The Weiser Family
Meet Cate, a girl whose life-threatening food allergies affect her choices every day. As food allergies increase at an alarming rate, the Mary H. Weiser Food Allergy Center at the University of Michigan is ramping up research to find answers for thousands of families.
The Klein Family
Like many parents with a food-allergic child, Stacy Klein of Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, says every step is a learning experience. Her youngest daughter, Carly, showed signs of an allergy to soy formula at birth, and at age 13 she is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds, shellfish and many fruits, including apples, kiwi and most pitted fruits.
Carly had her first allergic reaction at the age of 6 months, exhibiting telltale signs of a swollen face and eyes, welts, throat-tightening, etc. Since then, Stacy — a member of the University of Michigan Mary H. Weiser Food Allergy Center Advisory Committee — not only has worked diligently to protect her daughter, she also is educating her family along the way.
“I am constantly questioning people I come into contact with, especially people who are a little bit older than my daughter and have been living on their own with food allergies,” she says. “I am envisioning the future, and what Carly’s life might be like.”
Travel is particularly challenging for the Klein family, especially through the air. On a family trip to Italy when Carly was 5, her airplane seat had a sesame seed on it. Within minutes, she had a reaction, but responded well to Benadryl. “Knowing what I know now, I would have gotten off the plane,” Stacy says. “Even though she responded well to the medicine, you never know how bad a reaction will be.”
Now, Stacy boards early and wipes down Carly’s seat with Clorox wipes. She also calls ahead to hotels and restaurant kitchens to ensure they are knowledgeable of food allergies, and also makes sure that hospitals in the area are good at treating food allergies.
Carly is fully aware that food allergies are a life-and-death situation that has to come first. Part of her extended support structure includes a tight-knit group of friends that is respectful of her food allergies.
“It’s weighing health and food allergies, which is challenging for a teenager,” Stacy says. “It is challenging to see things her older sister (Katie) can do — the experiences she can have — and know that Carly will never be able to do those because there is too much risk involved.”
In addition to her service on the committee, Stacy also has taken Carly to the center for testing, and to learn more about food allergies. Stacy says has had a great experience at Michigan, noting the team’s knowledge and understanding of the latest research. When approached to become a committee member, Stacy knew right away she wanted to be a part of the effort.
“It is so helpful to know people are working on food allergies,” says Stacy, a 1989 graduate of U-M’s College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. “I want to get other people involved because I feel so passionate about what can be done.”
Baseball and 13-year-old boys are a match made in summer heaven. But for Paola Luptak and her son, Paul Jakobson, a recent trip to Comerica Park to see a Detroit Tigers game didn’t include all of the culinary treats suggested in “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Because Paul suffers from peanut and tree nut allergies, Paola couldn’t buy her son peanuts or Cracker Jack.
“Going to a sporting event, especially a baseball game, with a child with a peanut allergy — you have to clear the area and then tell people ‘please don’t eat your peanuts or throw your shells,’” says Paola, who flew back to her home state to take her son to middle school football camp at the University of Michigan. “Some people are good about it, but others just look at you like you are crazy.”
Such is the challenge faced by Paola and her family, who hail from Boca Raton, Florida, as their son enters his teenage years. Paola admits that helping her son deal with his allergies is easier when he is at home or in school and she, or his teachers, can keep an eye on him. Now, he is in sports camps throughout the summer and will find himself among new friends and in new situations. As she dropped him off on the U-M campus, Paola admits to an uneasy feeling.
“As I drove away from West Quad, I got that sinking feeling in my stomach like, ‘I hope they don’t call me’ — you are always on alert,” says Paola, a 1988 graduate of the U-M College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. “When kids get a little older, and start doing more things on their own, it is a whole different level.”
Paola first learned of her son’s food allergies when he was 2-1/2. She was eating a piece of toast with peanut butter on it, and Paul tried a bite. He only put it up to his mouth and didn’t even ingest it, she recalls, but his face swelled up and he began vomiting. A dose of Benadryl and quick trip to the hospital helped him to overcome the episode. But, for the last decade his mother has been vigilant about educating him and others about the dangers of food allergies.
She recalls enrolling Paul in middle school and listening as the teacher told parents about a policy of no nuts in the classroom. One mother asked, “Is it really that important?” Paola says she immediately stood up and delivered a lecture on the importance of recognizing the threat of food allergies. She continues to reinforce that point with Paul and his younger sister, Erika Jakobson, who has shown no food allergies.
“In middle school, when kids have a lot more things going on and peer pressure, how do you enforce the safety of it?” she wonders. “He is mature, but he is still only 13.”
Paola says she first learned of the U-M Mary H. Weiser Food Allergy Center (MHWFAC) after meeting Ambassador Ronald Weiser, a member of the MHWFAC advisory committee and father-in-law of Mary Weiser, the center’s advocate and fundraising chair.
“This is a cause that is near-and-dear to our hearts, and one of the most important things is raising money for research,” Paola says. “Not only do we need to determine what causes food allergies and how to treat those affected, we need to educate the general public on the importance of food allergy safety.”
When Hannah was eight-and-a-half months old, her father, Ethan, mixed her baby cereal with formula. It was Hannah’s first time eating anything with dairy. Within seconds, her face, throat, neck, ears, chest, back, arms and legs had turned bright red, swelling beyond her normal size. Her mother, Allison, was at the gym when she received a panicked phone call from Ethan and immediately rushed home.
