How I Was Inspired By…My Child’s Food Allergies

San Clemente’s Kelly Rudnicki, author of three cookbooks, on raising a son with a severe health issue

Photograph by Melissa Valladares

have five children. My eldest doesn’t have food allergies, so as a first-time mom I got to be like any other mom: We’d eat out all the time, she went to play dates and preschool, and I didn’t worry about the food she’d be offered. Everything was just dandy.

My son, John, who’s now 13, was different. From the beginning there were symptoms that something was wrong. Every time I breastfed him he doubled up in pain. I was so baffled, and I knew that something wasn’t typical here. When he was 7 months old he ate one of those first finger-food snacks, a cheese-coated veggie wheel. He became ill immediately. He developed hives, started vomiting, and he was grabbing at his mouth. I called the pediatrician, who said, “If you have Benadryl in the house, give it to your son.” I did that, and it countered the reaction within a few minutes. But we were lucky: For a true anaphylactic reaction, Benadryl isn’t sufficient. I’ve learned since then that an epinephrine auto-injector is the only form of medication that can reverse an anaphylactic reaction.

We took John to an allergist, did the full range of testing, and learned that he was severely allergic to dairy, tree nuts, eggs, peas, peanuts, and other legumes. I went from thinking I had everything under control to being terrified: What are food allergies anyway? How do I feed my child? How do I keep him safe? Can I send him to school?

At that time, there just wasn’t enough information out there for parents with a newly diagnosed child. I was handed a bunch of papers, and then I had to go grocery shopping for my son. I felt like I was the one person who could keep my son safe and alive, but I didn’t know how to read the labels and I didn’t know what all those words meant—this was before the Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act. I remember thinking, “Well, I’ll just have to grill some meat for my son. That’s the only thing I’m confident he can eat.”

Then my husband and I had to convince the people around us that our son had life-threatening food allergies. We heard a lot of, “What is that?” “Are you certain?” “This sounds like a fad.” I felt I had to justify my son’s condition repeatedly, because his life depended on other people taking it seriously.

At the time, there weren’t many books on food allergies. I turned to the Internet for information, guidance, and connection, and that’s how my blog Food Allergy Mama was born. Maybe nobody would read it, but if I talked to the dark space out there about how lonely this felt, maybe I could find somebody who felt the same way. And I’ve found so many amazing friends through one of the darkest times of my life.

I vividly remember getting into the car with my son after that first appointment with the allergist, suddenly knowing I was the mother of a very small child with a medical condition that would take his life if we didn’t monitor everything and keep him safe. It was terrifying. But getting information changes all of that. Honestly, the more knowledge you have, the better your quality of life and the better you’ll feel about your day-to-day experiences.

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