When Matthew Almond played with a group of kids at Park Square in FishHawk Ranch, he appeared to be like any other 5-year-old — until his back suddenly became red and inflamed, and you could see the handprints of his playmates on his body.
The problem stemmed from Matthew's food allergies. One of the kids had been eating Doritos and the cheese from the chips caused the outbreak because Matthew is allergic to dairy products along with eggs, peanuts and tree nuts.
Deanna Almond says it often requires such a scene for people to truly understand what her son endures because he has food allergies, and he's not alone. Along with Deborah and Blair Ryan, Deanna has formed an advocacy group called the Florida Food Allergy Council to support other parents who deal with the same problems.
Over breakfast at the Brunchery, we talked about the challenges, including enrolling Matthew in kindergarten at Bevis Elementary. Pull up a chair and join us. ERNEST: When did you first realize that Matthew had food allergies?
DEANNA: When Matthew was born, I knew right away something was wrong. He was covered with eczema from head to toe. He was cranky, he would scratch himself until he would bleed. I would eat chocolate and kiss him, and he would have these huge welts on his face. They said at the time that babies don't have allergies, but now they automatically test them. What are the reactions when someone has a food allergy?
The reaction can be anywhere from throwing up, itchy skin, watery eyes, burning, to them telling me their throat is closing up, which my son has told me once. Their tongue gets heavy and thick, and they can suffocate if you don't give them an epi-pen (epinephrine auto-injector) shot. So you never know quite what you're dealing with and, because they're so young, they can't necessarily tell you they're having a bad reaction. It must have been frustrating.
It was. I didn't know where to turn. That's one of the reasons for this group. When you first find out that basically everything in your pantry and everything you eat is no longer acceptable, you have to change your whole life around. There's no spontaneity to life anymore. You can't just go and say, "If we get hungry, we'll just stop here and eat." There is none of that. I carry a cooler with me at all times so I have food for my son. What are the challenges of enrolling him in school?
With any situation you have, everybody treats it differently. There are some who take it on the light side, some who take it on the heavy side. I want to find a middle ground somewhere. My method with Matthew is he will do everything, just find a different way to do it. When we go to the movie theater, I lay out a beach blanket on the chair for him and wash the surrounding chairs with Lysol wipes. We pop the popcorn ourselves so it doesn't have any butter on it and take his drinks so no one has touched it with their hands. We can do anything, I just have to plan for it. How did your meeting with school officials go?
We created a health plan and it all sounded fine. But when I moved here and I started asking other parents, they said I needed to homeschool. Everyone is homeschooling their kids with food allergies because they're too scared to send them out. How are the parents in your group handling school?
A lot of the members are getting ready to send their kids to preschool for the first time, so I'm kind of leading the group as far as getting to the elementary schools first. I always feel like there's a purpose for something and maybe my purpose — and I've been wondering all these years — is to try and make a difference for some of these other parents so they will feel like it's safe to send their kids. That's nice.
There's got to be a reason for it. I have to find a purpose for myself and maybe it's to help all these other families not be so scared to send their kids to school. Homeschooling is a choice. It shouldn't be because you're scared to send your child. You shouldn't be pressured. Sometimes people don't realize how resilient kids can be.
People sometimes will say that I have to take my kids [to McDonald's.] My kid has never stepped into a McDonald's. He knows what it is, he's seen the commercials, he knows there are toys, but it's just a fact of life we can't go there. It's not safe and he never says anything about it. Is there any place you can go?
We go to Disney World because they're phenomenal. The chef (at any of the sit-down restaurants) comes out and takes your order, cooks it and brings it out to you so there's no chance for cross-contamination. You know I don't hear a lot of self-pity or regret. You seem to be dealing with this head on.
You have to be like that. I never make it an issue in front of my son or my husband. While it makes up our whole entire world, this teaches us it's just food. I am extremely, extremely lucky. We tried for years to have children and I'm so blessed with them. If this is the worst out of everything I have to do, it's nothing. DESSERT: A postscript from Ernest
Deanna also has a 1-year-old daughter, Cosette, and she didn't believe she had allergies until she recently had birthday cake for the first time and became ill. The good news is that Matthew has outgrown his wheat allergy. Children sometimes outgrow food allergies, but there is no cure. The mission of the advocacy group is to share information and help each other get through the day-to-day challenges. It also hopes to create greater understanding with kids, who can lead the way in helping the child with food allergies.