Lunch time at Carrolltowne Elementary's cafeteria in Eldersburg finds Tyler Haught in his own peanut-free zone. So severely allergic is the 6-year-old child to peanuts that even a taste of the ubiquitous legume can have him gasping for breath in seconds.
He wears a medallion around his neck that warns he has "anaphylactic reaction to peanuts and all peanut products." Anaphylaxis is a condition of hypersensitivity to proteins or other substances. The symptoms, including swelling, respiratory distress and collapse of circulation, can be fatal.
"It means I would get very sick," said Tyler.
The cafeteria staff checks for any trace of peanut in sandwiches, snacks or cookies in the lunch boxes of any first-grade classmate who asks to share Tyler's table.
Michael Sadler sat next to Tyler Friday and munched on a cheese sandwich.
"I don't like peanut butter, so I can sit with Tyler every day," said Michael. But Michael had to exchange a plain vanilla nut-encrusted ice cream cone he bought for dessert.
"He doesn't like nuts anyway," said Tyler of his friend's sacrifice.
Before hitting the playground, the children all wash their hands and sometimes their desk tops with pre-moistened towelettes to make sure peanut butter is not sticking to anything. Teachers and older pupils clean their hands before leaving the cafeteria. The school will spend more than $1,550 on towelettes this year.
Jeanne Henderson, Tyler's teacher, carries one of the school's eight walkie-talkies and an emergency pack wherever she goes with her class. The school nurse and the physical education staff take similar precautions.
"Someone can get to him within seconds," said Principal Martin Tierney.
All the precautions for one child in a school of 750 may seem zealous, but even the children understand the rationale.
"We have to do all this in case we have peanut butter, because somebody is allergic to it," said first-grader Jimmy Filomena, rubbing the towelette across his face. "He could die."
Tyler is among the more than 3 million Americans coping with peanut allergy, which accounts for 125 deaths and 2,500 visits to hospital emergency rooms annually, according to the Food Allergy Network, a nonprofit organization.
Since the school cannot exclude peanut products completely, Tyler and his parents must practice caution.
"We do not want to create a false sense of security; this cannot be a peanut-free environment," said Tierney. "Tyler knows it is not totally safe."
Before school opened Aug. 30, Wendy and Daniel Haught wrote to Carrolltowne parents about Tyler's life-threatening allergy, asking for cooperation and apologizing for any inconvenience.
"If just a minute amount enters his body (through eyes, nose or mouth), he will experience a strong allergic reaction," they wrote. "If he does not receive immediate emergency medical treatment, he could die in minutes. There is no cure for food-induced anaphylaxis; avoidance of the food substance is the only way of preventing an allergic reaction."
Children as helpers
Communication with teachers and parents will help keep Tyler safe, said Anne Munoz-Furlong, founder of the Food Allergy Network. She advises parents to volunteer at school as often as possible, check cafeteria menus and educate the child and his friends, who "ultimately become the best safety net for the child."
"Encourage the child's friends to be helpers," Munoz-Furlong said. "They can help your child avoid temptation. They can also recognize symptoms and get help."
Haught softened her allergy presentation to her son's classmates, showing them a video cartoon about an elephant who could never eat peanuts. She didn't use the word "die," but the children figured out the gravity of the allergy for themselves.
"We have all tried to be honest with the children but not scare them," said Henderson. "If there is an emergency, they would have to know what we were doing."
Haught, a former teacher who is a stay-at-home mother with three children, considered home-schooling Tyler, but soon decided on a classroom.
"He would have had to go to school eventually," she said. "These are the early lessons he has to learn."
Haught helped develop an emergency plan for the school and outlined all the precautions. The school "has bent over backwards for us," she said. She understands she cannot keep peanut products out of the building.
"Some parents are saying their children would starve without peanut butter," she said. "All I am asking is for some understanding of what I am up against."
She asks for a peanut-free lunch for any child who wants to share Tyler's table and caution when bringing in snacks for the class. And she has educated her son.
"Tyler knows not to eat any food that does not come from me," she said.
He will not swap food, no matter how tempting. He does not pick up trash in the cafeteria or touch the tables, on the off chance he could come in contact with peanut residue.
"Ultimately, the control remains with the individual," said Munoz-Furlong. "You can try to change the world, but the power has to be with the child with allergies. He has to feel he can take care of himself."
Information: Food Allergy Network, 800-929-4040.