The new parents first called Hannah’s doctor and were advised to hang up the phone and dial 911. Before they even got off the phone with the police, first responders were at their door: fire trucks and an ambulance, all for their baby. At the ER, the doctors and nurses monitored Hannah closely until the swelling went down and they felt comfortable enough to send the family home.
“Still, even now, four years later, whenever I look back, I can’t find the strength to hold back the tears, the lump in my throat thinking what could have been,” says Allison.
Doctors’ appointments, allergy testing and blood work filled the week following their ER visit. Hannah was diagnosed with severe food allergies, including dairy, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts and beef. But, as Hannah’s parents began their journey of reading ingredients, educating friends and family, and obsessively watching over everything she ate and touched, things still didn’t seem right. Hannah vomited multiple times a week, if not a day. Meal times were horrible experiences. Hannah would not eat, no matter what was on her plate.
“Any time she pushed food away, I feared she was having a reaction,” recalls Allison. “Some foods just seemed off — I could read her facial experiences, her genuine disgust. Even though she was so young, we sensed there was more going on.”
Shortly before her second birthday, Hannah was diagnosed with eosinophilic esophagitis (EE) through an endoscopy performed at the University of Michigan Hospital. Allison and Ethan came to Marc S. McMorris, M.D., at the U-M Department of Allergy and Immunology knowing very little about EE. The little they found on-line created more questions than comfort, and finding a support group that had more information also was limited. Dr. McMorris spent time with Hannah and her parents explaining what EE was and its short history.
“We learned about the importance of the elimination diet and noticing even the smallest of symptoms, the cough, to the most obvious and scary, the constant vomiting,” recalls Allison. “Even with so much uncertainty and the impact on our family, we felt comforted being under Dr. McMorris’ care.”
Allison and Ethan walked out of their first meeting with Dr. McMorris feeling, for once, that Hannah was going to be okay. They filled the calendar with behavioral appointments to reteach eating, GI appointments to monitor Hannah’s health, pediatric weight checks, and nutritional counseling. All of Hannah’s needs were met and of course, as concerned parents, Allison’s and Ethan’s were, too.
Hannah’s parents met with Dr. McMorris every few months to monitor and discuss Hannah’s allergies. They have decreased Hannah’s medicine, from Budesonide twice a day, to gradually stopping. Prevacid is her only medication and Hannah recently was able to add some foods back into her diet — she has grown out of her peanut allergy and the family is incorporating baked eggs back into her diet.
“Our wish is that one day, in the near future, we can turn the page on EE and Hannah’s food allergies,” Allison says. “We hope that our beautiful girl continues to grow and thrive, and that Hannah’s deep understanding, even at this young age, inspires her to always believe in herself. She inspires us every day. We are proud to tell Hannah’s story with hopes that our experiences will help others find comfort.”
One day after walking out of the University of Michigan Mary H. Weiser Food Allergy Center (MHWFAC), Kyle Rechter indulged in a Reese’s peanut butter cup. Not a big event for a 13-year-old, it would seem, but for the recent teenager who battles food allergies, it was a momentous occasion. Long suspected of being allergic to peanut butter, Kyle recently passed a “challenge” to the creamy delight, administered by Marc S. McMorris, M.D., director of the U-M Food Allergy Program.
Her son’s passing grade in the peanut butter test was a relief for Nancy Rechter, who was told by Kyle’s allergist not to eat peanuts after he suffered an allergic relation to a walnut at about age 5. She has traversed a wide path of speculation — could his tree-nut allergy have been caused by his premature birth (32 weeks), or is it related to a common belief that nuts are processed differently in the United States than in Europe?
“It seems like now, if you don’t have a food allergy of some kind, it is rare,” says Nancy from her home in Franklin, Michigan. She has volunteered to help raise funds for the MHWFAC and awareness of food allergies. “I questioned everything — did I not eat enough peanut butter when I was pregnant with Kyle? Did I eat too much? There seems to be no rhyme or reason.”
One thing Nancy is sure of is Kyle’s adherence to a routine that keeps him away from tree nuts. He is diligent in asking questions: “What is it made of?” “What is in this?” “Did it come into contact with anything else?” Like many parents with children entering teenage years, she worries about Kyle’s ability to handle new situations and food exposures that surely will come his way.
“He is very conscientious, but he also is a kid and a boy at 13, and as he is getting older it is becoming a little more difficult because he wants to try things,” Nancy says. “As kids age, they probably have to watch out more; they sort of think they are invincible.”
That was not the case during a trip to Colorado, when an 8-year-old Kyle ate mussels served in pesto sauce, which often contains pine nuts. The experience landed Kyle in the hospital, where he was treated with steroids. Pesto was added to a list of foods for Kyle to avoid, and now he goes everywhere with Benadryl — for mild reactions — and an EpiPen injector, in case of a serious incident.
With college just a few years away, Nancy admits to worrying about a culture where students drink — the result often being impaired judgment. She told the story of a friend who has a daughter in college. While drinking, she ate pretzels out of a bowl that had had peanuts in it and began vomiting. These are the situations Kyle must avoid.
If Kyle needs a reminder about food allergy threats, Nancy can remind him of the incident in Colorado, during which his face swelled almost to the point of being unrecognizable.
“We didn’t let him look in the mirror at that one,” she says.