Mum-of-two Manpreet Azad instantly panicked when her baby daughter went floppy and unresponsive after an allergic reaction to yogurt. Here, she tells us how Eva's allergy has dramatically affected their family and how she's trying to support others and raise awareness.
Just over 3 years ago, my gorgeous baby girl Eva was born and I became a mum for the first time. Like all new parents, my husband Rav and I knew our lives would change forever, but we had no idea just how challenging the next few years would be.
While Eva breastfed well for the first few weeks of her life, things starting to go wrong when she was about six weeks old. She started vomiting after every feed, and was generally quite unsettled, especially when putting her to sleep.
It also became excruciatingly painful to feed, and doctors and specialists just couldn’t work out what was wrong. After trying numerous antibiotics I just put up with it and we carried on.
Looking back now, Eva had clear symptoms of a milk allergy, which was being passed through my breast milk, but it was just seen by doctors as reflux – which is really common in babies.
It wasn’t until we started weaning Eva and gave her a teaspoon of yogurt that we realised. She was about 8 months old. She seemed to like it at first, but soon after became very distressed and began crying, which was unlike her.
Within seconds, her face was covered in hives, and I knew then that she was having a reaction to the yogurt. She kept crying and while I tried to comfort her, she went all limp and floppy. She just wasn’t responding to me.
Terrified, I panicked and called my husband to ask him how to call for an ambulance, because in that moment I just couldn’t remember how to dial 999. I had frozen in fear. Luckily, when I explained to them what had happened, they knew it was anaphylaxis, and an ambulance arrived within minutes.
The incident hit me for six. Afterwards, I just felt numb. I didn’t tell many people about it, as their reaction made me feel worse. Every time we had the hospital tests confirming multiple anaphylactic allergies, I just cried – it was so heartbreaking.
Anaphylaxis, for those who don’t know, is a severe allergic reaction, which in simple terms shuts the body down. It affects your airways which stops your breathing, slows your blood pressure which makes you unconscious, and can lead to cardiac arrest. Adrenaline injected into the body (via Epipens) work to reverse the reaction, and in most cases are successful, but they need to be administered quickly and correctly.
Eva’s allergy isn’t the only one in the family. Having been admitted into hospital for some tests, I suffered an anaphylactic reaction after being given general anaesthetic. It was a total shock, as I had no idea I had any allergies, let alone one to general anaesthetic. And it’s rare too – apparently there is a 1 in 10,000 chance of being allergic to anaesthetic. The anaesthetist told me I frightened the life out of him, as I nearly died on the chair. It was petrifying.
I then had another reaction to the CT dye used during a following MRI. Within seconds of the doctors realising I had hives, I lost my voice – I couldn’t breathe and was passing out. I remember trying as hard as I could to stay awake as I felt if I fell asleep, I wouldn’t wake up again. The anaphylactic shock had lasting ramifications. After that, I found I couldn’t eat certain things, including dairy.
‘Family life has changed pretty drastically since we discovered Eva’s dairy allergy’
Since Eva’s allergies came to the forefront, it’s fair to say that life for my family has changed pretty drastically, including our day-to-day schedule. We now have a 2-year-old daughter Suri, too. And because of Eva’s fragile health, we have to be incredibly vigilant in ensuring our eldest daughter’s safety, at home and out and about.
I worry about Eva a lot – all the time in fact. If she sneezes, coughs or her face looks red, I’m all over her checking whether this is going to be another reaction.
A huge part of my life is taken up by cooking and preparing meals. At weekends I have to make sure I’ve prepared all her meals for going out. We can’t just get a take away or grab something on the go. We also take Eva’s Epipens everywhere we go, even if we’re not eating – you just never know what might happen.
Eva’s allergies have also changed how she’s educated. Instead of going to nursery, we’re lucky enough to have a nanny at home, to help with childcare. We decided this was the best way to ensure her meals were safe and healthy, and there is no risk of cross contamination between children. She did go to a nursery for a few months, and it’s a safe option for many families if the correct precautions are taken, but in our case her food choices were too limited with a lack of nutritious food, and she also seemed to suffer mild allergic reactions there very often.
Our nanny had also worked with a family before us where both children had dairy allergies, and so was very used to cooking safe meals and understanding what was needed. She is excellent in ensuring their safety comes first.
‘I have to be super careful and meticulously organised’
But overall, our diets are pretty simple, and we all only eat foods that are safe for Eva. We eat normal meals like and fish potatoes and vegetables, chicken curry and spaghetti bolognaise. It’s not a weird and wacky diet as some might think – just normal food. But it’s not processed, it’s homemade and I know what’s in it. And we all eat the same thing now, as before, Eva would always want to pick food from my plate, or share with her sister. It’s just easier this way, for now.
