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Growing up with over 40 allergies

How a child beat her allergies and copes with daily life

allergies, food, health
When Kathleen Robinholt was 10 months old, she had a near-fatal reaction to scrambled eggs. Through tests, her parents realized she had over 40 allergies.

Kathleen Robinholt spends her days like many of her fellow third graders at Chase Elementary School in Monticello. On the weekends, she plays with her American Girl dolls or FaceTimes her friends from her mother's phone while they play Roblox. In the fall, she's on the soccer field. In the winter, it's the basketball court, and springtime for Kathleen means softball season.

But Kathleen has also had to spend time doing things most of her classmates never will -- like the day in February of last year when she sat for nearly six hours hooked up to an IV, tentatively eating small amounts of peanut butter.

When Kathleen was ten months old, she had an anaphylactic reaction to scrambled eggs. That near-fatal incident led to tests that revealed 27 food allergies and 15 environmental allergies. In the years since, some of those allergies have subsided, and she's now down to five food allergies and a handful of environmental allergies, including cats, dog saliva, horses, and a few tree pollens. (She passed the peanut butter challenge and has officially overcome her peanut allergy, a fact she celebrated with her first ever taco from Taco Bell.)

Dangers at school, restaurants and birthday parties
Though she has beaten many of the allergies she had as a baby, foods that are everyday staples for her classmates are still dangerous for her. That is especially true of eggs, which can send her right back into anaphylaxis.

"Kathleen asks, 'Is there eggs in that?' everywhere we go," her mother, Jennifer Robinholt, says. "Some restaurants will be good for a year, and then randomly change their product," Robinholt says. "So, in order to be safe and sure, we always ask."

Restaurants are usually accommodating, as are places like Hershey Park or Six Flags, which the Robinholts call before visiting to make sure they have foods that are safe for Kathleen to eat. The bigger challenges lie in the daily life of an eight-year-old: school, sleepovers and birthday parties.

"I have had teachers call my home the first day of school and ask what kind of plan they should implement in their classroom, and then I have had teachers who refused to read ingredient labels and would exclude her from participating in events," says Robinholt.

At birthday parties, when her friends start to sing "Happy Birthday," Kathleen starts looking for her coat. Because of the eggs in the batter, she cannot eat the cake she knows is next.

Finding a support system
She does have wonderfully supportive friends. Robinholt says Kathleen's besties, Riley and Makayley, keep a constant lookout for foods and environmental triggers that could harm her. Sometimes her friends' parents will make egg-free cupcakes or marshmallow pops so that she can indulge in a treat, too. Still, her medical condition makes sleepovers nearly impossible.

"She has only slept at one friend's house ever, because the environment is safe and they have a list of foods she can eat," Robinholt says. "To be honest, they were the only parents to not fear taking her. I am so
thankful for them. Mommies and daddies need alone time too."

The allergies have also brought a mild case of asthma along with them, and because Kathleen's lungs are weakened, she has spent many winters battling multiple cases of pneumonia. The family is working with her pulmonologist and pediatrician to better control her lungs, and so far, it has helped. "Last year she only had pneumonia once and one bout of bronchitis," Robinholt says.

READ MORE: The early signs of food allergies. Should your child be tested?

Long-term effects on her health, despite improvements
While there is no doubt that Kathleen has been improving, her parents worry about the long-term effects of her allergies and asthma on her health. She has bendable bones because of the milk allergy that limited her calcium intake the first five years of her life, and as a result could wind up facing early-onset osteoporosis down the line. The inhaler she uses to clear her airways now could lead to emphysema when she gets older.

"The more I read the more difficult it is to swallow," Robinholt says. "My concern will always be her well-being."

Kathleen feels comfortable with her allergies, though she admits the allergy tests are scary and make her nervous and she wishes she could try foods that everyone else eats. Luckily, she's got people around her that make the whole ordeal better. "She is glad she has amazing friends that always look out for her," Robinholt says.

Message to other parents
To other parents who may be grappling with similar challenges, Robinholt recommends remembering to breathe and take things one day at a time. "I believed when she was little that we would never see these allergies go, but with time comes physical changes within a person's body," Robinholt says. Several years ago, she spent every day planning out meals and worrying about the environments Kathleen would be exposed to and the potential dangers lurking in each one. "These days I plan activities and easy-to-grab snacks," she says. "Don't let the allergies lead your life; rather teach your child how to control their environment to get the best from it."

It is in that spirit that Kathleen has refused to let her physical limitations stop her from doing the things she loves and from becoming an upbeat, positive kid. "She is quick to be kind to someone else and thoughtful about others' needs," Robinholt says. "I am thankful that we get to explore whatever new adventures come next for her."

Elora Tocci is a freelance writer from Newburgh.