Flax is a four letter word…

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That’s correct. Those tiny, nutritive brown specks found in so many foods trigger fear and danger both in and out of our home. My oldest son Sam is severely allergic to flax and has had a few anaphylactic reactions requiring the use of an epi-pen and, most recently, a very scary trip to the ER. A few weeks ago, I unintentionally “flaxed” my son. How did this happen? How did we even know he was allergic to flax?  Well, I am fairly certain he wasn’t born that way. He has been on a gluten-free (GF) diet for the past ten years, and flax/flaxseed is used to enrich many gluten-free products by adding fiber. It was hard to figure out, but a few years ago we noticed that after he ate certain foods, he developed writhing abdominal pain lasting 6-8 hours, often into the next day. The only common ingredient was the formerly innocent flaxseed.  Then, formal allergy testing showed he was severely allergic and would have to be very careful going forward. We knew that Sam had a milder allergy to tree nuts and some fruits (throat itchiness), but this was a whole new ball game.

Having a flax and tree nut allergy in a person who also has diabetes and celiac disease restricts food choices to about 20% of all GF foods. Shopping is often depressing, especially finding the ingredient in new products that you would otherwise want to try. FDA labeling laws have been enforced for products containing wheat and nuts, but finding the word flax can be like searching for a needle in a haystack. Nobody seems to care about it, and it can take a long time to get a definitive answer when eating anywhere in public, because only the chef knows the ingredients.

As a mother, I do what I have to do. But, what about Sam? It’s scary, annoying, and labor-intensive. He must question each food item and assume nothing is safe, because flax is increasingly being used in EVERYTHING. I stopped taking my children to GF fairs, which used to be better than Halloween for them: They enjoyed running from table to table, sampling delicious treats, including breads, pizza and dessert.  I didn’t even care about their blood sugars on those days.  We addressed that later. The last time I took them to one, Sam’s throat began to itch (probably from a tree nut) and he went to wash it down with some NAKED juice which, it turned out, unfortunately and ridiculously contained flax. This was followed by Benadryl and a trip home.

So, knowing all of this, how could I be so careless? He was on his way to soccer practice, and needed something to tide him over. I made him a sandwich with home-made bread I had been making for years, from Gluten-free Pantry flour mix.  My kids LOVED it. They affectionately called it “Mommy Bread”. Sam immediately reacted with throat itching and abdominal pain. I rummaged through the garbage for the flour package. With my hands shaking , I read it. There it was, the four letter word: FLAX. They changed the ingredients on what had become a cornerstone of my kids diet. We gave Benadryl, and the epi-pen. Sam’s symptoms started to subside. I initially brought him to my pediatric office, thinking I could monitor him there for a few hours, sparing him the drama of the Emergency Room. But, his abdominal pain recurred, and I drove him to the ER. This was terrifying. As he sat next to me in the front seat, his pain worsened to the point that he passed out. At that time, I was less than 10 minutes from the ER so  kept driving as I continually checked for his pulse, and yelled his name so he would mumble, or stir, which seemed to work.

When we arrived, he perked up, was given more Benadryl and Zantac, and stayed another 5 hours for observation. We were home in our beds before midnight.  Sam slept late the next morning, but made it in to school in time for math class.  He is a conscientious student, and he didn’t want to fall behind. For the next 48 hours, I was rocked by many emotions: Guilt, fear, exhaustion, and not the least of all, concern about the future. Having a delayed allergic reaction after an epi-pen administration is not so common, and it makes the future even more scary.

I have been told that I am a “super” mom. That my medically high-maintenance children are lucky to have me.  I have dealt with respiratory emergencies and life-threatening blood sugars; nothing is more unforgiving that an anaphylactic reaction. I gave him flax (Should I have read more carefully? Even though I had been using the same packaged flour for 10 years?). I drove to the ER instead of calling 911 because I wanted to bring him to the hospital of my choice, not necessarily the closest as mandated by EMS.  Was this a mistake? That car trip is seared in my memory as an experience that no parent should ever go through. In the end, all turned out well, and of course I am so grateful.

But what helps the most is the resiliency of my son Sam. We were able to joke in the ER about how I “poisoned” him by feeding him his favorite bread (which he can no longer have).  He insisted on going to school the next day where he told the necessary people about his reaction to some food he ate. No big deal he said. That, for me, is the biggest, best deal of all.