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Thank you for the sacrifices you make for food allergies

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The following article was written by founder, Dr. Abby Herzig on May 12, 2018 as a guest columnist for The Toronto Sun

May is food allergy awareness month and monuments around the world, including the CN Tower, TORONTO sign, and Niagara Falls, will be lit up in teal, the official colour of food allergies to help raise awareness.

Yet, if there was one wish, aside from a cure, that parents of food-allergic children desired, it would be that others understood it better. Food allergies are highly misunderstood. Those diagnosed are not sick and have no visible disability. Yet, the very thing that everyone else lives off for survival, namely, food, is the same thing that terrifies these children and their parents. What nourishes one child, may kill another. And yet, something about food allergies evokes in others, feelings of annoyance, disbelief, and dismissiveness. Why?

People assume they’re overhyped, a fad, or a condition made up by the anxious likes of helicopter parents. There is so much confusion over the word “allergy” itself. It’s the same word used to describe itchy, watery eyes and runny noses, and unfortunately is often borrowed by those who simply dislike or don’t want to eat a particular food.

The word “allergy” has become so damn diluted, it’s no wonder it’s not taken seriously. But severe food allergies are something different. They are life-threatening and when someone accidentally eats a food to which they are allergic, they can go into anaphylactic shock and die.

The fears are real and there is nothing easy or made up when it comes to living with this life-threatening reality. Food allergies are not a choice. They are not a diet. They are not a healthy regimen (in fact, some of the most common allergens these kids have to avoid are considered superfoods — think: walnuts).

Every three minutes, someone goes to the ER for an allergic reaction and just last year, a beautiful three- year-old boy, named Elijah, died in a New York City day care because he was fed a grilled cheese sandwich, despite being allergic to dairy. And yet sadly, children are still bullied, sometimes smeared with peanut butter, because others think it’s a joke.

My son is allergic to tree nuts and sesame. I’ve had to inject him on two different occasions with an Epipen and had I not, he likely would have died. Every time I drop him off at school, camp, basketball practice, or a friend’s house, I’m slightly tense until he comes home.

Food is everywhere, and other than his own vigilance, the only thing I can count on when I’m not around, is the people who are watching him. Perhaps what evokes the negative feelings is that food allergies are the one medical condition that asks something of others.

Parents are asked to refrain from sending their kids to school with peanut butter, airlines are asked to not serve nuts on flights, restaurants are asked to make changes to the foods they serve, and schools are asked to change their policies. We do ask a lot of others, and those of us in the food allergy community should always be grateful for the sacrifices others make for our children’s safety. Trust me, we wish we didn’t have to.

The reality is I can’t always be there with my son to protect him, but one day you might be and I will need you to understand, to be aware, and to help me keep him safe, and for this I will be more grateful than you will ever know.

I just hope that won’t be too much to ask.

Dr. Abby Herzig

Dr. Abby Herzig

Dr. Abby Herzig developed her career around the drive to understand and help children in need. After receiving her doctorate degree in clinical psychology, she continued to study child development and parent-child mental health at NYU Medical Center and Columbia University. An extension of her work with children, Abby is actively involved with UNICEF, serving on the New York Steering committee for UNICEF’s NextGen. She has traveled to South East Asia and Africa visiting hospitals, schools, and orphanages, advising UNICEF on child development and proper interventions for children and families at risk. As a result of her global work with children, Abby was asked to join the Innovators Program at the world-renowned Sick Children’s Hospital in Toronto. Driven by her passion to help children, and a parent of a child with life-threatening food allergies, Abby was inspired to create Belay and find solutions for the unmet needs of children and families affected by the food-allergy epidemic.
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