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Reducing the Risk of Harm from Allergies with Empathy

By Mihiri Udabage - 4th February 2014

The adorable first-day-at-school montages crowd my newsfeed on Facebook – little legs swimming in kaftan-sized uniforms, half a face emerging from under a too-big hat,  tiny shoulders swallowed by cavernous backpacks. I love the end-of-day pictures the most – pigtails askew, shoe laces lying like puddles around bitumen-scuffed shoes, tired but happy smiles that say “I did it!”

Today a different photo appeared time and again, by the many friends who shared it: a little girl, Amelie, her first day at primary school cut short by an anaphylactic reaction to peanuts. Still wearing her green and white checked uniform, her eyes are swollen shut, her lips are flushed with red. Her mother wrote on Facebook: Should a parent have to fear their child dying on the first day of school?

According to a number of responses to the mother’s Facebook post, it seems there are people in our community who answer ‘yes’. Yes, a parent should accept that fear of their child’s death and ask nothing of their community to help them minimise the risk.

And that’s all that reasonable people and schools are asking of their community: harm minimisation. I’m a mother of a school child with life-threatening food allergies; I know there are no guarantees of safety at school. I accept that potential harm lies outside of school too. But if there is a known potential for children to die at school, surely it is not so much to ask the school community to respond together and minimise the harm OF DEATH at school?

I have empathy for families with non-allergic children. Their children, who can eat anything without harm, are also restricted to varying degrees on what they can eat at school. They are asked to adopt new behaviours like checking food labels and buying alternative products for lunch boxes. They are asked to educate their own children about other children’s health issues.

Whenever I feel guilty knowing that other families are taking this on too, I am assured by other parents and friends. I wouldn’t want to be the cause of harm to your son, they say. It’s no big deal, my kids can eat Nutella sandwiches at home, they say. Our kids are friends, of course they should learn to look after each other, they say.

And the teachers: Tell me what I need to know to keep him safe at school, they ask; I’ve had my anaphylaxis training, they say; I’ll speak to the whole class, they say.

Coupled with his own 8-year-old resources, the school community is the reason I can leave my son at school everyday to enjoy a rich learning experience like all the other children. They are the reason he socialises happily and freely with his friends. They are the reason he is there, standing at the gate, with laces like puddles around bitumen-scuffed shoes, waiting for me every afternoon.

Their capacity for empathy and action makes me want to reciprocate. What can I do to understand their child’s school journey? How can I contribute something to their family? And you know what? It’s not that hard. And it is sooo worth it. Being in community with others is what makes our lives bigger and better. Community is what brings a sense of belonging and feeling valued. Community brings friendship and understanding. And if empathy for each other is the gateway to community, why wouldn’t you walk through and join the crowd?

Image from freedigitalphotos.net

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