As a toddler, Michela Thomas of Poland had to leave her mother's college graduation party in an ambulance because of chocolate-covered peanuts.
"My friend and I were throwing chocolate-covered peanuts back and forth that was on the table as snacks," Thomas said. "He ate one, so I decided to have one, too. I don't know what happened between then and someone getting an ambulance, but my throat started closing up. Everyone started worrying. After I went into shock, I started throwing up."
She had gone into anaphylactic shock, which is a severe allergic reaction where the throat begins to close and breathing is jeopardized. Also, the face swells, and rashes on the skin appear.
Nuts, eggs, wheat and milk are just a few foods that can cause serious allergic reactions. Parents of Allergic Kids work to educate, raise awareness, and provide allergy free peer interactions for their children. Photo by Nancilynn Gatta
At the time of her allergic episode, Thomas only knew of one friend besides herself that had peanut allergies. Her parents learned how to deal with her allergies through educating themselves about food allergies and through trial and error.
Since then, in 2005, a local group of concerned parents saw the increase in food-related allergen reactions in their children. They established Parents of Allergic Kids (P.O.A.K.). Their mission is to educate, raise awareness, and provide allergy free peer interactions for their children.
Unfortunately, this support group was not available for Thomas, now a junior at South Range High School and her parents, but it is a resource for children and families in Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbiana counties that have been diagnosed with severe food allergies.
Theresa Murphy, a registered nurse and mother of 9-year-old Liam, who has dairy, egg, peanut and tree nut allergies, has seen the group grow over the years.
"At that time, we were only about five families," Murphy said. "Since then, as allergies have been on the rise, we have about 30 families."
When P.O.A.K. first began, parents shared recipes that they had created through trial and error for taste and allergy-free food creations. With more awareness by the grocery and restaurant industry, there are more choices thanks to labeling in menus and on packaged food products.
"We can now go to a grocery store, and there are items specifically made for people with allergies," Murphy said.
But those with food allergies still need to use caution. Many products sold in grocery stores list the potential for peanut and other food cross contamination during processing. Thomas' favorite cereal, Captain Crunch, now has a peanut butter-flavored offering. At a recent breakfast, she noticed that it tasted different, and then started breaking out in a rash. Later, she realized that some of the peanut butter flavored cereal had been accidentally put in her plain cereal box.
Some of the events offered by the group are educational, but not all. Parents plan allergy-free Halloween events for the children, so they don't feel left out when it's trick-or-treat time.
The group initially met several times a year, but as the children age and are involved in more activities, it is more difficult to schedule events. In the last couple of years, the group meets two times a year. P.O.A.K. has a calendar of events on their Facebook page or those interested can request information via email at email@example.com.
Parents are the first line of defense when it comes to realizing that their child may have a food allergy and preventing future potentially life-threatening reactions. P.O.A.K. tries to ease parents' fears of letting their allergic child out into an ever-expanding food world with knowledge, support and letting them know that they are not alone with this health issue.