I had been home from the restaurant only ten minutes with my preschooler almost tucked into bed when I got the call.
“Miles isn’t feeling well. He’s nauseous and is having terrible asthma. We’re heading home early,“ my husband informed me calmly. My husband and two sons left our regular sushi dinner to attend a tennis lesson, still chewing as they walked out the door.
My oldest son has suffered from asthma since he was 10 months old, but this just didn’t sound like the typical onset of asthma for him. Something about Eric’s voice suggested something “other.” “Do you think it could be a food allergy reaction?” I asked.
“I don’t know; but we’re getting home as quickly as possible.”
Completely abandoning my daughter in her bed, I walked to our emergency medication and unsheathed the freshest EpiPen. I was reviewing our emergency action plan as headlights tore into the driveway.
Calm but focused, I greeted my son at the door. He was red and hot and choking out words as I tried to check in with him about his symptoms. He could barely speak. He felt nauseous and clutched his stomach as he made his way into the bathroom, afraid he would throw up. His description of his symptoms came out in – sometimes inaudible – spurts. He was fighting for breath. He felt and looked worse than I had ever seen him.
While my hand calmly rubbed his back and my eyes scanned his face assessing the situation, a million thoughts raced through me in a nanosecond. Was it something he ate? Was he possibly reacting to a new allergen? Was this anaphylaxis or pure asthma…or both? The flu and other upper respiratory viruses were spreading so rampantly that nearly a third of my son’s class was out that week. And, he had mentioned having a headache and feeling a little nauseous after school – something that had seemingly subsided by dinner.
No matter how I weighed my options, a few small words reverberated in my brain: two systems. Most emergency action plans state that if two or more essential systems (gut/stomach, lungs, skin, heart) are affected in an allergic reaction, epinephrine should be administered immediately. I held up the auto-injectors behind my son’s back, signaling to my husband that we might need to use them. Neither of us have had to use an auto-injector on my son before (knock on everything wooden). We knew it was probably the right call now. We were both looking for the other to validate that decision.
As with all things, I wanted the use of the auto-injector to be the absolute right decision. I called my father-in-law, a doctor of more than 40 years, for one last vote on how to proceed. It was a brief conversation. “Get him breathing! Give him albuterol, I’m coming right over.”
Having caught sight of me waving the EpiPen in the air to my husband, my son had now begun to sweat with panic – making everything much worse. I sat him on the couch and tried to cool him off for just a moment – considering the facts again. Asthma. Nausea. No throat, mouth, or tongue swelling. No hives. No clear relationship between this reaction and food – but always a real possibility.
I looked at my sweet boy once again, suffering for breath, and noticed his pallor wasn’t quite as red any longer; it was now tingeing blue. I grabbed the epinephrine and pulled off the safety cap. At that very moment, my brother-in-law (another doctor) and father-in-law walked through the door. With stethoscope in hand and exuding a calm and caring in doses that make me tear up in appreciation even now, they examined my son and set him up on a nebulizer – a machine that delivers asthma and other respiratory medications as a penetrating, breathable mist.
We monitored Miles’ pulse (which was steady) and his breathing (which was labored and difficult). It took a lot of medication and effort, but Miles began processing air more efficiently. I didn’t realize until the second hour of treatment that I had been clutching his auto-injector the entire time.
As Miles’ color returned and the dust began to settle, he began to recall details about his day – clues that might have been helpful earlier. Like, the fact that he experienced asthma during recess at school. As he continued to improve, we noted that he was simultaneously experiencing a migraine, which can bring about nausea. Together, we determined that this was likely an acute asthma attack and not a result of his food allergies.
All four adults watched Miles for another several hours (well into the night) before anyone was willing to even entertain sleep. And, by then, sleep didn’t come so easily. I awoke in a gasping sweat several times that night and slipped into my son’s room to check on him. At around 5:45 am, I placed my hand on his back and he broke the quiet of the pre-dawn, humorously stating, “Mommy. Your hand is like a furnace!” Smiling and with great relief, I knew the sun would come up that morning and all would be well.
When I relayed these events to my own father, he captured it perfectly. “You had a fire drill last night.” We certainly did. And, as with any good training exercise (intentional or not), we learned some valuable lessons that night.
- Trust your instincts. I knew we needed to use epinephrine. Had there not been two doctors in the family within arms’ distance from me, I would have absolutely used it. And, so would my husband. Even though it was not anaphylaxis and everything turned out well, I STILL regret not having used the auto-injector sooner. I had my doubts about a food allergy reaction for a number of reasons. The afternoon nausea as well as the absence of hives and swelling gave me pause – which is why I called my father-in-law. But, did being right about his diagnosis make me feel better about my hesitation? No. Severe food allergic reactions can present themselves with a number of symptoms and they can escalate very quickly.
- Always, ALWAYS carry your epinephrine auto-injector with you. EVERY TIME. And, make sure that your friends, family and/or whoever is caring for your child knows how to use it (procedures are slightly different for Auvi-Q, the Adrenaclick and the EpiPen, so I recommend reviewing often). In our case, we accidentally forgot to transfer the auto-injectors from my purse to my husband’s bag, taking for granted that he’d no longer be around food; out only for an hour to play tennis. Thankfully, we live two minutes from the tennis courts. But had they been further, my husband would ABSOLUTELY have needed those auto-injectors.
- As if you needed an extra reason to carry your auto-injectors: Those who have asthma are more likely to suffer from severe food allergic reactions– particularly if that asthma is not well-controlled. Asthma can complicate food allergies. Asthma occurs when there is narrowing of the airways, making it difficult for an individual to take in the proper amount of air. In my son’s case, his lungs were taking in so little air that initially my father-in-law couldn’t hear any movement with his stethoscope. No wonder he was turning blue. In an emergency situation, epinephrine can be used to treat a severe asthma attack. We were milliseconds from using it.
- If you use an epinephrine auto-injector you must go the nearest emergency room immediately. This is not because you gave the injection. Rather, those having severe food allergic reactions need additional medication and treatment. Furthermore, patients can suffer something call a bi-phasic reaction – that is, a second, delayed bout of anaphylaxis. It is estimated that up to 20% of patients suffer such a reaction.
- Once Miles went to sleep, we recapped the night with my father-in-law, who’s served in some fast-paced emergency rooms. I’ve been repeating something he said that night to everyone who will listen:
“We used to tell surgical residents,” he began, “‘If you’re considering performing a tracheotomy, then you need to do a tracheotomy.’” The same holds true for anaphylaxis. If you think you might need to use an auto-injector, then you DO need to use one. If you’re considering it, then the time is now.
I’m beyond grateful that our story ends happily. I pray you all never have to experience the intensity of a severe reaction (whether that be from food allergies or acute asthma). But I hope that by sharing our experience and the lessons we learned, your story will end happily, too.
I can’t recommend enough this informative piece on when to give what medication during a severe allergic reaction. The information contained in this article echoed in my head during the above incident.
From the Food Allergy Treatment Talk blog:
Putting the Fire by Dr. Brian Schroer