Between the beginning of July and the end of September, 2010, our family ate a diet that was vegetarian, dairy-free, egg-free, soy-free, wheat-free, and nut-free. As part of the treatment protocol for eosinophilic esophagitis, the “six food elimination diet” was supposed to remove the worst potential allergens from my daughter Sammi’s system, hopefully healing her esophagus and giving us the chance to add the offenders back one at a time later until the real culprit was found. The full elimination portion of the diet was just plain awful.
While the rest of us could sneak off and have such luxuries as omelets and almonds and bagels, Sammi was living this diet 100% of the time. We did everything we could to make it palatable; we made elaborate fruit salads and learned to cook ridiculously complicated foods. We spent a lot of time at the farmer’s market, trying new produce. We went to the beach. Our friends and family circled the wagons and did what they could. In all of this, I can only really remember snapshots — the most powerful moments preserved in a visceral feeling of either dread or deep relief.
Snap. My friend Christine arriving at daycamp with her children and a pan of crispy rice treats made on parchment paper with gluten-free cereal. “I poured boiling water over my spatula,” she said. “And the pan was brand new, but I used parchment paper just in case.”
Snap. My mother-in-law coming to my house with four bags of groceries from her local health food store. She bustled in and told me, “I showed the owner the list of foods she couldn’t have and he spent an hour with me walking through the store. Read all these labels anyway, though, before you give them to her.”
Snap. All through the fall of her kindergarten year, Sammi’s best friend’s mom sent clementines or bananas when it was her turn to provide snack, knowing that those were the only things Sammi could eat that I didn’t send. “I could eat the same snack as everyone today, Mommy!”
Snap. In the middle of all of it, Sammi turned five, and my sister-in-law, fresh from classes in cake decorating, came over to help me decorate the only thing I could use for a cake: crispy rice treats. Carefully, slowly, we referenced a photo of the backdrop on Sammi’s favorite tv show.
One of the strongest memories I have of that time, though, was the deep, deep compassion bestowed on us by an employee of the candy company Jelly Belly. As a special treat for our kids, their great-aunt had offered to take them on a tour of the Jelly Belly factory about an hour away from home. As luck would have it, Jelly Belly jellybeans are free of all the top eight allergens. I confirmed this on the phone before they left.
They had a wonderful time at Jelly Belly headquarters and came home with souvenirs and, unsurprisingly, mountains of jellybeans. It was a moment of normalcy in a totally abnormal summer. And then, I read the side of one of the bags of candy they’d eaten on the tour:
Produced on shared equipment with peanuts
I cannot overstate the panic I felt. Even though Sammi would not get sick from this, it meant that the previous four weeks of crazy diet had been in vain. This excursion fell nearly at the end of the first six-weeks of the diet, after which Sammi would have an endscopy and then be given permission to take a short break from restriction to go on a family trip we’d been planning for years. This cross-contamination debacle would force us to cancel that trip and start the six weeks of diet from zero.
I went into a tailspin, grasping at anything I could imagine. I called the Jelly Belly factory again, horrified and furious and devastated all at once. What happened after that is best described in this excerpt from the letter I sent to the Vice President of Marketing for Jelly Belly.
“…I made a frantic call to Jelly Belly to see if perhaps the bags had been mislabeled. Kit McCoy called me back right away and immediately set to work checking lot numbers, re-checking with the production facilities, and calling me several times that day to update me on her progress. While she did that, I steeled myself for the possibility that, because we may have contaminated my daughter’s system with peanuts, we would have to postpone her endoscopy and cancel a family vacation we had been planning for over a year. Our window of opportunity for making this decision was very narrow.
Imagine my relief when Kit contacted me that very day to give me the news that the bags of Jelly Bellies that my daughter had eaten were simply “old film” – the beans inside were produced without any offending allergens. Kit’s quick research saved us an additional month of restricted diet, the loss of our long-planned vacation, and tremendous heartache. She deserves your praise and any commendation you can give her!
I am sharing our story with allergy support groups, friends, and medical staff to praise your company’s consumer relations and commitment to quality and safety. We are so grateful. We will be eating Jelly Bellies – and insisting that family carefully read labels – forever!”
I don’t know anything about Kit McCoy. I don’t know if she understands what she did for us. I’ll say this: without Kit McCoy, and her compassion, we would have lost this moment, on our vacation three weeks later:
And more than that, I would have lost time, faith, and so much energy on recreating what we’d done all over again. Kit McCoy, wherever you are: you gave us time. You gave us space. You gave us hope.