Tonight, my son will risk death to go to a baseball game.
For just three games every season, the St. Louis Cardinals rope off a single section of seats at Busch Stadium, and label that section as “peanut controlled.” We will be there tonight, in the third row.
“Peanut controlled” means that peanut vendors are not allowed to sell peanuts inside the special roped-off section, and any guests who buy tickets in that particular section will be warned that they will not be allowed to purchase peanuts elsewhere in the stadium and bring them inside. Stadium staff hose the section off and wipe the seats down before the game. Of course, vendors all along the path outside the stadium entrance will still be roasting peanuts. Concessions stands throughout the stadium will still be selling peanuts. Thousands of patrons seated outside of this roped-off section will still be eating peanuts. In the hallways, on the stairways, on the elevators. Touching handrails and tables and and seats and the faucet handles bathrooms. Dropping empty peanut shells and pieces of peanuts on the stadium floor, walking through them, tracking them everywhere.
We will need to be very careful.
I spent a couple of hours this morning packing, then checking and double-checking our gear. Things we will be carrying into the stadium tonight include:
Three water bottles
Three dinner-sized packages of nonperishable food
Three stadium seat covers
Two packets of Clorox cleaning wipes
Three packets of Wet Wipes hand wipes
20 dry napkins
10 plastic baggies
An insulated first-aid case
Three doses of Children’s Claritin
Three doses of Children’s Benadryl
A tube of topical Benadryl cream
Four epinephrine auto-injectors
My son’s baseball glove
A few days ago, when we were at the grocery store, my son started to break out in hives. Two appeared on his hands, which flushed red. One popped up on his face.
I took him to the bathroom immediately, told him to go inside, told him to wash his hands and face. While he was in there, I thought: Where had he picked up the peanut residue this time? We had skipped the bulk aisle! We had wiped the cart handle. But in the condiments aisle, when I’d picked up a jar of Sunbutter sunflower seed spread there had been a slick ring of oil on the bottom, and then, on the shelf nearby I’d spied, pushed to the back, a couple of containers of house-made fresh ground peanut butter in cheap deli plastic tubs. The kind that leak.
That must have been it. I’d put the Sunbutter back, scrubbed my hands afterward with the wet wipes I always keep in the main pocket of my purse.
Not well enough, apparently.
Maybe. Or maybe someone rummaging through that big display of peanuts on the end cap had thrown dust in the air. Or maybe one of those the kids running around the store with nutty ice cream samples had touched a box or a shelf or our cart, and then my son touched it. Or maybe. Or maybe.
When my son came out of the bathroom, I wiped his face again myself. “Stop it, Mom,” he said. “I’m too clean.”
Too clean. Hah. Ten-year-olds.
His reactions from skin contact alone have never been serious. Yet. But I worry so much about him thoughtlessly putting his hands in his mouth, or rubbing his eyes. He is only ten.
In St. Louis, baseball is more than game. It’s the local religion. Opening day is an unofficial holiday; crowds fill the streets; people hang flags; the local fountains run Cardinal red; kids and teachers both call in sick to school and get away with it. All the kids on our street own baseball caps with the red and white “StL” Cardinals logo. My son is no exception. His favorite Cardinals hat, dingy and smudged from regular wear, was once bright blue. After being worn and washed about a hundred times, it’s gone a faded denim grey.
(We’ll have to wash it again tonight, of course, after the game. As well as scrub the soles of his shoes, and ours, before we come inside the house.)
My son watched every game of the World Series in 2013. On TV, of course. His favorite player that year was Carlos Beltran.
During one of the two peanut-controlled section games had been able to make it to see in person that season, Carlos Beltran had hit a spectacular home run in the third inning. “He did it for you,” I told my son. “He’s bringing his best to the plate today. He knows you can’t make it to just any game.”
The kid scoffed at me, of course; at nine he was already no fool.
But when he heard Beltran left to play for the Yankees, he still punched a wall.
At that same game last August, the one where Carlos Beltran hit the home run, a four-year-old boy in our section introduced himself to my son during the seventh inning stretch by saying, “Hi there. My name is Blake. If I ever eat peanuts, I’ll die.”
