Anaphylaxis [an-uh-fuh-lak-sis], noun. Pathology: An exaggerated allergic reaction t0 foreign protein resulting from previous exposure to it.
That sounds relatively benign, doesn’t it? Trust me, Dictionary.com fails to capture the visceral terror that parents feels when forced to watch their child enter the full cascade of anaphylactic shock, not to mention the fear that must course through that child, who knows he or she is fighting to survive. Many people have experienced some form of allergic response in their lives, and most can probably conjure images of stuffy noses and watery eyes. Anaphylaxis is an allergic reaction on high-powered steroids (it’s actually steroids that help treat it, but I won’t digress into the medical side of things here). Suffice it to say that an anaphylactic reaction can kill you—and quickly. Two weeks ago, I was forced to take immediate action to save the life of my 19-year old son, who for the second time in his life was forced to endure this nightmare. He didn’t remember the first time, as that was when he was only three. I remember it, though. Vividly.
As parents, we were told to not feed peanuts in any form to our son prior to age three so as to give his immune system time to mature to the point where it could handle a powerful protein like that. We had no history of any kind of allergy in either my wife’s side of the family or my own, so we saw no particular reason to worry. A couple of weeks after his third birthday, we…that is I…made him his first ever peanut butter sandwich. Something (to this day I do not know exactly what) made me spread the peanut butter pretty thin. How nice it was going to be to be able to pack a quick protein for a day’s errands that we wouldn’t need to refrigerate! Whole new possibilities where about to open up. In actuality, they closed with a single bite.
“I don’t like that,” my son said, spitting out the sandwich. He didn’t even swallow any of it. However, the protein had touched the mucous membranes of his mouth, and the damage was done. My wife was in the store on a quick errand, and I was doing laps around the parking lot expecting her to come out at any moment. My son, ten minutes or so after spitting his sandwich out, was crying. “I wan’t to go home,” he said plaintively. I was already tired and not in the mood for a tantrum from the backseat. I actually remember thinking, What do you possibly have to be crying about right now?
Then I turned around and looked at him.
His eyes were swelling shut, his lips were puffed up to twice their normal size, and his face was covered in what are called “whelks” that look like pea-sized mosquito bites. The sandwich, I thought. He’s allergic to peanuts. Fortunately, my wife emerged from the store only moments later. We were off to the emergency room, and fortune smiled on us again as the hospital was only about four blocks away. The world changed for us that day, and forever altered the course of our lives. If you do not live with this in your house 24/7, it is difficult to understand the permanent undercurrent of anxiety that accompanies what to most are routine activities of life. We chose not to patronize restaurants, as my son’s sensitivity was so off the charts that it made the risk not worth taking. We home-schooled him rather than risk exposure to the staple ingredient in most primary and elementary school snacks and lunches. We were taking no chances; there would be zero exposures on our parental watch.
That was sixteen years ago. Our vigilance had paid off, as he had not had a reaction since that first fateful day when he was three. Last September, a new allergist joined the practice where our son was a patient, and he was entered into a cohort who would undergo oral immunotherapy. This involved ingesting small amounts of peanut flour, mixed in something such as applesauce, the idea being that minute, incremental exposure to the allergen would build up a tolerance for it. It worked. Over the course of several months, my son’s tolerance increased to the point where he could eat two full peanuts without any adverse reactions. It is difficult to express how life-changing this was for us. No longer would we need to read food labels looking for “may contain” or “manufactured in a facility that also manufactures products containing” statements following ingredient lists. I remember him staring in awe at a freezer section in a supermarket, the task being to pick out a flavor of ice cream he would like. He was 19, but had never before eaten store-bought ice cream. “You mean…I can have any of these?” he asked.
“Yeah, buddy,” I told him, holding my own tears back with only marginal success. “You sure can. Let’s just avoid the peanut butter ones for now. That’s a little over the top.” He laughed, grabbed a gallon of chocolate-chip mint, and walked beaming toward the checkout counter. There was another day not to be forgotten.
Then came May 18, 2019. It was a typical Saturday morning routine. I dropped my son off at a local soccer field with his friends and headed into town to run some errands. I don’t know what it was that made me decide to head back to the field early. I usually don’t do that. Was it the same subconscious voice that said “Spread it thin” sixteen years ago? Well, for the second time, I have that voice to thank for saving my son.
