As my 9-year-old son was being interviewed by ABC World News Tonight, I waited nervously outside in the hallway. Their story was about food allergies, and the interviewer was asking him to recount the scariest moment of his life. I assumed he would recount one of the few times that he has gone into anaphylaxis, when his vomiting would not stop and he felt his own throat strangling him as if it was on fire. When I heard his answer, I nearly fell down. My son said the most frightening moment he has ever had was when an airline manager in Denver told us, "If you think he's going to die, don't get on the plane."
I remember that day all too well. A family seated near us in the boarding area was eating peanuts. They had overheard me caution my son not to go into the candy store where they were making peanut butter fudge, so they asked me if he was allergic to peanuts. I had replied affirmatively that he had a potentially fatal peanut allergy. Then, in an act of bizarre insensitivity reflective of adolescent immaturity, that family's children (three boys) began to throw their peanuts up in the air, crush them on the floor and point laughingly at my son while their parents observed. Feeling increasingly uncomfortable, I turned to an airline staff member and asked them to please make an announcement, after we boarded, that there was a child in row 8 that had a life-threatening nut allergy.
I was not expecting any pushback from the airline. This type of announcement had been accommodatingly done for me countless times in the past on this very same airline. This time, however, I was instructed that if my requested announcement was going to be made, it would be done merely as a courtesy. The gate agent informed me that making such announcements was NOT the policy of the airline. I was further lectured that the decision to make any announcement was up to the individual crew, and that this crew was going to refuse to make any announcement. Although I asked repeatedly, I was never given an answer as to why they refused my simple and courteous request. Letting fellow passengers (especially parents of children who may not understand the true nature of a deadly food allergy) know about my son and his allergy informs those passengers, who would be happy to forego their favorite peanut snack for a few hours, of my thankfulness for their cooperation. Sometimes it leads to a thoughtful and educational awareness of food allergies. What made this incident more egregious was that it was a high level manager who made these insensitive remarks. Presumably, this manager was trained by the airline on how to deal with issues in a manner as to not upset his customers. I have never felt so very helpless in a situation where there was no remedy available to me other than not to board the plane.
Why was I so surprised at my son's answer to ABC News? My son knows that I am very concerned about flying with life-threatening food allergies. In fact, this event was life-altering for me, and I have subsequently become a leading advocate committed to increasing awareness of life threatening food allergies and the food allergic airline passenger. Those harsh words, now indelibly etched in my son's memory, still haunt him. It turns out that the one thing he fears more than dying is other people's insensitivity and malice toward the fact that he might die. He is more horrified about other human beings not caring about his life than actually having his throat close. I truly did not think that this would be his answer at all.
Now, many months removed from this incident, I'm impressed by my son's perceptiveness. As a parent, you try teach your children about dangerous things and how be careful around them. We explain why we use car seats, electrical outlet covers, stair gates and how to look both ways before crossing the street. But all of those dangers are "thing" dangers. It turns out, however, there is one more frightening danger, and it is from people who simply don't care. This incident, and the multitude of other airline stories that people have shared with me (many of which are far more offensive than my story), are more than a metaphor about why people in the world we share should care and the consequences when this does not happen. It's more than the fear of a reaction that is in my son's mind; it's the idea that there may be others out there who feel the same way as that airline manager. Insensitively taunting my young son about his own potentially fatal food allergy is not merely rude; it is evidence of an unacceptable ignorance and repugnance that people should not have toward each other, let alone toward faultless children. It's a shame that inability to treat people with dignity, courtesy and respect can generate mental fears that have the ability to out-rival the physical ones. What makes it most shameful was that the most egregious behavior that day was not by the three children taunting my son, but by the adult who was responsible for his safe travel. That alone speaks volumes about what ails our society.