Editor's Note: This article was originally published in the Times Union, Albany, NY, March 13, 2007. Twelve-year-old Allegra Cullen is a sixth-grader at Schenectady's Howe Elementary School. Also note, the use of the specific brand of auto injector was changed to simply "auto injector" for trademark purposes.
Allegra Cullen, age 12, stands by her nut-free classroom. (Photo by Luanne M. Ferris / Times Union)
It's the first day of sixth grade. The ring of the school bell closes the door on summer. Kids in fresh school clothes unzip their backpacks to get out shiny new notebooks, folders and pencils. In my backpack, next to my little stuffed llama, is something I am not happy about -- a note from my mother to the teacher telling her about my severe peanut allergy.
Every year at this time, I have to hand in this dreadful note. It may not seem like a huge deal, but it is. If I eat a peanut, I could die.
The teacher stands in front of the whole class and reads this note out loud: "To whom it may concern: Please be advised that Allegra Cullen has a severe peanut and nut allergy. She cannot be exposed to any type of nut or nut ingredient. Please make sure you check all the labels for peanut/nut products or oils. Thank you."
I feel so guilty because the some kids sigh and say, "Awwwww." It's so embarrassing because after the teacher is done, some students walk up to me and say, "Thanks a lot, Allegra!" From previous years, they know that they can no longer bring anything into the classroom if it has nuts. Then the nurse sends home a note telling the parents, too.
Normal, with a difference
In a lot of ways, I am a normal kid. I like to snowboard, skateboard and play tennis. I like to take care of my turtle, cockatiel and fish.
But I'm also one of 3 million Americans with a peanut allergy, and it has affected my life in big ways and little ways.
My peanut allergy was discovered when I was just a year old. My mom gave me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich all cut up into hearts, triangles and squares. She tells me that on the first bite I took, my face swelled up so much that my eyelids flipped inside-out. She was so scared because she didn't know what was going on.
She grabbed me and held me far away from her body as she ran downstairs to her friend, Liz, who was a nurse. Inside, she wondered if I was possessed. When Liz looked at my face, she knew I was having a potentially fatal allergic reaction to peanuts called anaphylaxis.
They called 911, and I was rushed to the emergency room, just like 30,000 other Americans with peanut allergies each year.
By the time I was 3, I learned to read my first words. They were nut and peanut. My mom used to write the word peanut on an index card and show it to me over and over again. Then when we were in the kitchen or grocery store, she would hand me food packages like cakes or gravy or potato chips and have me look for the words peanut and nut. But at 3, I certainly couldn't read words like lecithin, mandelonas, food additive 322, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, marzipan and emulsified ingredients, which all can contain peanuts or nuts.
Finding peanuts in a label is a tricky thing. There are so many places that peanuts can be hidden that you wouldn't expect. My mom says that she was not at all comfortable with me going places without her. She didn't know if other people would check all labels.
They might just look at food and say, "I don't see any nuts. It's fine." And if they did check the label, would they know the different names for peanut, like Arachis, which is its scientific name?
Many people don't know that peanuts can be in foods like chili, and that potato chips are sometimes cooked in peanut oil. What if they let me sit on a beanbag or play with a hackysack? Those things are sometimes filled with crushed peanut shells. How about if they let me wash my hands with soap or put lotion on without checking the labels? Some of these products are made with nut oils. Even giving a puppy a dog biscuit can be dangerous, because lots of pet foods contain nuts.
No wonder my mom was paranoid. When I was little, at school or at a special event, I couldn't eat anything brought in by anyone else. She always packed my snack and lunch. If someone brought in treats for a birthday, I had to look at the scrumptious cupcakes piled with frosting, while I was stuck with just juice and jelly beans.
Imagine, at 3, being shown how to stab yourself with a needle in your own thigh. That's what I would have to do with my auto injector if I ate a peanut. An auto injector contains medication that holds you for 20 minutes, so you can get to the hospital. I've never had to inject myself, but my mom has had to give me my auto injector once. I always make sure that I know how to use my auto injector properly, because if I ever do come in contact with a peanut, then I will be prepared.
Two years ago, my mom gave me a hideous denim purse to put my auto injector in. I had to carry it around everywhere I went. I am not what people call the most girly girl, so I was not happy about that. Sometimes, I would try to forget the purse in the closet or leave it in the car, but my mom would always remind me, and then I was stuck with the purse again.
Even though I've never injected myself, my poor stuffed animals have been injected many times. All auto injectors expire within one year, and when they do, I use them to give a practice shot to my stuffed animals. Scooby Doo has been injected many times, because I have a lot of auto injectors. I keep them at school, at home, in my bag and at some friends' houses. And we teach my friends. I don't want to be one of the 200 people who die each year from peanut allergies.
Caught in the act
The thing that has made the most difference to me is the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA). This act was passed by Congress in 2006 when I was 11. It requires food to list major food allergens that are in the ingredients. Labels also must state if major allergens are in flavoring, spices, colorings or additives.
Although FALCPA makes me feel safer, the way manufacturers have responded to the act has created another problem. Food manufacturers are trying to protect themselves by putting warning labels on many of their products. The three labels I see are: "May Contain Peanuts," "Processed in a factory that also processes peanuts" and "Made on the same equipment that also process peanuts."
Some of these labels I can understand, but I don't understand the label that says "Processed in a factory that also processes peanuts." Does this mean that somewhere in the factory -- maybe even 400 feet away -- there is a peanut? Or does it mean that the food is made in the same room?
Because I can't take the risk, there are a lot of foods that I used to be able to eat before the labels came out, like Milky Ways, Kit Kats and plain M&Ms, but now, I can't eat them. I can hardly find a candy bar that I can eat.
Search for dessert
The same is true for packaged baked good and snacks. The other day, my mom and I went to the grocery store to get some dessert. We saw lava cake and we really wanted to get it. My mom flipped over the package, and there it was: "May contain peanuts." We both felt very sad.
We looked at jumbo eclairs. We looked at chocolate cheesecake. We looked at Carvel ice cream cakes, but they all said the same thing. We were both really mad. I looked over and glared at my mom, as I always do, because she's the one whom I inherited the peanut allergy from. Whenever I give her the glare, she always laughs and says, "Don't say I never gave you anything."
But this time she didn't, because she was just as mad as me. When I go to bigger chain restaurants, I can eat a limited variety of foods. When a restaurant is busy, I feel pretty guilty when I have to ask the waiter or waitress to check for peanuts. I don't like asking for people to check for peanuts, because I'm shy around people I don't know. Still, my parents make me because when I'm out on my own, I have to get used to doing it.
I've learned to make peanut-free snacks, and I know where to go to eat so I can be safe when my parents aren't with me to make the decisions. At Panera Bread in Niskayuna, staff member Nina Spychalski has a peanut allergy just like me. So when I go there, I know I can ask her what foods don't have peanuts, and she'll be able to tell me.
Sometimes, I like to get something to eat with my friends. I can go to Homestyle Pizza on Union Street because the owner, Anthony Adonnino, knows I have a peanut allergy and I always feel comfortable when I eat in there.
I have become more independent because I have to take care of a bunch of things that most kids don't have to, like carrying my auto injector and checking my labels. And I have learned that I have to be very careful with my life, because I only have one.
I don't let my allergies keep me from being a normal kid and having fun. I love to play, but I know where to take risks, and where not to.
A peanut can cause me a lot of problems, but, man, you should see me glide off a steep, 7-foot jump on my snowboard!