Sophie Cachia was certain that her toddler would be able to eat walnut pesto. After all, he was 2 years old and had never shown any sign of allergies.

As the Australian mom of two, who blogs at the The Young Mummy, wrote for Wattle Health, it all started with a hurried attempt to get dinner on the table. At the time, Sophie and her husband, Jaryd, were living far from family and friends. With Jaryd away at practice (for an Australian Rules Football team), Sophie decided to make an easy dinner for herself and son Bobby.

Pleased to find a pre-made container of pumpkin and walnut pasta sauce in the refrigerator, Sophie prepared some ravioli and spooned out a serving for her toddler. As she was making it, Sophie had a brief moment of doubt. She couldn’t remember if he’d safely eaten walnuts before:

I quickly brushed it off because at nearly two years of age, Bobby had just about tried every food and had no allergies. I thought to myself, “Well, he’s had heaps of banana bread and he loves muffins, so surely he’s come across walnuts before in his life?” Off the top of my head I knew that he had eaten peanuts, almonds and pine nuts, and I thought SURELY he had come across at least a trace of walnuts in something before.

What happened next gave Sophie very little time to think. Her first warning was the red splotch that appeared when the sauce hit her son’s arm. She wrote:

I grabbed a cloth and said, “You silly billy!” before noticing how red his arm was. ‘YIKES! How hot did I make that sauce?’ I thought absolutely positive I had tested it and it was o.k. Thinking I was the worst Mum ever for allowing my son to burn himself, I quickly cleaned him up and just as I did, he simultaneously popped a spoonful of sauce in his mouth.

Before Sophie had time to register that the redness wasn’t caused by the sauce being too hot, Bobby’s reaction began. She wrote:

The next bit I can only explain as a zombie plague and it only took seconds. His mouth started to bubble and mini-hives appeared before I even had time to say, “CRAP.”

Panicked, Sophie called her mother (more than 400 miles away) for advice. But her mom hadn’t even answered before Bobby was covered in hives that quickly spread, “all over his cheeks, his ears, up the back of his neck and […] down his chest.” Abandoning the attempt to phone her mother, Sophie sent an emergency message to her husband that their son was ill.

When Jaryd showed up minutes later, Bobby’s rash had spread, but he was still relatively calm. Sophie, however, was nearly hysterical. Not knowing any better, the inexperienced parents decided to drive to the hospital rather than call an ambulance, a decision that Sophie described as “a terrible move.”

As they raced to the hospital, Sophie was tortured by the sound of her son behind her. It was obvious that Bobby was getting worse. She wrote:

Bobby started to cough and vomit everywhere in the back seat and his wheezing was getting bad. I knew my son was struggling to breathe and all I keeping thinking was how much his reaction had escalated in 10 minutes. I screamed at Jaryd to take him out of his car seat and hold him so he would stop choking on his vomit.

As she screamed at traffic and desperately hoped that a police car might pull her over, Sophie wished she had called an ambulance instead of trying to drive to the emergency room. Her husband attempted to calm her down, but Sophie was convinced that her son was in danger due to her mistake. Under the circumstances, “calming down wasn’t really an option.”

As bad as the coughing and choking noises were, what came next was even worse: total silence. Sophie wrote:

My greatest fear started to kick in when the choking, vomiting and crying turned to utter silence. Bobby had gone limp. Jaryd said, “C’mon buddy. Wake up.” This is when I vomited on myself driving and let out a scream that I didn’t even know was inside of me. I was a desperate mum who had made a bad decision. “This is it,” I thought.

“I’ve killed my boy.”

About a minute later, they pulled up to the hospital, and Jaryd sprinted out, holding Bobby. When Sophie joined her husband, he was banging on a window looking for help while a nurse told him to join the line of people waiting to be helped.

Sophie looked at her limp and lifeless child and decided this was the moment to be “that mom.” She wrote:

I ran to the window again and begged in tears to go first. I explained he was having a nut allergy and he couldn’t breathe properly. I was again told to wait at the back of the line. The next ‘PLEASE HELP HIM!’ I cried out was enough to make a male nurse come from behind the doors, grab Bobby out of Jaryd’s arm and rush him through.

A team of medical staff stabilized Bobby, as Sophie and her husband watched. For Sophie, it remains one of the most difficult moments of her life. She wrote:

[T]o stand there with vomit all over you, both yours and your sons, tears streaming down your face and watching a team of staff assist your baby boy and knowing that it’s all YOUR fault? It’s something I would not wish upon my worst enemy.

Since her son’s first allergic reaction, Sophie has learned a lot more about anaphylaxis and how quickly it can become dangerous — and even fatal. Bobby has been diagnosed as anaphylactic to pecans and walnuts, and Sophie knows the next reaction could even faster and more severe.

That means travelling with a wide array of emergency medications and being extra cautious about what foods Bobby is exposed to. She knows she’s lucky that walnuts and pecans aren’t used as widely as other foods, but it still requires vigilance to keep her son safe. And she still feels guilty for putting her child in danger. She wrote:

My baby boy. You are my first love. You’ll always hold such a special place in my heart. Mumma is so sorry for doing that to you.

According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, anaphylaxis is a severe, life-threatening allergic reaction that occurs when “an over-release of chemicals” causes the victim to go into shock. Symptoms can progress quickly from mild reactions like rash and runny nose to serious ones, like:

  • Difficulty breathing or tightness of the throat.
  • Swelling or hives.
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Hoarseness, losing one’s voice.
  • Dizziness, fainting, or low blood pressure.
  • A “feeling of doom.”
  • Rapid heartbeat.
  • Cardiac arrest.

Even if you’ve never had an anaphylactic reaction to a particular allergen, it’s still possible to have one in the future. And those who have had anaphylactic reactions in the past may experience them again. The site recommends that if you’re experiencing any symptoms of anaphylaxis, call 911 immediately — even if you’ve already taken epinephrine (e.g. an epi-pen).

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