Ethan Thompson has serve allergies. Even being near a peanut can cause the Ticonderoga student to go into anaphylaxis, a serious allergic reaction that can cause death. He is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish and other foods.
Ethan Thompson doesn’t consider himself as a pioneer, but the 13-year-old is paving the way for students with severe allergies at Ticonderoga Central School.
“It’s no big deal,” he said. “It’s just something I deal with.”
No big deal? Even being near a peanut can cause Ethan to go into anaphylaxis, a serious allergic reaction that can cause death. He is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish and other foods.
In a school full of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Ethan, literally, faces death every school day.
“It’s really hard,” Ursula Thompson, Ethan’s mother, said. “We’ve had a lot of ups and downs over the years. Ethan has missed out on a lot.”
Ethan was diagnosed with allergies when he was 18 months old and ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The reaction was immediate and serious.
“We knew right away,” Ursula recalled.
Since that day the family has taken every step possible to avoid peanuts and other foods that pose a risk to Ethan. That’s not as simple as it sounds. Peanut oil is used in a wide variety of products.
“We don’t eat any manufactured or processed foods,” Ursula said. “Ethan’s so sensitive that he’s even had reactions from cross contact.”
“If one of Ethan’s classmates eats peanut butter and uses a pencil, then Ethan later picks up that same pencil he’ll have a reaction,” Ursula said.
“He even has reactions to airborne peanuts,” she said. “We went to a Yankee (baseball) game and lasted about 10 minutes. Some people began to shuck peanuts near us and Ethan had a reaction. His eyes were swollen shut and he was covered with a rash head to toe before we got out of the stadium.”
Even family vacations are a challenge. Before flying, where peanuts are a common snack, the family must notify the airline of Ethan’s allergies so the plane can be cleaned and alternative snacks offered.
Other than the allergies, Ethan is a typical seventh grade student. He plays football, basketball and baseball. He likes video games and spending time with friends.
But to account for his allergies, accommodations must be made.
Ticonderoga Central School has developed a safety plan specifically for Ethan. The document states Ethan must have his own desk and chair cleaned before his arrival; that he have his own computer keyboard and mouse; he has his own art supplies; he has a specific allergy-free table in the school cafeteria; classmates and their parents must be alerted to Ethan’s condition; only allergen-free snacks are allowed in his classrooms; any equipment Ethan uses must be thoroughly cleaned before he arrives; teachers must be educated about Ethan’s allergies and how to respond in the event of a reaction; and more.
A separate policy was developed by Bob Sutphen, the school’s athletic director, when Ethan began playing sports this year. That policy bans food from all team settings — the locker room, bus and gym, each player must clean their hands before entering a team bus, and more.
“The school district has done a wonderful job,” Ursula said. “Mr. Sutphen has been a great advocate for Ethan. He makes sure Ethan is safe on bus trips. All the teachers and administrators have been wonderful.”
Joanne Bartlett, Ticonderoga Middle-Elementary School nurse, meets with Ethan’s teachers on a regular basis to make certain all safety protocols are in place.
“She does so much for Ethan,” Ursula said of Bartlett. “She makes certain school is a safe environment for Ethan.”
John McDonald, Ti school superintendent, said school officials appreciate the efforts of Ethan’s parents, Ursula and Carl.
“I give a lot of credit to Ursula and Carl,” McDonald said. “They’ve advocated for their son and other students and brought the dangers to our attention. I don’t know that we realized how severe the situation could be until we spoke to Ursula and Carl.
“They worked with us to develop a comprehensive policy,” he added. “We realized the school doesn’t have to be peanut free, but it needs to be peanut safe.
“I put myself in their shoes,” McDonald said of the Thompsons. “They send their son to school every day expecting him to be safe. All parents should be able to do that.”
That’s difficult for Ethan’s parents.
“I fear for Ethan’s life every day,” Ursula said. “Food is not a friend. All it takes is one mistake.”
Ethan’s allergies have also affected his social life. Before Ethan can visit a friend, those parents must be educated about the dangers he faces.
“It’s only been the last couple of years that we’ve allowed Ethan to visit friends. He’s missed a lot of birthday parties,” Ursula said. “We always have to call the parents and ask them to wipe down their counters, use paper plates, things like that. They need to know how to use the Epi-pen.”
An Epi-pen is an epinephrine autoinjector, a medical device used to deliver epinephrine to avoid or treat the onset of anaphylactic shock.
“We’ve been very blessed,” she added. “His classmates and their parents have been wonderful, very understanding. His friends know Ethan’s condition and they know not to eat things like candy bars with nuts near him.”
Ethan said his friends understand.
“They don’t really care,” he said. “It’s no big deal to them.”
Allergies, especially peanut allergies, seem to be increasing in the United States. There are 15 million people with food allergies in the U.S., according to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network. The prevalence of peanut allergy among children tripled between 1997 and 2008.
McDonald said while Ethan is the first Ti student with severe allergies, there are several more in the elementary school. The school’s experience with Ethan has allowed the district to adjust and prepare for the other students.
“We never dealt with this 5-10 years ago,” McDonald said, “but food allergies seem to be more common. It’s important we do all we can to make our students safe.”
Ethan’s mother hopes his story will help raise awareness and help other families.
“It really means so much to me to get Ethan’s story out, to educate our communities, to advocate for these children and to acknowledge the severity of food allergies,” Ursula said. “Ethan has and will continue to face many obstacles. Everyday I'm amazed by his strength and courage. He is my hero.”