Lily (That's Me): Hi Mom, thanks for sitting down and talking with me tonight.
Nancy (That's my Mom): My pleasure, Lily.
Lily: When I told you I wanted to go to college in Pittsburgh (6 hours from home) what did you initially think?
Nancy: It's far away and it's a big public university and I feared that it would not provide enough personal support for your needs.
Lily: Were you concerned about me being far from home and managing my food allergies?
Nancy: Yes! I had envisioned you going to school only a few hours away and me bringing you safe food every week or so. I think I was more concerned about availability of safe food than I was about reactions although I was concerned about reactions. In high school you very smartly started cooking for yourself to prove to yourself that you could provide your own food but it still seemed like a huge task to be a freshman in college, in a new place, with everything that that entails with food shopping and preparation on top of it. Especially because at Pitt, there is no nearby grocery store--it is a food desert. And I knew that because I went to school there.
Lily: I had a bad allergic reaction the March before I left for college. Did that make you worried about how I would handle future allergic reactions?
Nancy: That reaction completely freaked me out, in part because the ER nurse told us that we were crazy to let you go away to college. She said you should do cyber college which of course you wanted nothing to do with. The other issue about that reaction was that it was to a new food allergy (mango) so it is bad enough trying to manage food allergies in college but if you don't know when you will develop new ones, how do you know what is safe to eat? I was very aware that the people who are at highest risk for food allergy fatalities are ages 13-18 and because you are young for your school grade, you would be going to college at 17--an added risk.
Lily: What did I do to prove to you that I could manage safely?
Nancy: You started cooking for yourself in high school. You always carried your auto-injectors and I never had to remind you. You also easily make friends and you have always had friends around you to help protect you and take action when you have had reactions. There were other parents I met whose food allergy children were more introverted and less likely to advocate for themselves. I knew I didn't have to worry about that with you. Which is not to say I wasn't highly anxious about the situation. You have had awesome friends in high school and college who have kept you safe. But in full disclosure, I do take some comfort in that you are an EMT and are Pre-Med and hang out with people who understand the severity of food allergies. And secretly, I can't wait for you to go to med school and spend all your time in a hospital where you will be safe. In fact, don't go home, just sleep there.
Lily: So as we sit here, I have finished half my sophomore year at Pitt. Things have changed a lot as far as our dynamic goes and we have had some ups and downs. One particular low moment last semester was when I had several allergic reactions and you threatened to make me move home and commute to a local school. Of course I didn't want that and I decided that I wouldn't tell you about my next reaction and wouldn't go to the hospital the next time so you wouldn't find out. You found out anyway though (mommy senses I guess). How do you think we can help others learn from this dangerous situation?
Nancy: I think parents can recognize once a child is a certain age and has the ability to be independent on their own, they have no control. It is the same thing as when you give a teenager car keys--you can't drive for them. When you first learned to drive, people would ask me if I was nervous about you driving. I would say no, food is more dangerous. I think the moral of the story is don't eat and drive... . Actually though, the truth is, as parents we have to let go and trust that what we have taught our children is enough to keep them safe. So in hindsight, it was pretty silly of me to think that I could threaten you with changing schools, when the chances of getting you to do that against your will were slim.And what did you learn Lily?
Lily: To always go to the hospital...and that no matter how far away you are from your mom, they will always know everything.
Lily: How were you able to channel your fears and anxiety about me going into college into something productive for yourself?
Nancy: First of all, I think the biggest mistake I made when you were diagnosed with food allergies was quitting my work to manage the situation because I gave all of my focus over to food allergies which left me constantly managing the fear and anxiety around that with no distractions. After you went to college, I spent months working to let go of the fear and anxiety about your safety, which was difficult because in the years since diagnosis you had developed so many allergies and asthma and had had probably about 20 anaphylactic reactions. When you had a reaction, while you were away at school, and I could do nothing to help you, I realized that I had to let it go, trust that you would take care of yourself, and move on with my life. I considered my options and decided to return to my nutrition counseling practice while also reaching out to other food allergy parents to help them let go of their fears and anxieties and move on too. I have started posting information on my Facebook page. Anyone who likes my Facebook page should receive any information I post for food allergy parents. I also have a website with my general nutrition services. Parents can always contact me through the website.
Lily: So now that you can look at it retrospectively, what advice do you have for parents whose children with food allergies are getting ready to leave for college?
Nancy: I think every teenager is different just like every combination of food allergies is different. Everyone's needs are so individual. But in general, I would say, one important tip that would apply to everyone is to make sure you child has health insurance they can use wherever their college is located and that they are set up with reliable doctors.
Lily: Thank you for your time!
Nancy: I love you Lily and I think your website is a tremendous resource.
To check out the college guide which is filled with lots of information, click here.