Michele Fellows never set out to become an advocate. Or a baker, for that matter. But today, this California mom to two children with severe, life threatening food allergies relishes her days running Sweet Alexis Bakery. The yummy, frosted confections she creates are wheat, egg, dairy, and tree-nut free. “I just had to open this business,” she said.
I just love it when moms rock!
She had to do it because 10 years earlier, she gave birth to its namesake – Alexis. For 10 long, crushing months, her baby girl suffered, crying inconsolably before, during and after feedings. Doctors told her repeatedly that she needed to wait it out, that Alexis was fine. Finally, after a series of tests following a fateful emergency room visit, doctors discovered Alexis suffered severe, life-threatening allergies to multiple types of food – including all dairy products, eggs, shellfish, nuts, mustard and cherries. To complicate matters, Alexis also suffered from asthma.
My heart went out to Michele when I heard her story. I can’t even imagine coping with a diagnosis like this one as a new mother. But there’s a good lesson here for all of us – we must insist doctors listen when we know something’s not right.
At the time, there were very few resources for parents. After both shock and relief, Michele and her husband slowly accepted the reality of Alexis’ condition. Her allergies were so severe, she would have to be monitored constantly – her very presence in the vicinity of some foods could cause her to go into anaphylactic shock.
“Everything - crayons, clothing, toys, or a kiss on the cheek from a relative who just ate a peanut-butter sandwich – they’re all potential dangers. We have to remain vigilant 24-hours a day to keep her safe,” says Michele.
Okay, now I’m really in awe of this mom!
Vigilance: Keeping Alexis safe from allergens, 24/7
For the Fellows’, keeping Alexis safe means taking extraordinary measures every single day. Alexis, an effervescent, bright, active little girl, must never leave the house without the medical bag she takes even to the school playground. Every food label is examined, because even “safe” foods change ingredients. The family rarely eats out, because they can never completely trust the food hasn’t come into contact with an allergen. Her lunch break at school is carefully monitored. They never, ever travel by plane.
Not all children, of course, suffer food allergies as severe as Alexis’. Still – what Michele wants most is for people to see her daughter as normal. “Yes – she’s coping with a serious issue and needs some special provisions. But no kid wants to walk around with a sign above his head, drawing any attention. They just want to fit in, like everyone else.”
Allergies vs. Intolerance: The difference between life and death
Food allergies are on the rise, with no known cause or cure. While there is no shortage of information available now, misconceptions and even prejudices continue. Parents often cope with the lack of understanding from others regarding the gravity of food allergies. There is also debate even within the allergen community over how much protection is too much, or too little.
“There’s a big difference between a food intolerance, and a severe, life-threatening allergy. Symptoms of food intolerance include gassiness, bloating and stomachaches. Food allergies, however, engage a serious immune response, often with lightning speed. It ranges from itching, hives, diarrhea and vomiting, all the way to a slowed pulse and cardiac arrest in as little as 20 minutes.”
Wow. I am suddenly thanking my lucky stars that the biggest problem my kids have with food involves sibling warfare at the dinner table!
Allergen awareness is the icing on the cake
Michele remembers the time Alexis was offered a pencil at an Easter party while the other kids enjoyed candy and treats. With the encouragement of her husband, Michele launched Sweet Alexis. Determined to create tasty, allergen-free cookies, cakes, cupcakes and muffins for kids, she started the business from her own kitchen.
“This is all we do at our bakery – so there isn’t a single trace of wheat, eggs, dairy or tree-nuts,” says Michele, who’s got some serious bragging rights. Now, the kids want the pretty, yummy allergen-free treats Alexis brings to parties!
Sweet Alexis serves as a safe place for kids with severe food allergies, but also enables Michele to create awareness in her community. “I know what I’m supposed to do with my life now. I know it’s a relief for families to walk in our store, where we understand their struggles, and offer delicious treats they can grab and go – just like everyone else.”
Lucky Kat World is pretty sweet on Michele, and we’ve invited her to contribute to our blog in the coming months with tips and tricks about cooking for kids with food allergies, baking, and even just a little bit of fun stuff for parents. Bon Appetit!
For further information, Michele recommends the following websites: