11-year-old spreading the word on food allergies

Thursday March 28, 2013


Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- Scanning ingredient labels and inquiring of restaurant managers whether food has been in contact with any items on a list of ingredients Rowan Pringle is allergic to is a regular routine for the 11-year-old and her family.

Rowan's food allergies -- which are most severe to peanuts and tree nuts, but also include dairy products, wheat, and other foods -- are something she has had to live with since she tested positive for allergies two years ago. The allergies require Rowan to take medication daily, be cautious of the foods she eats or comes in contact with, and to carry an EpiPen everywhere she goes in case she has an allergic reaction.

While bothersome at times -- like when friends are eating foods Rowan can no longer enjoy (her favorite used to be Chinese) -- Rowan was lucky to have her allergies discovered before events turned tragic.

Maia Santarelli-Gallo's food allergies were never detected until after she went into anaphylactic shock on March 13. The 12-year-old from Stoney Creek, Ontario, died at a hospital hours later, from what is believed to have been an allergic reaction to an ice cream cone, according to Canadian news reports.

Rowan's mother, Christi Pringle, came across a story about Maia published in The Hamilton Spectator newspaper through an online network of people who act as a resource of information regarding food allergies. Pringle shared the article with her daughter to reinforce how important it is for Rowan to never leave her EpiPen behind. Her mother did not imagine the story would have quite as significant of an as impact it did.

The Spectator article details an account by family of Maia's reaction attending a funeral less than a month before her own that she would not want people wearing black to her funeral. Instead, Maia told relatives, she would want to "put the ‘fun' in funeral."

Touched by the story, Rowan saw the tragedy as an opportunity to raise awareness of food allergies at her own school, Bennington Elementary, while celebrating Maia's life.

Rowan spent two days making pins in the shape of rainbows out of card stock. With colored pencils, Rowan colored in the spectrum of colors on the rainbow and then glued cloud-shaped cutouts to each end that she coated in glitter. Across each rainbow, Rowan wrote the name "MAIA" in bold letters.

"My mom showed me the story about what happened, and then I thought (Maia) was almost like me. We both have food allergies, but hers were unknown," Rowan said. "I thought making pins would be a nice way to remember her."

Rowan had made 80 pins over two days by the time supplies ran out. Last week, she brought the pins to school with her. With permission from her own fifth grade teacher and other teachers, Rowan spoke to classes about of her own allergies, Maia's story, and the effects of anaphylaxis that can range from mild symptoms such as itchy rashes to severe reactions that may result in death.

After speaking to the classes, it took Rowan little time to distribute all of the pins she made. In fact, she even gave her own away when asked about them by a teacher who had not received one. Not to worry, Rowan said, as she is picking up more supplies soon as requests have kept coming.

Rowan said her classmates have been very conscious about her allergies, however many did not know the extent of danger food allergies pose.

"Kids (in my class) actually are very caring and very careful about what they eat, and they wash their hands after if they have any nut of some sort," Rowan said.

Rowan's own allergies are not as bad as many people's, including her younger brother who is in preschool. Still, if Rowan touches hands with someone who has eaten peanut butter without washing their hands she will have a reaction. Her brother is more susceptible to allergic reactions, that may be triggered just by sitting at the same table as someone who ate peanut butter earlier.

Unlike her brother, who showed signs of food allergies from the time he began eating hard foods, Rowan did not display signs of her allergies until third grade. In the weeks before being tested for allergies, Rowan was in and out of the emergency room many times with stomach pain and swollen lymph nodes.

"It was really annoying and quite painful at times," she said.

When Rowan was finally tested, Pringle said her daughter was positive for seven food allergies and a total of 27 allergies including cats, dogs and other environmental triggers.

In the two years since, Rowan has grown accustomed to carefully checking the ingredients in everything she eats; however, adapting to her allergies were not easy.

"I need to go on a special, allergy-free diet," Rowan said. "I need special bread, special milk. There is a replacement for peanut butter called Sunbutter. It's very good."

There are many foods Rowan used to enjoy that she must now avoid; however, Rowan said there are still many delicious options for her. In place of traditional breads, Rowan eats tapioca loaf, which she prefers over rice-based breads. Rowan's favorite food is her mom's gluten-free double chocolate cake.

Getting Rowan to eat the foods isn't allergic to is not a problem; however, her mother said, sometimes checking items off her family's grocery list requires more effort. Most grocery shopping trips include stops at all three of the large supermarkets in Bennington, as well as specialty stores for other items.

"It can be hard to find certain things. We actually have to shop each grocery store in town to stock our house," she said.

At school, Rowan usually eats from the salad bar, but there are occasions when she is able eat the hot lunch option. The cafeteria staff is very accommodating to ensure there is always something she can enjoy. On Wednesday, for instance, Rowan said the salad bar was closed, but the staff made a salad special for her.

"The lunch ladies are very good about food allergies," she said.

Eating out can be more difficult as the cooks have to understand the food allergies could potentially pose a life-threatening risk.

"You have to ask questions. If you get something that's fried you have to ask what oil they fry it in. If it's peanut oil, I can't have it," Rowan said. The next question is what other foods have been fried in the same oil, to make sure none of them contain ingredients she is allergic to.

"We have to be aware of cross-contamination in the food," her mother said.

There are other accommodations that have to be requested as well. "You say right up front we have a peanut allergy, can you rewash the table just in case," Pringle said. "You always feel kind of skittish doing it, but you gotta ask them and you gotta ask for the allergy menu if there is one."

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at draspuzzi@benningtonbanner.com


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