When the COVID-19 pandemic started and life as we knew it changed, I felt a familiarity with the unease of the new world order. I felt at home with the anxiety and the worry and the uncertainty. I have known intimately how it feels when something safe becomes unsafe, when the invisible carries a risk of being deadly.
It shook me a little more, but it was by no means a new feeling. As a family accustomed to life with multiple food allergies, in fact, it seemed like more of the same. Yet another layer on an already hypervigilant landscape.
We had long before established the habit of washing our hands frequently and wiping down surfaces before our children touched them or ate on them. We had already been wary of a stranger’s handshake or a messy, food-filled smooch from a well-intentioned family member. We are all too familiar with the unseen enemy.
We have gone to great extremes to avoid these seemingly harmless interactions, knowing that the entry of a food allergen into our child’s body through their mouth, nose, eyes, or skin could result in a varied array of symptoms, including severe allergic reactions, or even death.
We have been inconvenienced with the burden of carrying potentially life-saving medicine with us everywhere we go. So adding a mask to the list of things we needed in order to head out the door hardly seemed more than we could tolerate. We were prepared for the discomfort of wearing a mask that pulls at our ears, having known the tightness that goes along with wearing a fanny pack to carry our self-injectable epinephrine.
The Irony and Lessons
We have risked people looking at us like we are overdoing it or being too cautious. We have become accustomed to taking extra steps to keep our children safe and being judged by some for doing so. Now, some of those same people have expressed how difficult and wearying it is to live with this level of vigilance in order to shield themselves from COVID-19. The irony does not escape me. My post-pandemic hope is that there may grow a better appreciation for the precautions food allergy families must take to avoid their severe, even life-threatening disease.
It is true that there is a much better chance that you will survive an allergic reaction than not. But then there are those cases, the ones we all hear about. The cases that make us sick from the pain of another family’s tragic loss and sick with worry that it could have been us.
Again, we feel a parallel with COVID-19. We know that most people who get coronavirus will survive, but we also are highly aware that there will be people who will not. Since we never truly know who is who, how can we let our guard down?
Vigilance Amid Fatigue
As we roll into the long winter months of this pandemic, it reminds me of the times when I felt like I simply could not read another ingredient label for allergens. Or that I couldn’t bear the thought of turning around another time for a forgotten fanny pack filled with medicine, or couldn’t call one more parent to see what they were serving at a birthday party. But I did. I did because I had no other choice. It was what I had to do to protect my kids.
Food allergy families have likely lived through an extended period of vigilance, a period, for some of us, that could last a lifetime. Luckily, the COVID-19 pandemic is unlikely to last a lifetime.
While I understand and sympathize deeply with the fatigue we all feel, let’s look at it like we have yet one more ingredient label to read and continue to push through this winter with a renewed vigilance for wearing our masks, keeping social distance and washing our hands. So when we emerge from the darkness, we can all say – we did the best we could.
Dr. Sarah Boudreau-Romano is an allergist at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and an assistant professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. On Instagram, follow @lurie.allergyandimmunology and on Facebook see @LurieChildrensAllergyImmunology.