A peanut butter sandwich can be a life or death matter

October 01, 2003|EMILY TOADVINE

The peanut butter jar stays on a high shelf in Michelle Richmond's Burgin home. Serving a peanut butter sandwich is a life or death matter for this mother of three.

Eating this protein - a staple in most homes with children - is a rare occurrence because Ricmond's middle child has a severe allergy.

She realized that her son, Tanner, now 6, had an allergy before he was 2. He had a severe reaction, but she wasn't sure what caused it.

"He was breaking out in hives and rashes and swelling."

Richmond narrowed it down when her son was 4. They planned to eat at a restaurant that has buckets of peanuts on the tables. They had to leave because he started having an allergic reaction.


"His eyes were swollen. His lips were swollen. It lasted about five minutes," she says, noting that the reaction stopped when they left the restaurant.

A visit to the doctor the next day confirmed her suspicions. She obtained an "epi pen," which allows her to inject epineprhine immediately by giving a shot in the thigh to stop the reaction while on the way to the emergency room or allergist's office. Despite taking the precaution of getting the pen, she still wasn't sure about when to use it.

Third close call led to discovery of anaphylaxis

A third close call with Tanner finally led to the discovery that he has anaphylaxis, which means that the allergic reaction can lead to death.

On the third time that Tanner ingested peanuts, he took one bite of a sucker that his family didn't realize had peanut butter on the inside. He reacted within a minute.

"He was telling me that it hurt his throat and his lips were swelling," Richmond says, noting that she was dialing 911 on the phone. She was told not to use the epi pen, but to come to the emergency room. She thinks differently since learning that he has anaphylaxis, which was diagnosed by the ER doctor.

"The ER doctor said, 'No, with anaphylaxis, stick him and ask questions later."

Knowing the severity of the situation means that the Richmonds don't take any chances. The only time her other children, T.J., 8, or Tobi, 4, receive peanut butter is when Tanner is visiting a friend. Richmond says her oldest child is most likely to request the treat.

"It's a big deal. I fix the sandwich and T.J. eats it. I make him stay in one spot. When he's through eating, he'll wash his hands and brush his teeth."

Outside the home, the situation is more challenging, but Richmond is consoled by the fact that Tanner is a first-grader at Hogsett Elementary School, where she teaches first grade.

"Because I'm a teacher here, all the teachers are aware," she says.

The cafeteria manager no longer makes peanut butter sandwiches for the younger elementary students. Even the children show their concern for Tanner's special problem.

All the children wash their hands after lunch

"The kids are so sensitive to that. They'll say, 'My mom packed me a peanut butter sandwich so I can't eat it if Tanner is here,'" Richmond says, noting that her son comes to eat beside her in that case or moves away from that area. After lunch, all the children wash their hands to avoid bringing the substance into the classroom.

During her 12 years as a teacher, Richmond says she saw one other student have a similar reaction to peanut butter.

"We were making peanut butter bird feeders," she says, noting that she didn't realize the severity of the illness at the time. She recently saw the child's parent and told them what she has discovered about the illness and the importance of having an epi pen and knowing when to use it.

Away from school, one of the more challenging holidays is approaching. Tanner always participates in trick or treat, but he knows better than to sample anything before letting his mom check it out.

"Any unknown chocolate we just pitch," she says.

Hershey bars usually get the green light.

"Hershey is the only company I know that doesn't make its chocolate on the same machine as any peanut products," she says, noting that federal law now requires that the ingredients' list reveal whether the item was made on the same machine as peanut products.

With a childhood devoid of peanut butter, Tanner turns to other satisfying foods. His mother's sour dough bread is a favorite. He often eats turkey sandwiches.

Richmond knows that her son's illness is not one that he will outgrow, but she tries to keep up with new findings. She recently saw a TV show about a girl with the illness who is receiving small injections of peanuts.

"They're not curing it, but they're trying to build up a tolerance," Richmond says.

Richmond says the hard part was explaining to her son why he has this illness.

"He wanted to know, 'Why did this have to happen to me?' I explained to him that he's special and we'll deal with the worst part of it, and it makes him different."

Emily Toadvine can be reached at

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