When I got to the field and parked, I looked over at my son and his friends, who were happily sprinting around in the driving rain while booting a soccer ball for all it was worth. I had brought some work with me so I settled in to get some of it done. About five minutes later I heard a knock on the driver’s side window and looked up to see the concerned face of one of my son’s closest friends. I rolled the window down, and he said “Something’s up. Come quick.”
I ran. His friends, though aware of his condition, would not know what to do. I did, if what I feared was wrong (but why would it be?) was wrong. I got to the field to see him sitting up, eyes closed, his breathing labored. “My feet are numb,” he said. “Just…just trying to breathe.” Searching his coat pockets, I found his adrenaline auto-injector and administered the medication into his thigh. Moments later I was dialing 911 on his phone and telling his friends to get out to the road to guide the ambulance in. We were in the emergency room twenty minutes later.
Some more adrenaline, a steroid, and some Benadryl fortunately did the trick; we had caught it in time. I sat by his hospital bed as I had when he was three, thinking How the heck did this happen? It made no sense. Yes, he had eaten two peanuts that morning—his regular daily maintenance dose for his immunotherapy. He had played soccer on other Saturdays after doing that with no trouble at all. What was different?
It would be a while before my wife could get there. Nurses came and went, checking his vital signs and continuously monitoring and inputting data on a computer. There were stretches where I was left alone with him too. During one of those times, as the Benadryl started to kick in, he glanced up at me and said, “Well, all my life this is what I have feared the most. While it was happening and I was in the ambulance, I wasn’t afraid anymore. There was nothing left to fear.” Then he drifted off to sleep.
During the past few years, I have become increasingly aware that there are fewer days ahead of me than there are behind me. I don’t have any physical or mental issues that would serve as symptoms of age beyond graying hair, some wrinkles, and a body that takes longer to bounce back from exertion that it used to. At the same time, I am under no delusion that this will last. Looking down at my young son who had dodged literal death once again, I was reminded once more of just how fragile we are, and that there are no guarantees. We tend to live in our static bubbles; we have routines from which we rarely deviate, and we expect things to go a certain way. When the unexpected happens, we are annoyed and inconvenienced. This degree of repetitive security and sameness can lull us into a state of complacency; we fritter our time away checking and sending text messages or watching movies on Netflix (neither of which I have ever done, but I know plenty of people who seem to do little else). That is certainly not to say I have stood as some pillar of focus amid modern distractions. I have had my moments of random internet surfing like anyone else. However, as the years continue to pass with what seems like ever-increasing speed and I am reminded of just how all of our routines and securities can be shattered in an instant, a greater sense of urgency has taken hold of me. In a way, I’ve experienced something of a spiritual awakening, with my son’s emergency galvanizing me and serving as a potent reminder of how brief and precious life is—I can’t waste a moment of it.
In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius says: “Live not as though there were a thousand years ahead of you. Fate is at your elbow; make yourself good while life and power are still yours” (Book Four, Passage 17). Amen that. Find your mission and devote yourself tirelessly to it. Rest tomorrow. We are here for only a short time as it is, and we never know when even that time might be taken away from us, or the power to make a difference might be curtailed by illness, injury, or circumstance. I want to be able to look back on my life when I am no longer able to actively serve others as I have and say I did what I could while I could, and that was a life well lived. I don’t want any regrets (any more, at any rate). In truth, I would prefer a sudden end to things as opposed to a slow decline, but that isn’t up to me. While I still have the gift of life, I must use it to better the lives of others. This is the only life we have. I don’t subscribe to the notion as some others do that there is something after this life, which intensifies the urgency for me. People often pose the question, “What is the meaning of life?” I feel that we are the ones that have to bring meaning to it. What more can I do to help my family, my community, and my world? Yes, we need to take care of ourselves so that we are able to give to others. We just need to be able to recognize when taking care of ourselves has drifted over into narcissistic obsession with pleasuring ourselves. We aren’t any good for anyone else if we can’t keep ourselves healthy. As The Odyssey teaches us: “Balance is best in all things.”
Fate is at your elbow. Don’t assume that current conditions will remain the way they are. If anything is a constant in life, it is change. Sometimes that change is planned; sometimes it is thrust upon us. We just need to make sure that whatever we are doing is making the world and the lives that surround ourselves better, in some little way each day. If we could all approach each day like that, I wonder how things might be different. Now go and hug someone you value and love while they are still with you. I’m going to go hug my son.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.
Aurelius, Marcus Antoninus. Meditations. Trans. Maxwell Staniforth. Penguin Books, 1964.