New Allergy-Free Life for Madison and Mom
‘We could have been at this point sooner if we’d started at National Jewish Health’
Jessica Hassett will never forget the first time her daughter had an allergic reaction. During a routine supplemental feeding, 8-month-old Madison began to vomit uncontrollably. “My hands were shaking so badly. I was trying to call 911 from two phones,” said Jessica. “I was just trying to process what was happening.”
Even though Madison had clothing between her skin and the vomit, her entire torso looked as though she had been severely burned. Skin testing revealed that Madison was allergic to cow’s milk. She also reacted to eggs and hazelnut.
“It’s pretty easy to avoid cow’s milk,” Jessica said. But as Madison got older, she had to learn to manage her allergies on her own. “We had to help her learn what was necessary to keep her safe as she got out into the world more,” Jessica said. She and her family also had to help others in Madison’s life understand the severity of her allergies.
One of their biggest concerns was cross-contamination, which occurs when an allergen is accidentally transferred to another food or surface. If someone sliced cheese and then used the same knife to cut up fruit for Madison, she could have a reaction.
‘I Didn’t Want Her to Live with Allergies Forever’
“I wanted her to be able to go to a potluck or order off a menu,” Jessica said. “I didn’t want her to live with allergies forever.”
To help Madison overcome her allergies, in 2009 Jessica took her to a local allergist. During one of their annual visits in 2017, their doctor prescribed a baked dairy challenge. If that was successful, Madison could move on to a fresh milk challenge, a test to confirm if she was still allergic to milk or had outgrown the allergy.
The baked dairy challenge, or muffin challenge, involved eating one dairy muffin a day, five days a week for one year. “I can see why they call it a challenge,” Jessica said. “Getting a child to eat a muffin a day for that long is really hard.” It wasn’t easy on Jessica, either. Due to Madison’s allergies, Jessica had to make all those muffins.
By the time the challenge ended a year later, both Jessica and 10-year-old Madison were sick of muffins. But they were excited for their annual visit to the allergist. If the results from Madison’s skin test were good, she could move on to the fresh milk challenge they had worked toward for the past year.
Not only were the results from the skin test not what they hoped — they were worse than they had been in years. “I tried to be positive for Madison, but she was devastated and crying,” Jessica said. “It felt like we took 10 steps backward.”
Madison was not moving on to the milk challenge. They instead received a recommendation to try the muffin challenge for another year. Jessica wanted more information, so she ordered a blood test.
Second Opinion Leads to New Direction
Jessica wondered if they should continue on their current path or move in a different direction. “I wanted a second opinion,” Jessica said. “I decided to call National Jewish Health and give it a try.”
They met with Christine Cho, MD, a pediatric allergist and immunologist at National Jewish Health. She decided to dig a little deeper. In addition to reviewing Madison’s blood test, Dr. Cho examined the trending patterns of her previous tests. Based on that analysis, Dr. Cho felt that Madison was ready for a fresh milk challenge. “She shared the news with us like she had been on our journey with us the whole time,” Jessica said.
The big day arrived. Madison was going to have her milk challenge, and possibly a more worry-free life.
“It was a really great environment,” Jessica said. “Before, we felt like we were on our own.” Instead of being in a room by themselves, at National Jewish Health all the children having food challenges were in one area with lots of tables, she explained. “People would come by with an art cart, and the nurses were always checking in. It was so much better than sitting in a room by ourselves. We got to be around other families,” she said.
The kids there understood what the others were going through, she added. “They would say things to each other like, ‘What are you challenging today? Egg? Oh, you’ll get noodles!’
“We got invested in each other’s outcomes,” Jessica said. “It was so powerful.”
Allergy-Free and Just Like the Other Kids
After 10 years and lots of ups and down, Madison passed the milk challenge. In fact, she’s allergy-free.
“It feels really, really weird. I can leave the house now without grabbing the Epi-Pen. We don’t need it,” said Jessica. “I feel great. There are so many things you have to worry about, and now this is one less thing.”
Jessica wishes they had come to National Jewish Health sooner. “How much different could our lives have been?” she asked. “I think we could have been at this point sooner if we’d started at National Jewish Health. If we hadn’t gone, we would still be discussing muffins and not having milk.”
For years, Jessica has made a special dairy-free treat for her daughter to eat during classroom birthday celebrations. After she got the “all-clear,” Madison picked out the prettiest cupcakes she could find. Then she brought them to school to celebrate the start of her new allergy-free life. Instead of singing “Happy Birthday,” her classmates sang “Happy dairy day.” There was no candle to blow out, but one of Madison’s wishes had finally come true.