There are few decisions regarding where we go and what we do that are not influenced by the potential presence of allergens, and the ability to keep him safe. There are restaurants we avoid entirely (like Five Guys, where open bins of peanuts are served) and events we choose to skip (like baseball games, after a man behind him was shelling peanuts and flicking the shells in our direction and refused to stop when asked). As much as possible, we seek to control his environment to manage down the likelihood there will be a problem.
One such environment that presents significant challenges is an airplane. Unlike a restaurant, or the ballpark, where we can get up and leave if we encounter a problem, you cannot get up and leave the flight if you discover an issue. Further, airplanes are enclosed spaces with recirculated air. If someone opens a bag of peanuts, the dust from that bag will eventually make it to our row. .
“So, why don’t you just drive?” I have often been asked. “If your kid’s allergy is so severe, just stay off of airplanes,” I have been told. And for the most part, we do. We drive to the beach. We drive to Canada (from Washington, DC). We drive to as many places as we can. But driving is not always a choice. .
My husband is Australian, and my children’s grandmother, great-grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins live in Sydney. Until April of last year, his grandfather did, too. On February 4, 2014 my father-in-law was diagnosed with an aggressive, malignant brain tumor. We didn’t know how long he had to live, but we were told weeks, a few months if we were lucky. We cannot drive to Australia. There was not time to take a boat. We had to fly. We had to fly to take my son to see his dying grandfather. .
Flying across the U.S. with an allergic child is scary, but if something happens, they will put the plane down. When you fly to Australia, there are hours and hours of nowhere to put the plane down. That scared me more than words can express. I called the airline well in advance. I spoke with supervisors. I received written assurances that nuts would not be served on the flight and that on-board announcements would be made. On the 6 flights (3 legs there, 3 legs back), we had an issue on 5 of them. An announcement wasn’t made, or the snack boxes with almonds were catered when I was assured they would not be. The purser who said he saw a note about peanuts, but not about tree nuts. The flight attendant who put out the tray of chocolates with almonds because “people were asking for them.” The teenager who pointed and laughed at my son (who wore a surgical mask for the 28 hour journey to protect against inhaling nuts) as we walked down the aisle of the plane to go to the bathroom because my son can’t touch the door handle or the toilet flush or the sink taps because someone might have eaten nuts and then touched those things. I traveled with 8 EpiPens, and did not sleep the whole trans-Pacific flight (14 hours long) because I was staying awake to watch my son breathe. .
I wish we could just stay off airplanes. I wish we could have traveled home from Sydney and just focused on our grief instead of having to also be on alert to make sure my son made it home alive.