By Morgan Baker.
As I got ready for an evening out, my cell phone rang. It was my youngest daughter, Ellie, a freshman at Emerson. “I’m having an allergic reaction.”
A year earlier, she had joined her older sister, Maggie, and her father, Matt, in the food allergy club. Maggie has been allergic to peanuts, tree nuts and legumes since she was a baby and always carries an EpiPen, a shot of epinephrine. Matt is allergic to many foods and combinations of allergens, including exercise after he’s eaten, and is idiopathic – they can’t always figure out what triggers his shock.
Through constant vigilance, Maggie has had only a few incidents. She went to birthday parties with her own cake when she was little and her elementary school and high school provided safe spaces for her in their cafeterias.
Matt has had more than 40 reactions when using an EpiPen and rushing to the hospital to be observed has been enough. But, he’s also had episodes where I watched as paramedics worked on him when I wasn’t sure an Epi, or two, would be sufficient, when his blood pressure dropped so low his skin turned gray.
But Ellie had escaped this horror. The only terror she lived with was worrying about her sister and dad like I did. I didn’t just live with the “what ifs” most parents live with that are real and scary enough. The “what ifs” that keep you awake in the middle of the night when your kid hasn’t come home yet. Or when you let your child walk to school for the first time.
I wondered if she had read the packaging? Had the tabletops been wiped down? Had he remembered his EpiPens?
Then as a high school senior one night at play rehearsal, Ellie had an inexplicable allergic reaction to something she ate. I was feeding the cast and crew and saw it first hand. Her face turned pink and bumpy, she had difficulty breathing, grew dizzy and couldn’t stand; her tongue swelled and her throat was scratchy. Lucky for us, one of the crew, also a food allergic kid, loaned us his EpiPen. I jabbed it into Ellie’s thigh and counted to ten. Within seconds, she was more comfortable.
After that, we had her skin and blood tested. She even did a food challenge eating the potentially offensive food, including a boxed brownie, pizza, pasta with marinara sauce and garlic bread, but she didn’t produce any symptoms. Her allergist recommended she always carry an EpiPen. She does.
She continued to have itchy swollen lips, however, mostly when she ate pizza, so her dad and I insisted she couldn’t eat it anymore – unless she was with us. As amateur allergists, we determined she was allergic to an herb in the sauce. I added her to my “what ifs”.
Ellie sounded more concerned this time. She had eaten Thai. Her stomach had quit on her. She was woozy. Matt told her to use the EpiPen. She said she’d take Benadryl and monitor herself. She was on a crew and didn’t want to make a fuss.
Benadryl often did the trick, but it can mask symptoms of a serious reaction. We worried she’d opted for convenience over certainty.
I texted. “Don’t take risks.” Then, “I am mad and scared.” Finally, “Use the EpiPen.”
I paced my house, cursing the fear coursing through me as I waited for another text or phone call. Too much time had passed.
The phone rang. “This is Mary, Ellie’s friend. She got worse. Someone gave her the EpiPen and an ambulance is on the way.”
Matt and I grabbed books for the hospital. We ran to the car. Emerson students always went to neighboring New England Medical Center. We’d meet her there.
We drove down Storrow Drive. I turned to Matt who focused on the road. “She’ll be okay, won’t she?” There is a small window of opportunity for using an EpiPen during an anaphylactic reaction. I was aware of too many people who had waited too long. “Probably,” he answered.
That was not a yes.
We didn’t know how much time had passed between her symptoms getting worse and the EpiPen injection.
We pulled up at the Emergency Room and rushed in. She wasn’t there. They had no record of her. The women in admitting began calling Boston hospitals. No one had her. Not Beth Israel, Brigham and Women’s, Mass General, Children’s. They called the Boston Emergency Medical Service.
My mind raced. Where was she? In a morgue? Would I find her? I sat in a chair. I stood. I hugged my coat around me. My mouth dried up. I ate a Tic-Tac.
Matt suggested I call the Emerson Police Department.
I stumbled over my words. The officer I spoke with couldn’t release any information because I couldn’t prove who I was over the phone. “Does it make a difference if I tell you I work there as well?” I asked. “I teach in the Writing department.”
He’d call back.
The women continued calling hospitals.
My phone rang. “Professor Baker?” A title I rarely use.
“They were going to take her to New England Medical but they changed routes. They took her to Children’s.”
I thought about texting Ellie, but if she couldn’t respond I’d freak out. I texted anyway. “Where are you?”
Then this text: “This is Sarah, Ellie’s crew supervisor. We’ve taken her to Children’s Hospital and she is just fine.”
The drive from New England Medical to Children’s was long as we drove down dark, snowy Commonwealth Ave, the trees covered with twinkling lights.
At Children’s, I leapt from the car and rushed into the ER. Ellie was sitting in bed in an examining room, with flushed cheeks, swollen lips and a doctor listening to her chest.
The worst was over. Immediately, I wondered: But what about next time?