Living with saving a life: How I saved my son from a life-threatening allergy

It only dawned on me recently that I had saved my son’s life.

That is to say, I previously had the knowledge that when my son was going into medical crisis last summer, I took actions that saved him. That while the walls of a swimming pool change room echoed with the screams of my scared and swollen seven-year-old son, I injected him with the epinephrine that stopped his rapid deteriorating condition.

However, I wasn’t just saving my son’s life that day. I knew I was also selfishly saving my own. Because had I failed to bring my son back from the anaphylaxis — a serious allergic reaction — that was shutting down his body, my own life would have been destroyed beyond recognition.

I am a journalist and I have interviewed people who have lost their unborn, newborn, toddlers and teenage children. And I know that there is no clawing yourself back from the unkindest cut to the human heart.

A cruel kind of christening

The threat of death is no stranger to our family. My daughter was diagnosed with a life-threatening allergy to nuts when she was two. My son was similarly very young when we discovered that both bananas and dairy would trigger anaphylaxis.

I have been hospitalized after a wasp sting.

Being diagnosed with anaphylaxis is a cruel kind of christening into our family. And it comes with baggage that is both literal and metaphorical.

When I leave the house I carry a minimum of two adult and two junior Epi-pens. I also have to carry safe snacks for both my children because buying food at a restaurant can be a deadly decision.

So I usually have a backpack stocked with medication and food stuffs adequate for a reporter embedded in a war zone.

The battle to keep my children safe takes a toll; planning alternate desserts for every birthday party, never going out for an evening with friends because I don’t trust babysitters, knowing the most innocuous objects like a cupcake or smoothie could prove fatal. 

And, as we were soon to discover, a hot tub.    

My son was diagnosed with a life-threatening allergy to bananas when he was only six months old. (CBC/Jean Paetkau)

It was a sunny summer afternoon and I had taken my children to the Oak Bay Recreation Centre near our home in Victoria. We had been swimming for two hours when I finally determined that my son and daughter, now seven and 10, were reaching the sweet spot between calming physical exhaustion and mood-threatening hunger.

My son and I took a quick dip in the hot tub and headed into the showers. As I turned on the water, I looked over at my son, expecting to see a contented if tired child. Instead, I was met with a swollen and red face that looked like the work of an angry, demented sculptor.

Thinking that there must have been dairy or a banana in the hot tub, I stuck him under a hot shower and washed him thoroughly.

A towel for a uniform

But the angry swelling quickly spread from his face to neck, and his complaints of itchiness evolved into strident wails of fear. At that moment I ran onto the pool deck yelling orders to the life guards, like a general with only a towel for a uniform.

As a journalist I am trained to react calmly to emergencies. When a plane crashes or a bus overturns, I write the news and broadcast information. And I suspect that my days in the newsroom prepared for coping with an emergency.

My children each carry two epi-pens everywhere they go because of their life threatening allergies. (CBC/Jean Paetkau)

Supported by two life guards and the promise of an ambulance I flipped off the blue lid of the Epi-pen. Even as my son’s wails rent holes in my heart, I knew that I did not have the luxury of indulging my own panic.

For that slim window of my life I existed for only one reason: to deliver epinephrine to my son.

In the seconds before injection, I briefly wondered if I might bruise my son when I punctured him with the device, like a passenger on the Titanic worrying if their favourite tea cup would survive the disaster.

A simple numerical prayer

After you inject someone with an Epi-pen you have to leave the needle in their body and count to three. So, with our swimsuits and towels scattered around us on the change room floor, I said each number in a loud and almost reverent voice. It was a simple numerical prayer at the feet of modern medicine.

Ultimately we only were only admitted to hospital for four hours, and the most onerous part of the visit was trying to find a movie for my son to watch on the nurses’ portable DVD player.

Finding a diagnosis took a little bit longer, but two weeks later the allergist confirmed that my son now had a life threatening allergy to heat. 

A member of my anaphylaxis support group made this allergy alert T-shirt for my son to wear to summer camps. (CBC/Jean Paetkau)

Hot tubs, hot days even hot rooms, sources of joy and relaxation to most people, are now sources of danger to my son. Another part of everyday life that is tainted with terror for my family. 

My son survived his anaphylaxis. But we both bear the emotional ravages of the experience. When we cuddle at bedtime he whispers in my ear he is afraid he will not wake in the morning. And he cradles ice packs like other children snuggle teddy bears.

But after surviving this traumatic experience, my son and I now share a new intense bond. It is one thing to tell your child you love them. It is another to literally physically pull their frightened body back from the clasping hands of death.

Having your child go into anaphylaxis is a horror that every step must be taken to prevent. But from this spectre I will greedily salvage what I can: that my son and I, in a harrowing act of symbiosis, saved each other. An unerasable tactile testament of love.

My son managed to get back into the pool a week after anaphylaxis but we had to stop swimming lessons because the pool deck was too hot for him. (CBC/Jean Paetkau)

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