By Susan Weissman
My son was three years old before he revealed the limits of his lungs. Eden’s onset of allergic asthma occurred after what already seemed like a fair lifetime of severe food allergies. When the Big Kahuna – peanuts, milk, etc. – rode in on his blood work just after his first birthday, our allergist has been crystal clear: “Watch for signs of asthma.” Of course. I understood about asthma. Or at least, I thought I did. As a child, I used to hear my mother’s coughs in the mornings; successive, deep and wet, quelled by sips of black coffee. Cigarette smoke, musty hotels, pet dogs, horseback riding – our family tried to avoid Mom’s triggers, hoping to spare her the uncomfortable antihistamines followed by a craving for 7-Up, a beverage she never drank unless medicated as such. Sure. I could keep an eye out for asthma.
For the two years following our food allergy baptism, my family of four stayed afloat the moving waters – the dietary restrictions, labeling laws, skin care regimes and the like. Eden had eczema, occasional allergic conjunctivitis and residual digestive issues from this first year of undiagnosed food allergies. As we put, something was often “Off with Eden.” And every checkup our allergist would ask, “Any signs of asthma? Wheezing or shortness of breath?” Nope.
When Eden turned three, I felt ready to take a significant baby step – local travel. We had barely traveled outside of Manhattan. My husband and I wanted both kids to have a broader range of outdoor sensory experiences. (It’s tricky traversing Central Park with Epi-pens, Benadryl, topical cream, ice packs and enough food to satisfy a hungry toddler who can’t eat in restaurants.) So we rented an “off-season” house in Southampton to unwind in nature’s civilized bounty.
Over those months, weekends became the fulcrum to our weeks. Eden and his sister Dayna rode bikes and examined leaves while I sniffed the exhaust-free air with self-congratulations. When the ice on the pool cover thawed two misguided ducks adopted our yard. It was our Walden Pond.
Our final weekend at the house that spring brought premature melancholy and an eyeful of pollen. Back in Manhattan Central Park flaunted its blossoms and pedestrians were catapulting off the curbs in violent sneezes. That spring had had record-high pollen counts. Eden happened to have an intermittent cough that didn’t seem bothersome. I figured it was a little virus.
Our very last morning at our brown-shingled haven was Mother’s Day. The day before Eden woke up coughing for the first time. That Sunday morning, Mother’s Day, his cough deepened into short, intermittent barks. Circling a sponge inside a plastic cereal bowl, I wondered whether to call our pediatrician or our allergist the next morning. Another virus? I gave Eden extra fluids, expectorant cough syrup and checked his temperature. But he was normal.
When Eden’s cough began to sound more a German Shepherd’s gruff bark, we cut our day short, packed the car swiftly and drove home questioning each other, “Should we call a doctor on the weekend for this?” But come late afternoon that day, I opted to give Eden a nice steamy bath instead. He didn’t seem that sick.
Then it seemed everything changed at once. Eden began squeaking long high notes out of his open mouth, his face jerking towards the bath water with each gasp. Lifting and wrapping him in his striped towel, he spared his wet flesh while spraying my back, then my front, with vomit. “Need water! Water!” Eden demanded. Then he began panting, his ribs jutting out and drawing in. Then he vomited. My husband called our allergist at Mount Sinai Hospital and I flew into a taxi going up Madison Avenue, feeling Eden’s heartbeat hammer into my palm. It felt like an itty-bitty heart attack.
Respiratory Distress was of many new medical terms I would hear. I learned as much after the hospital’s double glass doors hummed open and I jogged over to a nurse who put a metal clamp on Eden’s finger while a machine scolded: “Beepbeepbeepbeep!!” We stepped into a dusky treatment room, received an oxygen mask and watched the other children wheeze in eerie synchronization. Mothers Day, for Eden, was a twenty-four hour marathon inhaling cocktails of bronchial dilators, saline and oxygen. For me, it was a fall from my hubris: I had thought I was weathered and I had been known to boast, “Yeah, I have this allergy thing pretty down.”
In the hospital that night my husband and I swapped off, overlapped. Around midnight, we left our daughter with her grandmother and slept on chairs in an exam room-cum-ad hoc sleep room for Eden. (Pediatrics was so mobbed that weekend that exam room was all that was left.) By the end of the next day Eden was breathing normally enough to return home. During our final few hours, as we waited for hospital sign-out, we were left to roam the short hallways. Eden pumped on Albuterol, jazzily sang the chorus of his favorite song: “Follow the yellow brick road, follow, follow…”
Remember the Wizard of Oz? He turned to be all Smoke and Mirrors. Looking back, that was Eden’s first asthma attack – Smoke and Mirrors. For two years, I’d been tending to so many of Eden’s allergic needs that a cough (not a wheeze) seemed benign. My mother had never wheezed. And when it came to Eden my head was somewhere else: I had taught myself to build personal case studies in the aftermath of food reactions or eczema flair. (Do you think the equipment might have had undeclared seeds? It must have been the humidity….) And I assumed that asthma didn’t require that kind of detective work, that asthma would be obvious. Well, now it is. And fortunately, after a few years of nubulizers and inhaled medication, Eden’s asthma has wound its way down to an occasional viral or seasonal reaction, easily relieved by a day’s course of inhaled medication. Eden’s inhalers are a now a part of his other emergency meds and they are with us everywhere. For my allergic child, a cough is not always just a cough.
Susan Weissman is a parent of a child with severe food allergies. Currently she writes about food allergies and parenting on The Huffington Post and on her blog, www.peanutsineden.com. Susan is working on a food allergy memoir, to be published by Union Square Press in 2011. She lives in New York City with her husband and two children.