Wednesday 23 January 2019

'She started to cough like an old man and within minutes I thought she was dead' - girl who nearly died after eating chocolate

Lisa Nolan with her nine-year-old daughter Hallie who has to take daily medication for her allergies. Photo: Thomas Nolan
Lisa Nolan with her nine-year-old daughter Hallie who has to take daily medication for her allergies. Photo: Thomas Nolan
Anne Walsh and her teen daughter Aisling - Anne runs a website to share tips with other 'allergy parents'. Photo: Keith Heneghan

When Lisa Nolan's daughter Hallie was two years old, she went into anaphylactic shock. "She started to cough like an old man and I knew something wasn't right," reveals the Dublin mum-of-two. "I could hear she was having difficulty breathing and almost instantly she was so swollen she was unrecognisable to me."

In just minutes, Hallie went from being a lively, little girl toddling around her aunt's house, where she and her mum were visiting, to lying limp and unable to speak. "I thought she was dead," says Lisa, still haunted by the experience. "It felt like all the blood drained out of my body and I went to pieces."

Unknown to her mum, Hallie had eaten a chocolate bar with traces of nuts in it. Already diagnosed with a nut allergy, she luckily had an EpiPen with her. "My friend gave her the injection and you could see the adrenaline working straight away," says Lisa. "The ambulance got there and her stats were all over the place but by the time she got to hospital they had stabilised."

"I'm always so vigilant," she continues. "But I'd no idea she'd eaten anything."

Having a child with a severe allergy, something where they are literally a few bites of a chocolate bar away from life-support, is, Lisa says quite simply, "a parent's worst nightmare".

One of the biggest challenges can be simply getting an allergy identified. When she was six weeks old, Hallie developed severe eczema. "I was in and out of the doctors and then she had to be hospitalised because her skin was infected," recalls Lisa. "Eventually we were referred to the skin specialist in Crumlin, then the lung specialist, then an allergy specialist."

Now nine years old, Hallie has been diagnosed as allergic to eggs, nuts, sesame seeds, grass, pollen and all animals. She takes daily medication: 10mls of an adult antihistamine, a nose spray and eye drops in summer. She has two inhalers and a tablet for her lungs at night. When Dr Aideen Byrne started as allergy specialist in Crumlin more than two years ago, Hallie was one of the first patients on her list.

"Since seeing Dr Byrne - who has been fantastic - she's been on meds and it's controlled," says Lisa. "She has a whole new life now. GPs didn't really understand what was going on - it was this and then it was that. It's only since we got to Crumlin that she's like a new child."

But even when you know what to watch out for, being constantly vigilant is a huge strain, as it accepting that ultimately, you the parent, can't be there 24/7. "Hallie starting school was one of the hardest parts of my life because I was handing over her life to somebody else," says Lisa.

"I think that leaving the child in someone else's care is something all allergy parents find really hard," agrees mum-of-four Anne Walsh from Co Mayo.

"The big scare is knowing that if something did go wrong, you might not even get there in time. I know one mum who lives close to her daughter's school and every time an ambulance goes past her heart is in her mouth worrying that it could be her child. People worry a lot about it because there is food everywhere and not everyone gets how serious an allergy can be."

When Anne's daughter Aisling was two, she had a severe allergic reaction to eating peanuts and went into anaphylactic shock. Since then she's had to have two EpiPens with her at all times.

Having a child with allergies has brought with it challenges Anne could never had foreseen.

"It's not just about keeping them safe, but also making sure they're not excluded," explains Anne. "I remember when Aisling was in third or fourth class she came home very upset because one girl had invited everyone else in the class to her birthday apart from Aisling. She'd asked the girl why and she said 'my mum is afraid of your allergies'. All the other girls came in that Monday after the party at the weekend wearing little bracelets and things. Aisling's a tough cookie, but that upset her alright."

On occasions, Anne has had to visit her daughter's school to raise awareness of nut-free Easter eggs after Aisling, now 13, was barred from a raffle to win a chocolate egg. But every stage brings a new worry.

"Now that my daughter is in teen mode, social activities, even kissing is a worry," says Anne. "A girl in Canada died after kissing her boyfriend who had eaten peanut butter. Aisling's in Foroige and they've discos where there might be 500 kids there. We live by the mantra that we want to let her do as much as other kids do, within reason, so I do let her go to the discos, but I don't relax until she comes home again."

Anne also struggled with adapting the family shop to suit Aisling's diagnosis. "Suddenly it seemed like absolutely everything 'may contain nuts'," she says. "It was an adjustment. We really had to go back to basics and start cooking and finding things that were nut-free. No processed food - nothing out of a jar, really."

Even biscuits that look the same can pose a potential threat.

Lisa's daughter Hallie knows that a specific brand of chocolate fingers are safe for her to eat so thought nothing of eating one at a friend's house recently. "That night she was crying out in pain and vomiting," says Lisa. "I called the house and it wasn't the brand she'd thought she'd been eating. When I asked the mum to read out the ingredients, there was egg in it."

Dealing with the shopping difficulties, the unique pressures and strains can make being an allergy parent feel very lonely. Despite the fact that allergies are now more common - statistics suggest as many as two children in every classroom have some form of allergy - it can still feel like something that sets your child apart.

It's one of the reasons why, two years ago, Lisa set up a closed Facebook group, the Irish Allergy Support Group.

"I had nobody to talk to," she says. "There wasn't anyone I knew well with severe allergies and my friends wouldn't understand what I go through as an allergy parent. It's very hard to talk about when people don't understand. Unless you've been through it, you don't get it."

Online, she can vent frustrations and discuss with like-minded parents. If there's a medical issue, the first response is always to see a GP, but mostly parents come on just to chat and feel they're in company that understands.

Anne too now runs a website,, with information on starting school, travelling with allergies, products, medical jewellery and links to training. "My friends call me Miss Anaphylactic," she laughs. "But there's a real need for information, awareness and support. Being an allergy parent can feel quite isolating and the only people who really understand what you're going through, are other allergy parents."

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