subsided quickly enough, but they were there, nevertheless–red and angry. He was six months old.

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When we took Emery to see the doctor about the incident, she offered us a blood test (easier on babies, but with an incomplete picture of said allergy) or a referral to an allergist, who she was sure would order a scratch test eventually (a more reliable form of testing, but longer and more irritating for children to endure–and not always accurate in babies). We ended up opting to put off the scratch test until Emery was a bit older. We really were only looking to confirm what we already knew to be true, really–that Emery was in fact allergic to cow’s milk.

After we got word of his positive result, I removed all milk products from my own diet to see what would happen. His eczema disappeared–not immediately, of course, but over the course of the next few weeks. If by chance I indulged in some ice cream, Emery’s itchy, scaly red splotches returned with a vengeance–and quickly. I was dairy free until I weaned him, because how could I not be?

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Since then, Emery’s been living just fine without cow’s milk–well, except that he has been to the hospital twice for emergency care after accidentally sipping from his sister’s milk cup and gnawing on my whey protein bar. But other than that, he’s been generally fine, unless he ingests a non-dairy product that happens to contain that dratted milk protein casein. Also, he couldn’t seem to tolerate sunflower seed butter either, and his reactions to it seemed to be far worse than Mia’s reactions to peanut butter.

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But–gah–the scratch test. This poor little guy has already been through so much, is deprived of so much (and is starting to feel the sting of exclusion that comes with being a food allergy kid), and while I knew we needed to take him in to get it over with, I just didn’t want to put him through it, and I think you felt that way too. We knew what the results would tell us, for the most part, and we knew the test wouldn’t be easy on him. We wondered if it really be worth it? We went through the process with Mia twice already, when she was tested for her peanut allergy, and remember how hard that was on her? So we sat on our hands and pretended it wasn’t something that mattered for our son.

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Except it does matter, and over the past few weeks we’ve started to remember why (other than the obvious). We have Sarah to thank for it. I’ve always wished to have a sister of my own, and now that I have kids that desire runs deeper. Having a stellar sister-in-law like Sarah who gladly ping-pongs kid questions back and forth with me helps because we’re on the same team, you know? Her questions about her own baby–our niece–and her suspicions and concerns about her food allergy symptoms gave us the push we needed to face the next formality in Emery’s own food allergy story. (So thank you, Sarah. We love you.)

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As expected, Emery hated the whole affair. He cried the moment the nurse called his name out across the waiting room. One look at her, and he clung to me. When she ushered us into the testing room, he wedged himself between my knees, burying his face between them and begging me through muffled tears, “Bye bye. Car. Bye bye. Car.” He knew something uncomfortable–perhaps even painful–was about to happen, and he resisted.Β The nurse’s kind smile was met with the distrustful scowl of an angry, confused toddler.

Goodness, I wanted to bolt. I wanted to turn around and walk that boy straight down to the car, strap him in and take him out for ice cream, a gesture that would both soothe his nerves, assure him of my love, and show that dumb allergy who’s in charge. I wanted to pretend that this wasn’t our reality, that we aren’t a food allergy family and we can go anywhere and eat anything and never have to think twice about the complications that food allergies bring to the table. But the snap of the nurse’s blue gloves bolted me back to reality. On went my brave face, out came my reassuring words, and up to heaven flew my plea to please make this all go away, and if it can’t go away, then please help it to go quickly.

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It went quickly. The nurse poked and prodded and Emery squirmed and squalled, even as I tried in vain to distract him with his favorite song. After a moment or two, he was free from my grip and distracted by books and cars and puzzles and fruit snacks. The tell-tale red splotches emerged quickly and confirmed–for the official record–what we knew to be true about him for his whole life, just about. The nurse measured and recorded the results, wiped away the pen marks and slathered cream all over his back to soothe the itch away. When they were gone, I picked that boy up and we left without much having changed.

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When we settled into the car, Emery said, “Daddy. Coffee,” nodding his head as he did so, and thus pretty much assuring me that is what would soothe him better than much else. And so, we drove across town and ordered fancy coffees for you and your team, and got a little box of apple juice for Emery too because goodness, the least I could do was get that little trooper a box of his beloved apple juice after such a challenging morning. By the time we reached you and you scooped that little shadow of yours up into a big bear hug, he seemed to have forgotten the whole ordeal.

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Me? I’m still reeling a little, to be honest. Not because it was terrifying or horrific–it wasn’t. It went pretty much the way I thought it would go. I’m just … really conflicted about it all. Saddened by it. It’s hard enough to have one kid with food allergies. It’s even harder to have two–and tougher still when they aren’t allergic to the same things. Worse when there’s another child without any food allergies (who just plain misses PB&J’s with a tall, cold glass of regular milk).Β  And then, when you add in my own problems with gluten? Sometimes it all makes me really emotional. This food allergy family thing? It’s hard.

I still wonder about Emery–not so much whether he will have food allergies (because clearly, we have that answer now), but I wonder how this food allergy life will shape him, how I will shape him with my own attitude toward food and feeding him. Will he be angry and bitter about it? Will my bad days paint a false picture of God’s purpose for our family? Or will not care one tiny little bit, and join with us in boasting about the goodness of God and His kindness and provision in the midst of a difficult, unwanted circumstance?

I pray it’s the latter.

Love,

Scratch

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