Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life

“For those with allergies like mine, each day requires vigilance in terms of what we do, the company we keep, and where we sit in relation to that bowl of mixed nuts. One person’s comfort food is another person’s enemy. One person’s lifesaver is another’s poison.”

Just a couple of weeks ago, wee reader and I met yet another doctor, an allergist. She had a whole list of questions, a large stack of printed information to take home, prescribed a new ointment, set up a new bath routine, and a whole lot of other things that left my head spinning. Essentially, we have been battling eczema for quite a few months now (considering that he is only 10 months, a few months is a lifetime!), and his paediatrician suggested a blood test for allergies. Turns out he is allergic to egg whites, wheat and peanuts. That surprised us all, as both my husband and I aren’t allergic to any food, neither are our immediate families.

As you know, I am a reader. So one thing I knew I had to do was check out some reading material on food allergies. In a bid to learn more, but in a more personal way, as understood by someone who has lived with allergies all her life. And this one by Sandra Beasley looked ideal.

Because Beasley is allergic to: dairy (including goat’s milk), egg, soy, beef, shrimp, pine nuts, cucumbers, cantaloupe, honeydew, mango, macadamias, pistachios, cashews, swordfish, and mustard. Also: mold, dust, grass and tree pollen, cigarette smoke, dogs, rabbits, horses, and wool. Her allergies are so bad that she couldn’t use the phone after her college roommate talked on it while eating a slice of pizza. As an infant, she couldn’t keep any kind of milk down – formula, goat’s milk, soy milk. Her parents raised her on juice and water! And at that time, there was far less awareness of allergies. Even her grandfather, a doctor, didn’t believe her dairy allergy, until she grabbed some cream cheese and swiped it onto her cheek and hives formed shortly after.

Beasley discusses the history of allergies, which is a longer history than I imagined. The term was coined by Austrian doctor Clemens von Pirquet in 1906. The RAST (radioallergosorbent test), which wee reader had to do in December, was trademarked in 1974. The skin prick test (which we have scheduled for later this month) has been around for decades as well. Interestingly – at least for this allergies-ignorant parent – the RAST generates a lot of  false positives. For Beasley, it claimed she was allergic to both rice and pineapple, both foods she has safely consumed before.

One thing that really surprised me about this book was the various aspects of food allergies that are discussed, such as peanut bans on flights (Beasley is not allergic to peanuts), even some information on vegetarianism and veganism (her sister becomes vegetarian). I guess I was expecting something like a blog-turned-book. And I haven’t really got a very good opinion on those.

Beasley is an award-winning poet who used to feel that prose was the “dark side”. In an interview with She Writes, Beasley says: “The key to writing the book, I realized, was to admit that I didn’t have all the answers going in, and to make the act of questioning part of the book’s conscious narrative.” And that is what makes this story interesting. She discusses using (or in their case, the lack of use) of the EpiPen (a lot of Benadryl is consumed instead), even talks about wedding traditions and how weddings for her are hazardous (people having consumed cake and all that kissing and hugging), and dining out is a leap of faith.

 “Getting ready to go out on a dinner date, I always line and shadow my eyelids knowing that by the end of the night they could be swollen and heavy with fluid. I coat my lips in Chapstick, not knowing if I’ll end up with a kiss or mouth-to-mouth from a fifty-three-year-old paramedic with halitosis.”

We’ve been so careful about what we feed wee reader, especially since he’s still exploring different tastes and textures. I would so love to be able to let him try foods off my plate when we are out, but when we do dine out, it’s usually at Asian restaurants and with their use of peanuts and eggs and wheat (which is in most soy sauces) and the risk of cross-contamination as well as the difficulty of explaining what we need, it’s easier to just bring our own baby food along. I just hope that he will outgrow these allergies, or perhaps that the blood test threw up some false positives (but we’ll never know for sure until we do some supervised food challenges when he’s older). I know a lot of people out there live with food allergies (and Beasley has so many more allergies than wee reader), but, as I mentioned earlier, to me and my family, it’s a new thing. The only relative with food allergies is my cousin who was born and lives in Perth, Australia!

