Dad Keith Tan recalls the trauma of watching his son suffer a severe allergic reaction to peanuts during a flight.

“My family took a holiday in Japan in May last year. Everything was good…till our flight back home.

My then-20-month-old son, Aaron, experienced a severe allergic reaction to peanuts on the plane, which was flying from Narita Airport to Changi.

The flight was about six-and-a-half hours long. About 15 to 20 minutes into the flight, Aaron started to cry. I  also noticed that he was starting to scratch his skin a lot. That’s when I realised that his peanut allergy had been triggered.

He was inconsolable during the flight ― crying and screaming non-stop for around four hours. I don’t know how any human being could have this type of energy!

Then, things took a turn for the worse.

When Aaron started gasping for air, I knew his airways were restricted. I rushed to the first-class cabin to speak to the chief air stewardess.

Though it was 4 or 5am in the morning, everything happened really quickly. The chief air stewardess paged for a doctor ― and thank God there was one on board. She made a call to the other passengers ― if anyone had allergy pills or anything that could help.

“He was inconsolable during the flight crying and screaming non-stop for around four hours… Then, things took a turn for the worse… When Aaron started gasping for air, I knew his airways were restricted.”

Five Singaporean passengers came forward with their medication. The doctor checked the medicines and saw that there were some pills for adults ― some of them were really strong.

Thankfully, there were some that were safe for children to consume. The doctor measured the dosage and broke one of the pills into three. There was also a nurse on board, who also helped to force feed the medicine to my son.

At that point, the plane was hovering over Vietnam. Without all the people helping, we would have had to make an emergency landing int Ho Chi Minh City. Luckily, we were able to carry on for the next two hours before touching down at Changi.

Living with a peanut allergy

Aaron was diagnosed with a peanut allergy when he was just a few months old. Back then, he was an extraordinarily cranky baby. He would often break out in rashes all over his body ― we didn’t know what was going on.

After seeing many different doctors, paediatricians and specialists, we finally did a blood test and found out that he was allergic to peanuts.

No one else in the family has this allergy, except for my mum-in-law (and she only developed a reaction to peanuts when she was in her 60s!). Aaron (as well as my older daughter Rebecca) also has an issue with eggs, but it isn’t as serious as his reaction to peanuts. Rebecca, who is now 5, has since outgrown her sensitivity to eggs.

When Aaron comes into contact with peanuts or is exposed to peanut particles in the air, it can get really unbearable. He would have rashes and swelling at his joint areas, particularly at the elbows and knee caps, and red spots all over his body.

He wouldn’t be able to sleep well and his immunity would be really low.

His allergies can even be triggered at home ― even though we’ve already made adjustments to our daily lives. For instance, we changed the type of cooking oil we used when we realised that this particular cooking oil brand contained some peanut essence. When we eat out, we need to be aware, for instance, if particular dish has sesame oil inside. Anything that contains nuts or even seeds might trigger his allergy.

 

At school

The preschool that Aaron attends has to take precautions as well.

He is in pre-nursery now. The teachers know of his allergy, so they will keep a look out for him. Sometimes, the birthday cake for birthday celebrations may have peanuts. The childcare centre requires parents to fill in a form on where they purchased their birthday cakes. This form was initially to determine whether the cake is halal, but because of my son, it now includes a question as to whether it contains nuts.

His allergy has been triggered in school before, but the school was quick to intervene and, thankfully, there hasn’t been a serious episode.

Besides food, certain brands of body wash, shampoo and detergents could also trigger Aaron’s allergy. We need to stick to a particular brand, and even pack a small bottle for school, so that they can use it when giving him a shower.

So, we learn along the way. When it comes to travelling, we are extremely careful with food ― and prepare our own.

On a long flight, a peanut allergy can be especially deadly because the airline is one enclosed steel vessel. Once you open a packet of peanuts, the particles in the air would be airborne.”

Travelling precautions

Before our trip to Japan, we’d brought Aaron on a couple of flights before. Each time, we would make sure to e-mail and call the airline to make sure that everything is okay and the staff is aware of the allergy.

We had brought medication along ― Zyrtec [an antihistamine] ― and also an epi-pen. But it was just too serious and nothing worked at that point, except those prescribed by the doctor that were strong enough.

On a long flight, a peanut allergy can be especially deadly because the airline is one enclosed steel vessel. Once you open a packet of peanuts, the particles in the air would be airborne.

Then, we were quite shocked that planes don’t ban peanuts in the cabin, although this emergency happens elsewhere. In fact, no airline in the world has ever done it. Out of courtesy, airlines would swap the peanuts for potato chips, just for that particular cabin.

Most airlines wouldn’t look into this issue until something serious happens. The most the airline would do is to sterilise the seats for us, but they cannot restrict passengers from consuming their own nuts.

After several incidents in recent years, more airlines now set aside a cabin that doesn’t serve peanuts.

 

More awareness needed

Some people might still feel it is their right to eat peanuts on a plane and I can fully understand where they are coming from. I would not have known about this if not for my son.

So, I believe that there is a certain level of ignorance ― that this is so serious , it can potentially be fatal. I can understand why some people may feel quite self-centred about it, but in truth, they just don’t understand how serious it can be.

You know how on a flight, a screaming baby can be a real public nuisance? When we were on that flight and Aaron was screaming for almost four hours, people started to realise that something was really not right and their annoyance became concern.

“I would not have known about this if not for my son… People just don’t know that this is so serious, it can potentially be fatal. I can understand why some people may feel quite self-centred about it, but in truth, they just don’t understand how serious it can be.”

More people started to ask us if he was okay, and offered to carry him for us. They gave suggestions like nursing him, carrying him while walking around ― many parents reached out to help. So, I think this story just needs to be shared for more awareness.

Flying in the future

We have not set foot on a plane ever since that incident. We have had friends saying, ‘It’s okay lah, my kid flew to Europe on a 10-hour flight, it will be okay.’ But the incident was just too traumatising for everyone. My son almost died in my arms! 

Eventually, I think we will start again with short flights to see if Aaron has more resistance to peanuts.

We have heard from our paediatrician that there is this treatment where every two months, Aaron can get a little dosage of peanut injected into his blood at the clinic. It will trigger a reaction, but that is how the body will build a stronger resistance to the allergen. There are 12 doses and the dosage will increase each time to build up his resistance eventually.

That’s something we may explore in the future.

For now, we will just continue to take precautions. This means that we will check with restaurant staff about nut/sesame oil usein their food prep, bring along Aaron’s medication, do research on nearby hospitals in the areas we are going.

For flights, we’ll be very sure to communicate with the airlines and confirm with the cabin staff before flying.”

Keith Tan, who is self-employed, is dad to Bryan, 6 months, Aaron, 3, and Rebecca, 5.

Photos: Keith Tan

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