Luke Sullivan was only five years old when he ate a tiny chocolate containing peanut flour and suffered a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction. He was rushed to hospital. His family did not know he was severely allergic to peanuts. His mother said it was terrifying.
“He kept saying, ‘Mom, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” Luke’s mother Grace Sullivan told Global News. “It’s something no Mom should ever see, because it’s something you’ll never ever forget.”
He’s now 14. Luke and his family are diligent about what he eats and keeping him safe.
“It is stressful. Every day is stressful. Every day we think about what he eats, what he touches, who he’s around, where he goes,” Grace said .
To minimize the risk, Luke had never been on an airplane – too afraid to fly. That all changed in December. He and his family booked a Caribbean cruise which meant a flight from Toronto to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
So the family took 13 auto-injectors filled with the life-saving drug epinephrine with them. Luke carried them in his backpack.
“The moment I got into my seat my Dad wiped everything down for me and placed a towel on the seat for me and he notified the people behind, in front, and beside us of my peanut allergy. It was really scary,” Luke said.
Luke said he realized many others with life-threatening food allergies are grounded due to fear. So he launched an online petition, asking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to remove “peanuts/nuts from airlines.”
“It’s a life or death situation…it’s important that people don’t bring out their peanuts and nuts,” Luke said.
Global News contacted the prime minister’s office, deputy director of communications, Olivier Duchesneau, provided a statement:
“We can reassure Mr. Sullivan that the Government of Canada is already looking into this matter. We also want to take the opportunity to thank him for raising this issue. The Canadian Transportation Agency was tasked with examining the risks to air travelers with potentially life-threatening allergies. They will provide the Minister of Transport with their findings next spring and Minister Garneau will carefully review them and follow up appropriately.”
Right now airlines follow different protocols regarding severe food allergies like peanuts. Some airlines create a buffer zone for allergic passengers – some make on board announcements that a passenger has a severe food allergy, but other airlines still serve food containing peanuts or tree nuts – and passengers bring their own.
“It’s kind of brutal we didn’t choose to have an allergy,’ said Luke, “It just happened. It’s not fair that a small bit of the population can’t travel and explore the world.”
Beatrice Povolo, director of marketing and communications for Food Allergy Canada said it is concerning for those with severe allergies being in the air far away from medical help if required. Food Allergy Canada hopes a consistent policy can be introduced and recommends training for airline staff and on board epinephrine.
“Managing food allergies is something that is ultimately the responsibility of the individual at risk and their family,” Povolo told Global News. “So in a scenario like this on board an airplane, there could situations where other passengers are asked to refrain from eating certain things like peanuts or nuts because there is someone around them that has a food allergy. We would look for the support of the community in order to help support those with food allergies as well.”
She added more research is needed looking specifically at risks.
“I think really understanding the risks aboard an aircraft is key to this scenario, and there has been limited research that has been done specifically on this issue. We would like to see more to really truly understand what the risks are for passengers,” said Povolo.
According to Food Allergy Canada, close to 2.5 million Canadians have at least one food allergy. Peanut allergy in Canada affects two in 100 children. About 300,000 Canadian children under 18 years have food allergies.
Luke’s petition is not the first, the Canadian Anaphylaxis Initiative launched a petition in 2014 asking the federal government to “Enact a Policy to Reduce the Risk for Anaphylactic Passengers.” According to the group its petition is part of a governmental review. The group has worked with Ottawa on raising awareness about anaphylaxis since 2009. Debbie Bruce, director of the Canadian Anaphylaxis Initiative and a mother of two sons with life-threatening allergies knows no environment can be risk-free but hopes risks on board planes can be significantly reduced.
As for the Sullivan family, they informed passengers around them, creating their own version of a buffer zone. Luke’s mother Grace said when they told the passengers about Luke’s life-threatening allergy the passengers were “respectful and considerate.”
Luke plans to keep fighting and hopes others will sign his petition to make the skies safe for everyone.
“You can last a few hours without your peanuts and stuff … I’d just like to reduce the risk.”