If not for finding about wee reader’s allergies, I would not have picked up this book. But it is such a great non-fiction read – well-written, personal, informative, that I would recommend it to everyone, whether you have food allergies or not.

Oh I also love this post she wrote about public libraries on Poems Out Loud, especially this part:

 In libraries we recognize the judgment of touch; the best books are usually in the shabbiest shape. Every dog-eared corner marks a moment worth returning to. Every splotch of soy sauce is a medal of honor. Every creased binding proves hours spent using one hand to Xerox, or iron, or whatever the day required, while clutching in the other hand a story that could not be put down. When I first began browsing my way through the science fiction stacks, I didn’t choose books that looked like pristine runway models. I chose the grizzled field veterans. That’s how I came to Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison, and Arthur C. Clarke.


This is my fourth read for the Foodies Read 2 Challenge

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15 thoughts on “Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life

  1. Oh no I hope he’ll outgrow the allergies!

    I did not have allergies as a child, but developed eczema when I was in secondary school. Thankfully it’s no longer a problem now… and my non-scientific conclusion is that if you had eczema as a child, you probably won’t get it later in life! (Sorry I probably sound incoherent!)

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    1. Yeah I did have a little bit of eczema when I was a kid (primary school I think?). However, when I moved to the UK to do a masters programme, it came back! Luckily I was able to get rid of it thanks to a dermatologist I went to see (which required an hour-plus bus ride!)

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  2. I forgot to say I really like that library quote. Some of my friends never go to the library because they don’t like flipping through what they call “used books”. But I really like how each “used book” has so many more stories to tell than a brand-new one.

    Randomly, have you watched the Japanese movie “Love Letter” before? (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Love_Letter_(1995_film)) There’s a crucial part of the plot which involves a library book and I just love that part (and the whole movie, of course) to bits.

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    1. Thanks for the movie recommendation! I haven’t really watched that many Japanese movies, so have not heard of this one. Sounds like something I’d enjoy, if I can find it!

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  3. I certainly wish you and Wee Reader the best with his allergies. When I was young I had quite horrible allergies to pet dander, mold, and other environmental things. I was also allergic to eggs and a few other food items. I’ve also had a long battle with eczema. As I got older my doctor recommended allergy shots. While we did those for a while, my mother actually took a different road, stopped the shots, and got me a cat. I was allergic for a long time but I eventually outgrew these allergies and acclimated to my environment. I will still break out occasionally if I play with a new-to-me dog or cat, but I am “used to” my own animals.

    Hoping Wee Reader will experience something similar and they’ll go away!

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  4. Oh, and I will also mention…

    Actress Kate Winslet’s children have faced similar allergy difficulties. If you search Oprah.com she recommended a specific book about children’s allergies, but I can’t remember the title right now. I don’t know if you’d find any new info in it from what you’ve already read, but I do remember eczema and allergies were mentioned specifically.

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  5. Friends of mine have a son who has many allergies. When they lived in Turkey, they had a couple of scares because shopkeepers customarily offered sweets to children. They had to teach him how to something to the effect of ‘No thank you I cannot eat the candy as I am allergic to nuts’ in Turkish. Good luck with navigating the treatment and handling of wee reader’s allergies.

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  6. It does seem that there are more allergic kids in the US than in most other countries! Among the many questions I have about allergies, one of them would be, what happens when we travel to or move back to Singapore? Allergies seem to be much rarer in Singapore and I’m sure people will be far less aware/accommodating than here! Of course I am thinking way too far ahead…. but that’s just me…!

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  7. There are so many difficult questions surrounding food allergies. The inaccuracy of some of the testing, the overall issue of body-burden — which varies substantially between food cultures, the matter of processing/preserving which can make a consumable problematic in one form and not in another…it’s a lot to take in. Who knows: if you were to return to Singapore, you might find that the wee reader leaves his struggles behind on the North American grocery shelves, so you wouldn’t need to worry about how aware/accommodating they are/aren’t! *crosses bookish fingers*

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    1. Yes, it is incredibly confusing. And we’ll have to explain it all over again when wee reader’s grandparents come to stay with us next month!

      I have often wondered if it would have made a difference if he were born in Singapore. If the environment here has resulted in these allergies!

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