Italy (Guest post by Hayley Astrup)

I met Benjamin while studying abroad in Rome, Italy, in the summer of 2010. Benjamin’s dad was one of our professors, so the whole family took the opportunity to spend the summer in that wonderful city. The first weekend we were there, the whole group traveled across the country for a weekend. My two roommates and I got placed on the “teacher bus” (as opposed to the bus with the rest of the students), where we began getting to know the professors and their families better than normally possible.

As the summer went on, us three girls spent a lot of time with Benjamin’s family, whether on the forty-five-minute walks to school in blistering heat, on walking tours of the city, and even running into each other during weekend vacations to other Italian cities.

Precautions were constantly being taken to make the environment safe for Benjamin. After dealing with his allergies for a decade, Mom and Dad clearly had a system: they had his doctor’s notes in Italian for eating in restaurants, an Italian translation of ingredients to watch for when grocery shopping, and knowledge that McDonald’s is safe (and in Europe, it has healthier options: bonus!) Then there are just risks that necessarily were undertaken constantly—constant use of public buses and trains, tourist attractions that have been visited by millions and millions of people, and just the variety and amount of people around at any given time, to name a few.

Like most people, I had no understanding of how severe Benjamin’s allergies are. His dad was one of my first professors in law school and I remembered him telling us about Benjamin and the need to keep his cell phone on during class in case of an emergency, but I know now that I did not comprehend the severity of Benjamin’s condition. After all, one of my best friends had a peanut allergy growing up and it never came up unless someone offered her a Snickers bar. But after spending any amount of time with Benjamin, you get how serious his allergies are and how constant of a job it is to be surveying situations, predicting the behavior of others, truly understanding the foods you consume, and still getting to be a kid, having friends, and having a life.

Unfortunately, I got to experience his allergy in a way most people never do. One evening toward the end of our time in Rome, my roommates and I were invited over for dinner at his family’s apartment. Jennifer made a lovely meal of two of Benjamin and Natalie’s favorite pastas (full of fresh, authentic Italian ingredients, of course!) Shortly after we sat down to eat, Benjamin felt something weird about his mouth. He politely excused himself from the table and went to the bathroom. His dad followed behind shortly after. We sat at the table slowly beginning to understand what was happening. Benjamin began exhibiting a second symptom and that is the clue that something is very wrong. Benjamin was in anaphylaxis. He, his parents, and his sister handled the situation with remarkable poise. They understood the situation, diagnosed the culpable pasta, administered the EpiPen, asked us to stay and watch Natalie, grabbed the ingredients they cooked with (for further diagnosis purposes), and ran down a caught a taxi (deciding this would be faster than an ambulance) to the nearest hospital—all within about two minutes. They then overcame the language barrier and had Benjamin in with the emergency room doctors within fifteen minutes of the onset of the attack. It was remarkable. And scary.

The culprit of this vicious attack? An obscure name for cashew dust in the spaghetti sauce. Not only is this an unexpected ingredient, but they also did not use the standard word for cashew. Another example of when even diligently reading the ingredients does not help. One bite of pasta with a tiny amount of cashew dust was all it took to nearly take this person’s life.

Of course, a service dog will not help with these types of food-based reactions, but this goes to show how sensitive Benjamin’s allergies are. A service dog can help relieve the environmental concerns (think about how many things you touch in a day that someone before you could have touched after eating some sort of nut). Being a teenager is hard enough; a service dog will help this smart, happy, wonderful kid not have to constantly face his mortality.

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  1. Mel Hailey, Ph. D.

     /  April 30, 2012


    Thank you for reminding me of the importance of a service dog for Benjamin. I am aware that there is no perfect system of safety; but as you mentioned so well in your post, the service dog (Trac-E) will be on the frontline of protection for Benjamin during the critical teen years.

  1. Anaphylaxis in Rome (part 1 of 2) « Benjamin's BlogDog
  2. Anaphylaxis in Rome (part 2 of 2) « Benjamin's BlogDog
  3. Italy (Guest Post by Amanda Fenolio) « Benjamin's BlogDog

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