Peanut allergies can produce some of the most dangerous allergic reactions in sufferers. It is so dangerous, by law, product labeling must list when peanuts are part of a product or may have been produced near peanut products.
“Most everything has peanuts,” said mom Jennifer Vincent of one young sufferer — her son Noah, who will be 10 on Jan. 23.
The Vincent family has learned to read food labels. They watch constantly for adverse reactions. They do not eat at restaurants much. It’s sometimes also difficult to go out to a movie.
Noah doesn’t eat in the cafeteria at school. A couple of incidents have happened while Noah was at school. Noah now eats his lunch in his classroom — but no longer alone. Noah eats lunch with his buddies Zack, who also has an allergy to peanuts, Alex and Michael. They decided they would like to be with their good bud Noah so he wouldn’t have to eat by himself.
Peanuts allergies seem to be on the rise with children, particularly within the last 12 years. Although most children outgrow food allergies, with a peanut allergy, most don’t.
Noah and his mom have talked about why he has a severe peanut allergy.
“From the beginning, it wasn’t easy for him,” she said. “He has good days. He has bad days.”
Young Noah didn’t understand why this was happening to him.
“His question to me was: ‘I know God made me, but why did He make me this way?’” his mom said.
“I didn’t have any real explanation for my son. It’s a malfunction in his immune system. His body overreacts,” she said. But she finally told her son the following.
“You’re right. God made you, but I can’t tell you why he made you this way,” she said.
“But maybe,” his mom suggested, “it’s so you can show other children how to deal with similar problems and how to have a normal life.”
After that, mom said, Noah had a change of attitude.
Another major turning point came this past Christmas when the entire Vincent family got their fondest wish fulfilled in the guise of an 18-month-old, black Labrador pup named Bandit.
“Now, because of his new best friend,” mom said, “Noah’s happy. He’s like a regular kid.”
Both Bandit, called a working service dog, and the Vincent family now have to go through training on the proper way to give and read commands.
The discovery of Noah’s allergies started innocently enough. No one, not even his family, knew he was allergic to anything.
The first time Noah had a severe reaction was when he was 11 months old. That’s when mom started to introduce some table food. But Noah had an obvious bad reaction.
“It’s kinda scary,” mom said. “Early on, I didn’t realize it. I was exposing Noah to stuff he was allergic to. I had to go on my instincts.”
She didn’t know exactly what was wrong, just that something was. Was it something he ate? Did he get a-hold of something he shouldn’t have? Did he inhale something and that’s why he couldn’t breathe?
“Noah had a reaction and in a mere second he went from standing here to not OK.”
Mom took him to the emergency room at Bradley Memorial Hospital and ultimately found out Noah was allergic to many foods.
She followed up with a pediatrician, who sent baby Noah for allergy testing for milk, eggs, peanuts, wheat and barley and others. He was allergic to all of these. And, although he has outgrown many of the allergies, the worst one — to peanuts — can still cause a severe reaction in Noah.
Mom started researching allergies, especially food allergies, and everything she could find out about them. One of the first symptoms of a bad reaction is hives — even as soon as the food he’s allergic to touches Noah’s lips. Other symptoms include sneezing, itchy, water eyes, and can quickly progress to a severe reaction.
And although the family and their doctor talked about possible shots available to help desenitize Noah to reacting so severely to peanut allergens, the doctor didn’t recommend them for various reasons.
Enough research on these shots doesn’t exist and also because Noah’s allergen levels fluctuated too much — down one year and off the charts the next — for their doctor to recommend trying this treatment for Noah.
That’s when she found an article on peanut-detecting dogs and called a special organization located on a ranch in Florence, Texas. The organization trains dogs to detect a variety of substances, from peanuts to drug dogs.
Southern Star Ranch, located about 50 miles from Houston, is run by Sharon Perry. Only one or two other such training ranches exist. The ranch in Texas, at which Bandit was raised, was the first ever to train peanut-detecting dogs.
When Bandit smells any whiff of peanuts, he sits down immediately.
“Bandit is not trained like most other dogs,” mom said.
Bandit doesn’t know the command “Sit” like most other dogs, but he knows 20 other commands other canines don’t.
After an article in a local paper, the Vincent’s church — Southern Liberty Baptist Church in Riceville — held fundraisers to help the Vincents adopt Bandit.
It’s a lengthy application process with lots of questions to qualifyto buy one of the lifesaving pups, because it’s important to match the right dog to the right person.
Perry, the Texas trainer, drove 15 hours from Texas with Bandit and first met the family with the dog in Athens Regional Park. Bandit was already waiting for Noah in the park as the Vincent family drove up.
Noah saw Bandit first from the car.
Noah first went up to Bandit and petted him.
Bandit licked Noah’s hand.
Bandit was very polite.
Noah scratched Bandit under his chin.
Then, the group all went to the baseball field in the park to play fetch.
“Dogs have a sense,” mom said about what trainer Perry told her. “They know things. The first day Bandit and Noah met, they automatically bonded.”
Now the family can enjoy going to a restaurant. Bandit will first check the chairs, the table, the menu, the silverware and the glass that Noah will be drinking out of, and then the food. Bandit can detect two molecules or even just a fingerprint with peanut residue on it.
“He detected half of a peanut covered in ranch dressing with other food dishes around it,” mom said.
Bandit can sniff 270 times per minute. That’s 4.5 sniffs per second. “A dog’s sense of smell is greater than a human’s.”
“I felt happy when I got the dog. He’ll help me live a more normal life,” Noah said.
Noah takes Bandit everywhere. He has to train with Noah at least five days a week anywhere from 5 to 45 minutes per day — but usually 5 to 10 minutes.
“He makes me feel safer.”
But Bandit is not like your normal dog at home, mom said. He’s a working dog. He has to earn family time privileges. He earns it by working and doing his job. It’s like a reward system. If he does a good job, he’s rewarded. Like a child, as a special treat, he’ll get extra play time if he does a good job. But passers-by must resist petting service dogs like Bandit. It interferes with his work and training.
“People have to know that these dogs are in a training state with the vest on,” mom said. “When the vest is on, he has a job to do.”
Although Bandit is a part of the Vincent family and in the middle of his training, he’s not yet allowed to go to another school — Noah’s. At least not yet. He’s got a lot more training to do within the Vincent family first. Then, maybe, both Noah and Bandit will be able to attend school together.
The Vincent family is still working out with his school — Riceville Elementary — if and when Bandit can go with Noah to his classes.
“Our hope is that once Noah is trained with him — and the family with commands — we hope yes,” said Noah’s mom.
In fact, mom hopes one day Noah might be able to take Bandit into other schools and explain the seriousness of his allergy issues.
“It is serious if he lets his guard down for just a minute,” mom said. “Actually, it only takes a couple of seconds to turn serious.”
Above all, she would like people to realize the direness of the situation and hopes their family can help other children like Noah.
Southern Star can be reached at 254-793-8173 or by accessing www.southernstarranch.com or on www.peanutdog.com for more information on peanut dogs. If anyone has any questions for the Vincents, they can be reached at 462-2441.