Matthew Mitchell’s earliest memories involves a fast-food
hamburger in a drive-thru late at night.
a happy meal.
now 25, was just 3 at the time, but he was already hyper-alert
about his food. So when his mother passed the patty to the
back seat, Mitchell instantly knew something was wrong.
was never allowed to eat the bun because of my dairy allergy,
and this time, the patty looked different, even though it was
late and it was dark outside," he said. But his mother
said it was the same that he always ate — a plain burger.
later, Mitchell’s toddler suspicions were confirmed. There
was cheese on the burger, triggering his dairy allergy.
started vomiting and went into anaphylactic shock, a serious
allergic reaction that can come on in seconds and can kill.
wasn’t the first time it had happened, and it would be far
from the last.
to milk is the most common food allergy in infants and
children, though it’s different from lactose intolerance,
which is an overreaction to a specific food protein. About
21/2 percent of children younger than age 3 are allergic to
milk, according to Food Allergy Research & Education Inc.
recent studies show that some children are not outgrowing it
early in life as previously thought, said Dr. James Baker Jr.,
CEO of Food Allergy Research & Education.
is one of them. And for him, it’s a very big deal. Although
food allergies result in only about 150 reported deaths in the
United States each year, allergy sufferers live a life of
countless close calls.
people may not understand how serious a milk allergy can be,
because past studies have shown that the majority of fatal
food-induced anaphylactic reactions are associated with
peanuts and tree nuts," Baker said. "But the fact
is, milk allergy is not only potentially life-threatening but
life-altering, because it can be very challenging to
first sign of problems for Mitchell started when he was an
was having colicky symptoms, hay fever and sneezing,"
said mom Lynda Mitchell, senior vice president of community
services for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, a
nonprofit education and advocacy foundation based in
Mitchell had been breast-feeding her son, so she switched to a
symptoms got worse. She switched to a soy formula, and when he
stopped tolerating that, she switched to a hypoallergenic
made him go into anaphylactic shock," she said. "His
face was swollen, he was gasping for breath, he was broken out
into hives. I knew he was having respiratory difficulties, and
I knew he needed to get to an emergency room, but I wasn’t
aware at the time that he could have died."
Matthew’s first emergency room visit. He was 11 months old,
and he was officially allergic to every formula on the market.
Mitchell switched him to water and started cooking everything
from scratch, using plain foods like potatoes and meat.
methods worked at home, but she knew it wouldn’t be long
before she would have to release her son into the big, bad
world of preschool — and for this, she’d have to be
utterly prepared. After all, one drop of a milk product
potentially could kill her son. If any of the preschoolers
dared to share a cookie with her little boy, it could be a
I was looking for a preschool, I wasn’t looking for one that
had the best academics or the best facilities," she said.
"I was looking for someone who was willing to keep him
safe and who was willing to take this on," Lynda Mitchell
knew that one schoolteacher couldn’t handle this on his own.
there was a food-related activity, I would be there,"
Lynda Mitchell said. "I would bring safe ingredients for
couldn’t be there every second of every day, however. And
that’s when mistakes happened.
was 7 when the next life-threatening scrape took place. He was
in the hospital already for stomach surgery, and his mother
put up a sign in his room regarding his allergy, she put a
bracelet on her son and she told all the doctors, nurses and
the fortified whey in his hospital orange juice that got him.
again, Matthew went into anaphylactic shock.
wasn’t able to throw up because he had just had stomach
surgery, and he went from head-to-toe hives, and he had
breathing problems," his mother said. "By that time,
I knew that anaphylactic shock could be fatal."
said he remembers wanting to throw up but couldn’t, and he
said he passed out and can’t remember the details other than
being very scared.
four doctors rushed into the room, and Matthew eventually
time, his mother studiously read a label to discover that a
candy bar was dairy-free before stuffing the chocolate into
his Christmas stocking.
was in high school at the time, and by the end of Christmas
morning, he’d started breaking out in hives like a bad
went to the hospital, and the lab results came back saying
that the chocolate had .001 percent dairy, so now, if you look
at the label of the candy, it says that it may contain milk
— because of me," he said.
dairy allergy has affected all aspects of Matthew’s life,
and now that he’s in his 20s, it has affected his dating
life. And not in a good way.
He had a
date recently with a woman who wanted to cook him dinner.
said, ‘I’ll give you the ingredients,’ but she brought a
baguette that was made in the store," Matthew said.
baguette itself didn’t have any dairy in it, but he knew it
could be cross-contaminated. Still, Matthew said, he was
feeling the dating pressure and didn’t want to look uncool.
So he kept quiet and only took a small bite.
small bite was big enough to cause a major reaction.
ended up breaking out in hives, and it was pretty
mortifying," Matthew said. "It was only the third
date, and she was already taking me to the hospital."
one more date before their relationship ended.
Matthew lives in Maryland and works as a junior human systems
specialist for RED-INC, which is a Defense Department
contractor. He said the key to living with a severe allergy is
having good friends who understand it — and he does have
friends understand that we have to compromise on where to go
and what the plans are," he said. "I learned from my
mom: having a lot of foresight and asking the questions —
‘Where am I going to get my food these days?’ It’s
something I always have to think about. I don’t have the
freedom of getting into the car and driving somewhere and
hoping that it’ll work out."
Braff is a freelance reporter.
foods account for 90 percent of all food-allergic reactions in
the United States, according to Food Allergy Research &
Education. These foods are: