About 10 years ago, Jenny Wooten Andjelkovic and her family experienced a scare that changed their lives forever. Scare, perhaps, isn’t strong enough a word.
Wilton mom Andjelkovic had just had her third child, another daughter after a girl, then 5, and a son, 3 at the time. She knew her eldest, Bella, had a tree nut and peanut allergy: Eating anything with a tree nut or peanut would result in hives that they had always treated successfully with Benadryl. This time, however, it was different.
Someone had sent a cookie bouquet to the family, and some of the cookies were incorrectly labeled, or rather double-labeled. The wrong label was put on top of the correct label, Andjelkovic would later learn.
“She pushed the cookie away after one bite and said she didn’t want it,” recalled Andjelkovic. “Bella started coughing and sneezing and then throwing up, I thought it was probably a stomach bug. She kept saying to me, ‘Please don’t leave me alone,’ like a sign of impending doom.”
“Until then, I hadn’t really believed my child could die from food."
Never anticipating it was nuts in the cookie causing the reaction, Andjelkovic left her daughter alone for a moment to clean up and check on her other children. When she returned to Bella’s room, her daughter was barely breathing. Immediately she injected the EpiPen they kept for such emergencies but had never used before. Bella revived a bit while waiting for the ambulance to arrive but suffered another reaction some 20 minutes later in the ambulance.
“It is the moment that changed our lives,” admits Andjelkovic. “We thought we knew a lot about allergies and could handle it. There’s a denial thing that happens; it wasn’t real until it was real.
“Until then, I hadn’t really believed my child could die from food. In that moment, I hadn’t done the right thing.”
The fear and guilt of that incident led Andjelkovic to seek support, which she found in a group in New Canaan. That group ultimately became part of FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education), which was itself created in 2012 with the merger of the two prominent food allergy groups— Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network and Food Allergy Initiative.
“After the support and help from these amazing women,” said Anjelkovic, “it really empowered all of us to take control of this thing.”
And it was only a matter of time before Andjelkovic, who has an MS in Educational Psychology and for years worked in nonprofit management, began giving back to the organization that helped her. She co-chairs Food Allergy Connecticut, a FARE-recognized support group coordinating family workshops and an annual speaker series, provides one-on-one support and helped to raise more than $25,000 over three years for FARE’s Heroes Walk. Is it no wonder she was honored as the third annual FARE Connecticut Fall Luncheon on Nov. 6 in Greenwich?
“I feel flattered and humbled by the recognition,” said Andjelkovic, “but it is absolutely my pleasure and such an honor to be involved in sharing their inspirational work to support local Connecticut families like mine.”
"...you tell a person you have a peanut allergy and they will use the same knife in cream cheese that they just used in peanut butter.”
Today, FARE is the world’s largest private source of funding for food allergy research and is the leading national organization working for those with food allergies, providing information, programs and resources. According to FARE, 32 million Americans have food allergies—5.6 million of which are children. To put it in perspective, that’s 1 out of 13 kids, or roughly two in every classroom.
As it turns out, all three of Andjelkovic’s children have life-threatening food allergies. And while there certainly seems to be growing awareness of the seriousness of it, there is still a way to go.
“You think people understand,” explained Andjelkovic, “and then you run into situations where you tell a person you have a peanut allergy and they will use the same knife in cream cheese that they just used in peanut butter.”
The numbers of families like Andjelkovic’s are growing and there are far too many theories as to why. Is it the way we clean our babies? Our homes? Is our food over-processed and over-fertilized? Too many antibiotics? Too much hand sanitizer? Or perhaps it’s a little bit of everything?
“It’s a new epidemic, very fast and a lot of us can’t wrap our minds around it,” admitted Andjelkovic.
“There’s always been a solid group of mothers who come to our meetings,” stressed Andjelkovic, “but now when he have a speaker—a doctor, a social worker—we’ll have 70 to 100 people turn out when we used to get 20 to 30.”
Luckily for these families and the more to come, there are people like Andjelkovic fighting to support those with life-threatening allergies and educate others.
“I’m glad to be living in this time where many more people are educated and aware of food allergies,” concluded Andjelkovic.
For more information, visit FARE.