And of course, we still travel and go to birthday parties – I don’t want her to miss out on anything. It just means I have to be super careful and meticulously organised. When going out anywhere I always take her food with me, as, most of the time, there are no safe options for Eva, and there is a risk of cross contamination. Events that I just know won’t be safe I don’t go to, as it’s not worth the risk.
Dealing with such a severe allergy is exhausting – there’s no two ways about it. I feel completely responsible, as I am the one who deals with the food prep, the prep before she goes to a party, calling the venue beforehand, educating friends and family, dealing with school. The mental load is heavy.
‘People think I’m being an over-protective mum – but she could die’
On top of that, there are many people around me have accused me of being too cautious – and who do not understand the seriousness of her allergies and how easily a reaction can happen. It takes it toll on relationships when people aren’t understanding. But by constantly explaining, and pointing out Eva’s illness all the time, I can see that it is making a difference.
Friends are now asking me about how they can feed Eva at birthday parties, they are careful when we go to their house, they cook inclusive meals that all the children can eat, and send me pictures of the labels to make sure. I appreciate these efforts so much – they will never quite know how much it means to me.
It’s all so time consuming. But it’s so important – and it has to be done.
In terms of Eva’s futures, she’s now started pre-school and they have been amazing – just incredibly supportive. They have shown real empathy towards managing her allergies. In fact they are not serving any food that Eva is allergic to on the days that she is in, as they understand the risks involved.
We’re also looking at schools for next year, and if I feel that any of our local schools will not be able to ensure her safety or they make a mistake, I am prepared to home school her.
It’s incredibly important to me, as often, people don’t understand that Eva’s allergies can be life-threatening. When I tell people that she is allergic they don’t seem to believe me – they think I’m being too strict with her diet, not allowing her things like chocolates and biscuits, and being an over-protective mum.
But we had a play date where I specifically explained the seriousness of Eva’s allergies and I asked not to have any food out – saying no cakes and biscuits. The host made a bit of a joke about it and said, ‘Oh dear, I’d better clean up’!
As soon as we arrived they bought out plate of chocolate biscuits. Annoyed, I picked up the plate and put them out of reach in the kitchen. They look surprised and asked ‘can she not eat them?’ Later on I heard Eva eating something, but I knew there was no ‘safe’ food out and was immediately worried. I looked over and Eva and another child were sat down eating the biscuits. I panicked, but gave her antihistamine straight away. She still went on to suffer an anaphylactic shock, from eating just half of the biscuit.
At first, I felt guilty that maybe I wasn’t clear enough, and that I hadn’t explained to the child, only the parents. So now I make sure that everyone knows what my daughter can’t have, and that she can die if she eats it.
‘I’m keen to educate others about allergies – and how to deal with them’
For me, that incident was a realisation that everyone who comes into contact with my daughter needs to understand the severity of allergies.
Our dietician actually gave me great advice which was to be really blunt when it comes to letting people know of Eva’s allergies.
It is one of those chronic conditions that, unfortunately, relies on the vigilance of others in order to stay safe. Her life really and truly rests on trusting the people around her, including me, my husband, our family, friends, schools, and the awareness of the general public to understand. Any of us without knowing it could kill her.
But since my daughter’s allergies came up, I’ve set myself the task of learning everything there is to know about children’s allergies and how to deal with them – and it’s become something I’m keen to educate other people about too.
When Eva was first diagnosed I didn’t know anyone who had a child with an allergy. I didn’t know where to turn to for support, or where I could speak to anyone that could relate to the challenges and emotions I was faced with. When we were first given Eva’s Epipen, I wasn’t even shown how to use it properly by the doctor, but instead had to look it up on YouTube. That did not fill me with reassurance or confidence! I know that if I had not been so invested in learning and staying up to date I would not have felt confident when I needed to use the Epipen a couple of months ago.
So when I realised how little information there was out there for people in my situation, I set up Food Allergy Fit to provide support and information to other parents who have a child with severe allergies. I use my experience and subsequent training courses to provide support and give confidence in managing their child’s allergies. Using a practical, positive approach, along with crucial training I show parents how best to deal with anything that could be thrown at them in an allergy emergency.
An increase in allergy awareness is always an incredible feat, but more commonly these days I have found that people don’t take allergies seriously as they are blinded by fussy eaters and lifestyle choices. Recognising the difference between the two – and the fact that allergies are life threatening – is the first step.
A person with a severe allergy will always appreciate someone that goes to extra lengths to make them feel safe and secure. The more awareness we can create, the easier that will become.
I realise that Eva and other allergy sufferers may not have a completely normal life, but I’d like it to be as incredible as possible. Missing out on experiences because of her allergies will be harder as she gets older, but with more awareness, it doesn’t have to be.