Peterborough

Life with a food allergy

Peterborough family shares the ups and downs of child’s life-threatening sensitivity

  • Nisa, Anni, Eric and Emma Simila of Peterborough discuss the impact of having a family member who suffers from both food and environmental allergies.
  • Nisa, Anni, Eric and Emma Simila of Peterborough discuss the impact of having a family member who suffers from both food and environmental allergies.
  • Anni Simila, 9, plays piano in the hallway of her Peterborough home.
  • Anni Simila, 9, plays piano in the hallway of her Peterborough home.
  • Anni Simila, 9, plays piano in the hallway of her Peterborough home.
  • Anni Simila, 9, plays piano in the hallway of her Peterborough home.
  • Anni Simila, 9, plays piano in the hallway of her Peterborough home.

Anni Simila is a typical 9-year-old. She plays piano and has a huge collection of stuffed animals and likes to play with the family dog, Starr. But she also does a lot more reading of food labels than most kids her age, and eating out is a rarity for her family. When her sister, Emma, 13, returns from a day volunteering with horses, she has to shower thoroughly before she can play with Anni, because Anni has multiple food and environmental allergies.

Anni has likely always had allergies, said her mother, Nisa Simila, in an recent interview at the family’s Peterborough home. When Anni was an infant, she has unexplained skin issues that the family now believes was a reaction to allergens Anni was coming into contact with through her mother’s breast milk. The family first realized there might be something more serious going on when Anni was about a year old, and got hold of a spoon her sister used to mix a glass of chocolate milk with, and broke out into hives. A trip to the allergist revealed that Anni was allergic to milk and eggs, and a later trip added peanuts to the list. Horseback riding lessons ended disastrously when Anni broke out into hives around the animals.

It’s meant a lot of adjustment for the family, said Nisa, especially for herself and her older daughter, Emma, who both continue to be major lovers of peanut butter. And it’s not just limiting their own kitchen, said Nisa. The world outside is full of possible pitfalls and, as their daughter gets older, it’s harder to control all the factors. When Anni goes to a friend’s house, her parents speak with the adults in the home to let them know what to stay away from. Restaurants are a nightmare, said Nisa, because even dishes that don’t have nuts may have been made in the same kitchen and with the same utensils as dishes that do.

“It’s a constant worry,” said Anni’s father, Eric Simila. “There are times you feel like you’re taking a constant risk. If she goes to a birthday party, you have to wonder, ‘Where’s the cake from? What are the ingredients?’”

Anni attended a nut-free preschool at Cobb Meadow in Dublin and kindergarten class at Peterborough Elementary School, where she’s continued her education. Her early school years included a peanut-free lunch table. But not all parents are understanding of the needs of a child with allergies, said Eric. “When she went to preschool, it was a concern. We spoke to the teacher, who was very understanding. When we went to an introductory meeting, she told the parents that there was a child with a nut allergy, and that the school would become nut-free,” Eric recalled. “The school was very understanding, but the parents had different reactions. It’s like we were taking away a big part of their menu.”

It became easier when Anni entered kindergarten, and there were several other children in her grade with similar food allergies.

A lot of reactions, Nisa feels, come from a misunderstanding of allergies in general, and the confusion between a food intolerance and a food allergy. A food intolerance happens in the digestive system, when the body is unable to break down the food properly, and it can leave the sufferer feeling pretty miserable. An allergy, however, involves your immune system.

Some of the milder allergy symptoms are similar to intolerance symptoms, and the two terms are often used as if they were interchangeable. But an allergy can be life threatening — an intolerance isn’t.

“What’s hard is there is such a range of allergies, and people say they have allergies when what they really have is an intolerance,” said Nisa. “I think that makes it difficult for people to understand the seriousness of an allergy. Some people see food allergies as the ailment du jour.”

Eric agreed, saying, “There’s a difference between someone who chooses to be gluten-free because of health reasons, and someone who has to be gluten-free because of allergies.” And it’s not just strangers who might not have an understanding of allergies, Nisa added. Her own mother sends care packages with nut-free treats for Anni that are packaged with foods that contain peanuts or almonds, causing a cross-contamination.

Anni’s parents worry that her friends’ parents — who are very understanding of the issue — might not be as aware, because they don’t deal with a child with allergies on a daily basis. And even within the Simila family, there are sometimes slip-ups, she said.

“There’s times I think even we’re not as on top of it as we should be,” admitted Nisa. “But all we can do is talk to her teachers and her friends’ parents, and her, and make sure they all understand the risks.”

Now that Anni is getting older, the most important thing is making sure that she herself is educated about her own allergies, said Nisa, to make sure she doesn’t take risks with her health, has access to her emergency injection of epinephrine and allergy medication, and begins to take responsibility for care of her allergies.

Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 244 or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter at @AshleySaari.

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