The makers of the EpiPen recommend that people with life-threatening allergies carry two epinephrine autoinjectors and keep them within immediate reach at all times. During a life-threatening allergic reaction, one EpiPen will buy the allergic person approximately 15 minutes of time to get to an emergency room for medical treatment. The reason to carry two is that sometimes one injector will malfunction, and also sometimes the ambulance takes more than 15 minutes to arrive, and the allergic person will have to be injected twice.
The reason I am bringing four autoinjectors to the baseball game instead of two, even though there is an excellent pediatric hospital less than ten minutes away from the stadium, is that during my son’s first anaphylactic reaction to peanuts– before he had been diagnosed, before he had a prescription for epinephrine– when we drove our child to the closest ER, the hospital staff made us wait 20 minutes in the waiting room while my son gasped for air and began to turn blue. Then the pediatric emergency doctor in the ER gave him a double dose of Children’s Benadryl and sent us home.
When we saw an allergist a week later, he said, “The ER staff should have admitted your child immediately, they should have given your child an injection of epinephrine immediately, and they should have kept him for observation for at least four hours. You are lucky that he survived.”
So now when we go to high-risk places, I carry four injectors instead of two. If the ER fails to give my child appropriate medication again, I intend to do it myself.
I imagine that the specific section chosen to be designated the peanut-controlled section at Busch Stadium was chosen for a few good reasons. Only one other section adjoins it directly. This minimizes exposure to peanut shell dust from seats nearby. It’s near an elevator that is also near an entrance gate, allowing visitors to bypass a long section of the gauntlet of peanut vending stations that line the stadium halls. It’s situated in one of the lower-priced areas of the stadium, presumably to make the ticket prices more accessible for families who already shell out a lot of extra cash every month for medicine, doctors’ visits and specialty foods.
But the truth is the seats are not great. The section is entirely unshaded, so during daytime games, the sun beats directly down on it, ridiculously bright and hot. The seats are high up, waaaay high up, not in the nosebleed bleachers at the very top, but just one section under, on the far end of right field. From those seats, the players look smaller than toy action figures. It’s basically impossible to see the ball, unless you’re very quick with the binoculars.
The chances of a home run ball ever reaching that section are slim to nil.
My son brings his baseball glove every time anyway. Ready for the catch.
Living is risking your life. Parents let children take risks all the time. Cars are dangerous, but still we drive our children to the park. Pools are dangerous, but we let our children swim. People shoot people for no reason, at schools or at the gas station or at the mall, but we let our children go to public places anyway.
My son just has a few more dangers to watch out for, is all. About 200 people die a year in the U.S. from food allergies. But many more — there are 15 million Americans with food allergies — live. Every episode of allergic anaphylaxis should be treated as potentially life-threatening. But good allergen avoidance strategies and proper use of life-saving medications work to save lives every day. Reading labels and researching food companies works. Limiting restaurant meals to trusted locations works. Wet wipes work. Epinephrine works. All of those things come together to keep children with food allergies safe. 99% of the time. This is what I tell myself.
Natalie Giorgi died last year after accidentally eating a single bite of a Rice Krispy treat that was flavored with peanut butter. One bite, that she spit out. Her father was a doctor. He injected her with epinephrine three times.
He could not save her.
(He punched, barehanded, through a glass door to get his daughter one of those doses, because someone had lost a medicine cabinet key. He could not save her.)
Natalie Giorgi had red hair and brown eyes and freckles.
Just like my son.
When you purchase tickets for the peanut-controlled section at the Cardinals website, your receipt comes with a disclaimer. It reads:
As you know, the sale of peanuts at our facility, and all Major League Baseball facilities, is one of the historic traditions of the game. In making your decision to attend the Cardinals game, you should know and consider that because Busch Stadium is a public facility, it is impossible for us to guarantee that any portion of the stadium is completely peanut-free, including section [X], the section where your seats will be located.
Similarly, every time we get the reminder from our local food allergy support group that now is the time to purchase tickets for the upcoming peanut controlled game, I ask my son, “Are you sure you want to do this? Remember, you could have a reaction. We can be careful, but we can’t control other people. There will be peanuts everywhere.”
Every time he says the same thing. “I’m going. I can only go to three games out of the whole year. I AM GOING TO THIS ONE.”
So, he is.
Image of baseball at top by Tage Olsin. Photos of peanut-allergic, baseball-loving child by Jaelithe Judy.