April 7, 2013

Three peanuts a day keep the doctor away


---- — MORRISONVILLE — Tammy Ellis and Matt Bilow chose to send their son to Seton Academy because the school is close to CVPH Medical Center.

Exposure to foods containing peanut products — or even made in a factory that contained peanut products — could have resulted in little Nick Bilow’s death.

Nick, 6, now eats three Peanut M&Ms a day, as part of a treatment that has changed his life.


At age 21/2, Nick had an anaphylactic reaction to a peanut butter cup; Tammy rushed him to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with bronchitis, but she knew that was not right.

So she and Matt took him to an allergist who gave Nick his first radioallergosorbent, or RAST, test. The blood test showed he had a peanut allergy at 75 IgE, putting him at a level 5 RAST test rating out of 6.

Tammy said any result higher than 12 IgE means the person is severely allergic.

“I was so scared to feed to him,” she said. 

She researched what was safe and what wasn’t, cleared her cupboards of any foods that might make her son stop breathing.

Those many “illegal foods,” as the family dubbed them, were not allowed in the house.

Fortunately, by law, food labels must say whether the ingredients include peanuts or if the product might have been exposed to peanuts in manufacturing.

At lunchtime at school, Nick said, “I had to sit at the peanut-free table.”

And his mother worried every day while he was out of her sight.


Nick’s allergist, Dr. Edward Kent Jr. at Timberlane Allergy and Asthma Associates in South Burlington, told Nick’s family about the peanut desensitization program at the New England Food Allergy Center in West Hartford, Conn.

Tammy very much wanted Nick’s life to be more normal, which wouldn’t happen unless his allergy went away.

So Nick began the treatment in February 2012; at first, he had to travel to Hartford every other week.

Each time he went, the doctors would increase the amount of peanut flour he would ingest daily. Tammy said the starting dose was 0.05 mg, about the size of a single grain of salt.

Tammy put some water in each dose to make it more like paste and add it to yogurt. 

Nick never had a bad reaction, she said, though the 6-mg dosage resulted in mild stomach cramps that allergy medicine cured.


As of last August, when Nick graduated from the program, his RAST test results dropped to 35 IgE; the latest results were 18.5.

“My son is proof that it’s working,” Tammy said.

And it has worked so well that Nick has been invited to take a food challenge at the Allergy Center, to see just what foods he can tolerate.

But his parents aren’t so sure they’re ready for the kind of test that might have him eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

“It’s up in the air,” Tammy said. “We conquered what we wanted to conquer.”


But because of the desensitizing, Nick can now be around peanut products and can even eat foods that have been produced in a factory that produces other foods that have peanuts in them.

If by accident he were to ingest peanut products, the effects would be nothing that over-the-counter allergy medicine could not alleviate.

Tammy said Nick strove to graduate so he could sit with more of his friends during lunch.

And now, he can eat cupcakes with the other kids at school parties. Before, his mom said, they had to provide his own special stash of snacks for those occasions.

“It (program) has changed our life a lot,” his mother said. “It has made my life and his life so much easier.”

She said they have even gone to Texas Roadhouse for dinner twice, and the “illegal foods” in the house have been changed to “legal foods.”

This Easter was the first one that the Easter Bunny could fill baskets for Nick and his sister, Brooke Bilow, 3, with all sorts of candy.

“It was kind of a big joke around here,” Tammy said. 

They would say to Nick, “I wonder if the Easter bunny knows you can have that kind of chocolate ...”

And the bunny did know, Nick said, describing the delicious Nestle’s Crunch Bar he got in his basket.

Tammy and Matt had Brooke tested for allergies early on — she’s been just fine.


Tammy said the program cost $5,000; insurance didn’t cover any of it at the time.

“(But) my kid doesn’t have a price tag,” she said.

She said family support has been invaluable; her mother, Debbie Ellis, and Nick’s other grandparents, Jack and Peg Bilow, have shared the cost with them.

Tammy wants to spread the word to other families who may have a child with a life-threatening peanut allergy.

She would welcome emails from anyone who would like to know more about Nick’s experience. 

Reach her at