By Dr. Paul Ehrlich
(This is Dr. Ehrlich’s foreword to Susan’s book.)
An allergist’s waiting room is the first support group for most allergy families. When I began practicing 35 years ago, I heard snatches of conversation in ours that were wiser and more incisive than much of what I have to tell parents about their children. Or little things that I told one mother (it is usually the mother) years before would find their way to a mom whose child was new to treatment. Hoping to harness this resource, 30 years ago we started a support group, and it has been going on ever since, for the past 20 years under the hand of Kathy Franklin. Kathy and I both have cameos in this book—she by name; I am identified only as “our attending physician.”
Allergic diseases are mysterious. They arise when part of the immune system that evolved to attack parasites instead goes after proteins in otherwise harmless natural items like pollens and peanuts, which, as the title suggests, Susan’s son is allergic to, along with other foods. Allergies and asthma have been recognized for thousands of years (among other delights, the author goes on short but informative tangents to explain things like this history). But for about the past 40 years, the incidence has grown geometrically, first with nasal allergies like those to pollen, then asthma, and more recently, food allergy. Regardless, we haven’t caught up, medically or socially. Current medical literature is replete with exciting new research that, if proven, is still years away from providing effective treatment. Other research shows us just how badly we are doing at utilizing current best practices. For example, only around half of asthmatics are treated according to established guidelines, and even those who are receiving this treatment fail to comply with their treatment about half the time.
The numbers for food allergy are currently smaller than for asthma, but the feelings are more intense. Food allergies are someone else’s problem until they are your problem, and then they become all-consuming. As I have observed in my own practice for decades, food allergy is the fulcrum for unbalancing all kinds of family behavior: parents blame one another, in-laws resent the other family, grandparents make mistakes and tempt fate by feeding children forbidden foods with unconditional love, siblings feel left out, and so on.
Peanuts are a lightning rod because of their role in the standard child’s diet. The low point came early in 2011 when a Florida girl was driven out of her public school by parents who resented restrictions on their own children’s behavior. These are unreasonable times, and peanut allergies seem to inflame passions that mimic other fault lines. I tell parents not to be bashful about protecting their children because “they” don’t understand–they being those who don’t send the kids off to school wondering if there might be a medical emergency later in the day from something that is innocuous to most of us. How could something as ordinary as peanut butter be toxic? On the other hand, I do not agree with some of the most restrictive ideas that are out there.
I have always felt that the movement to educate “them” would be well served by the kind of discussion that I hear in our waiting room and our support group chat, which combines by turn, naiveté among the newcomers and knowledge from the veterans, helplessness and can-do spirit, despair and humor. Feeding Eden brings all that together. For all the stories I have heard, all the mothers and patients I have listened to, I have never gotten so thoroughly into the experience of a child, the effects on a marriage and a sibling, and above all the mind of a mom as I do with the Weissmans when Susan throws herself into the unexpected health challenges of her adored son.
Susan also holds a mirror up to medicine (and alternative medicine) in ways that ought to give all of us pause. Among the many strengths of this book is the way Susan describes her frustration with a succession of practitioners, necessitating her acquisition of the skills and knowledge to evaluate the care Eden had been getting both inside and outside the medical mainstream. This is a journey that many others have embarked on and many more unsuspecting parents will have to take. They will all benefit by reading this book.
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