Henry Dobbs, 6, and his 5-year-old brother Alex have some treats along with Joshua Mori, 7. Henry has food allergies and his parents bring snacks for the whole class. The children attend the SMU Summer Enhancement Program.
When her son Henry was a year old, Jolisa Dobbs discovered that he had extensive food allergies. Pork, beef, wheat, rye, barley, eggs, dairy, soy, nuts and seeds gave Henry serious digestive problems and an itchy eczema that caused him to scratch until he bled.
Now, Henry is 6, starting first grade. It’s a potentially dangerous situation, because allergic reactions can easily become fatal if not promptly treated. Dobbs and her husband, Steve, have done what children’s allergy experts advise: Working with their school district, they have a plan.
“You create this perfect little bubble to keep them safe at home, and it’s hard to let your baby out of the nest,” Dobbs says. “You have to communicate with everyone and double-check all the time and take that leap of faith.”
About 1 in 13 children in America has a food allergy, according to a study published in Pediatrics in June. That’s around 6 million kids, a dramatic increase from the 1 in 25, or roughly 3 million kids cited by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2007. No one knows for certain what accounts for the rise, although experts cite as possible factors improved detection, the exposure of children to fewer microorganisms in sanitized environments and alterations in diet.
Despite the dangers, there are no national or state guidelines to protect such children. Texas has taken a step in that direction with a June law that mandates the creation of statewide food allergy management guidelines for schools by the end of the year.
So the Dobbses had to do their own safeguarding. Their written plan spells out Henry’s allergies, how to avoid the foods that cause problems and what to do if he comes into contact with them. In addition, Dobbs has signed up to be “party mom,” so she can bring in treats for the class that are what she calls “Henry-safe.”
They have worked closely with Mackie Kazdoy, the principal at Northwood Hills Elementary in Far North Dallas, and the school’s staff, she says. Last year, when Henry started kindergarten, Kazdoy arranged for a seat at the regular lunch table to be set aside for Henry. He can sit with others who don’t have allergies because his area is wiped down before he arrives. Henry’s kindergarten teacher, Alexis Didier, let Dobbs stash Henry-friendly snacks in her classroom so Didier could give him treats when the rest of the class received theirs.
The school nurse, Laurie Jones, alerted Dobbs when Henry won an ice cream party for his class as part of a fundraising competition. Jones called the family to tell them that the ice cream would be arriving in 20 minutes; they rushed over to bring his dairy-free version so he could join in the celebration.
Dobbs credits the nationally recognized pediatric food allergy experts at National Jewish Health in Denver for identifying Henry’s allergies, evaluating their severity and helping the family develop a school plan.
This year, she added Children’s Medical Center Dallas to her group of medical providers for Henry. The hospital, in association with UT Southwestern Medical Center, opened the Food Allergy Center, the only academic-affiliated pediatric program for food allergies in North Texas, in September with a $2.35 million gift from the Robert H. Dedman Jr. Family Foundation, the Robert and Nancy Dedman Foundation and Mrs. Robert H. Dedman.
The inspiration was Robert and Rachael Dedman’s 9-year-old daughter, Nancy, who suffers from severe egg, peanut, tree nut and sesame allergies.
The center, under the medical direction of Dr. Drew Bird, is researching ways to build up immunities to food allergies in addition to treating patients. It offered its first food allergy camp for children ages 7 to 15 earlier this month. It started quarterly food allergy cooking classes last fall.
Dr. Dan Atkins, head of ambulatory pediatrics at National Jewish Health, says that after 30 years of working in this field, he’s glad to see that the public is becoming more aware of the dangers faced by children with food allergies.
“The more people understand it, the more likely they will come together with a common desire of safety for our kids. You want to work as a team on what’s safer for the community.”
Dobbs says that’s her goal, too. She wants Henry to feel like part of the group.
“I hope he can go out and have a normal life,” she says. “I’m here to protect his emotions as well as his physical safety.”