Below is an interview with Lauren & her Mom, Melissa. Lauren’s inhalant dairy allergies forced a creative solution with going to school!
Lauren – can you tell me how old you are and what your allergies are?
I am 14 years old and I’m allergic to all forms of dairy including goat milk.
Have you ever gone into anaphylaxis?
I have been in anaphylaxis over 40 times. If my EpiPen wears off I need more EpiPen before I reach the hospital. Sometimes I only need one EpiPen if it’s just a little contamination, but many times I need at least two EpiPens and then more meds at the hospital. If I do not take my EpiPen immediately I get VERY sick. In the last few years I have gotten better about taking my Epi right away and this helps me not get as sick as I used to get.
One time I swallowed a bite of cheese without knowing it was “real” cheese ( I thought it was my soy cheese that I always eat) and my throat hurt immediately, then I got a blister on my lip and then I got red all over my body like a sunburn. I was throwing up and felt very sleepy. I started wheezing. I began getting hives that burned all over. I was screaming that my back burned. All of this happened in minutes, and got worse until we arrived at the hospital. My parents said my eyes rolled in back of my head in the trauma room. They said the doctors were very helpful and knew exactly how to help me. I fell asleep. When I woke up I felt better and we spent two nights in the pediatric intensive care unit.
Tell me about your robot. How does it work? Can you see the students and teachers as you sit at home?
The Vgo works like Skype on wheels. I log on at home and then I drive my Vgo to class from home. I can see the teacher and the students, and can even work on group projects together or with a partner. If I want to raise my hand I press a key on my keyboard and a light on the robot flashes so the teacher can call on me.
How did you feel about your safety at school with your food allergies before getting your robot? And now?
I was always worried about what was going to happen to me that day…would the ambulance have to come to school again? Would I be careful enough? And now that I go to school with this robot I feel safer BUT I still want to go to school.
Do you participate in extra-curricular activities like sports, clubs or dances?
I have done field hockey this year but I have to make sure I’m wiping everything down and I can’t go on the bus to away games and I can’t be around their snacks and I can’t do food events with them. I’m in karate also. I also am involved volunteering at the hospital and other philanthropies around my town that are safe. I also volunteer at our church (but I can only do certain jobs that are safe.)
How do you socialize with your friends?
When my friends come over they need to be sure and wash up and don’t have it on their clothes. When they come in and they don’t eat obvious dairy before they see me (like pizza cheese doodles or Doritos). Sometimes I go to other friends houses if they clean before I come. Sometimes I go places with them if there is a low risk of contamination while I’m at a place. But there is a high risk with most things. I try not to take high risks.
Melissa – when did you know that Lauren was no longer safe at school and that something needed to change?
We knew that Lauren was no longer safe in school when she went to one of her classes and walked into the room after they had a pizza party and her throat began to hurt. The teacher washed down everything correctly but it was still airborne and enough was still around to cause a significant reaction. She took her EpiPen, the ambulance came and took her to the hospital and she was on steroids for a week that time.
Did Lauren have a 504 Plan and Health Care Plan prior to having the robot?
Yes she did, we felt that it was important to have a 504 & a Health Care Plan , but our needs became above and beyond what the school could handle. To keep her safe at school would mean to eliminate dairy. Also when she has a reaction she needs to take epinephrine immediately or she becomes way too sick. We could not take the chance that she would not get medicine immediately. Also her doctor said we should take her out of school before something happens that we can’t “get back” from.
How did you get the school to pay for the robot?
Lauren’s home bound supervisor was working hard on finding a way for Lauren to attend school safely. This past summer he was reading “Sports Illustrated” and read a story about a boy in Texas who went to school using a robot. He thought that this robot would be the safest way for Lauren to get to go to school. He went to the Asst. Superintendent to ask for her support to let him try this “robot” out with Lauren. He purchased the unit out of his home bound budget. His concern was having Lauren spend her freshman year in school.
What do you hope for Lauren as she ages through high school and goes into college and beyond?
Lauren wants to work, go to college, become a forensic scientist, get married and start her own family. Our hope is to find ways to keep her safe through living out all of her dreams.
Is there any hope for her dairy allergy to lessen?
Our hopes for Lauren is that the Chinese herbal treatment that she is on (from Dr. Li at Mt. Sinai Hospital in NY) will work! First the hope is that she will stop reacting from inhaled dairy, and then of course we wait for the day of the cure. In the mean time we continue to remind her to wash hands, keep her hands out of her mouth, remind others to wash hands, especially when they come in our home. And remind ourselves to keep our eyes open for hidden dairy, or airborne dairy. Also we need to read labels over and over and find ways to live in a dairy laden world.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Dairy is in so many things…and in surprising places. Lauren has been in anaphylaxis so many times because of a combination of factors. First it was hard for our family to understand how sensitive she was….it started with eliminating dairy from my own diet so I could continue to nurse her but it went on to having to eliminate dairy from our home because I would contaminate her from the dishwasher items in addition to cross contamination issues. Dairy has been found in places I never would have thought of. We have had so many mistakes because we could not always grasp the seriousness of invisible dairy and because of human error…like manufacturers that make mistakes in labeling. We now know that more than 20% of medications have dairy. We find out things like that the hard way. Food labeling laws have made life MUCH easier for us. Restaurants like in Disney World makes our life easier when we go there. And people who “get it” also make life easier.
Thanks Lauren & Melissa!
Scholastic News also ran an article on Melissa and her robot. You can read that article here.