A Cookie Took My Son's Life: The Real Danger of Nut Allergies

With the start of a new school year, many parents will receive letters from their child’s school regarding nut allergies.

Some will complain about how sharing a classroom with an allergic child will affect their child—no more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, no apple slices with peanut butter for afternoon snack. In more extreme cases, the warnings will be blatantly ignored.

I, too, once thought of food allergies as media hype generated by overprotective parents. Then I learned of their danger firsthand when a cookie took the life of my son.

My wife and I first learned of our son Jharell’s nut allergy when he was a toddler. As our firstborn, we thought his body’s reaction to certain foods was just a phase. After a particularly strong reaction to peanut butter, we took him to the pediatrician and he was diagnosed with a severe nut allergy.

We spent the next few years on pins and needles. Through research, we learned that sometimes just handling or breathing in a nut-based product can trigger a reaction.

We carefully reviewed and re-reviewed labels before bringing any food items into our home. When dining out, we only visited familiar places where we were comfortable with the menus and were well versed in their habits of food preparation.

As a parent, you’ll always worry. But by the time Jharell was in high school, our cautiousness had eased a bit. We weren't desensitized to the lurking danger, but we were confident we had it under control. Jharell was not just careful, he was very careful. He was so responsible and respectful of his allergy, in fact, that he carried an emergency injection of epinephrine, or an EpiPen.

At the start of Jharell’s junior year at Central Gwinnett High School, my wife, daughters and I looked forward to another season of watching Jharell play basketball. He shined on the court, and coaching him is one of my proudest achievements.

Shortly into the start of that school year, Jharell was running errands with his mom and aunt when he got hungry. Those of you who have a teenage son know all about those teenage hunger strikes. You can feed them three steaks for breakfast, but they’re starving a few hours later.

Jharell remembered receiving a small bag of cookies. Those cookies, he had been told, did not contain nuts.

What happened in the next few minutes changed our lives forever.

Simply put, those cookies did contain nuts. His tongue began to swell, and he began to experience difficulty breathing. He ran to a nearby retail outlet, rinsed out his mouth in a bathroom sink and took an over-the-counter allergy medication. But the damaging process had already begun.

Jharell lost consciousness and his brain suffered irreversible damage from anaphylactic shock. I’ll never forget the call from my wife saying Jharell was getting airlifted on a life flight to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. The next few hours, days and months are a blur. We endured a lifetime of pain in just a few hours.

"We made the decision to donate his organs and vowed to do all we can to prevent another family from experiencing our pain."

Every year, 150 to 200 people die in the U.S. from food allergies. Many of those deaths occur in schools.

Through the Jharell R. Dillard Anaphylaxis Awareness Foundation, we’re on a mission to change that by educating families. In the words of Ben Franklin, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Food allergies aren’t just hype. They’re real, and they’re dangerous. As the parent of a child with a food allergy, you worry every moment of every day when he’s not with you.

So if you’re asked to not send your child to school with nut-containing products … don’t. And if you aren't 100 percent confident that a food product you've made or purchased does not contain nut byproducts ... don't assume.

Through organ donation, Jharell saved seven lives. Through education, there’s no telling how many more we can save.