Toby McAllister of 'Sparks the Rescue' Discusses his Peanut Allergy
Toby McAllister, a member of rock band "Sparks the Rescue," discusses living with a peanut allergy, gives advice to kids who have been bullied for food allergies, and shares how he deals with his allergy when traveling.
How old were you when you first got diagnosed with a peanut allergy?
I was probably about 4 years old, and my aunt gave me a saltine with peanut butter on it and I blew up like a balloon, so that’s how I found out.
How severe is your peanut allergy?
It’s about as severe as it gets. I have anaphylaxis, the whole throat-closing thing. I carry two EpiPens on me at all times. And I’m obviously a lot more used to it now; I don’t even really think about it. But it’s about as severe as it can get.
Did you have any precautions at school when you were younger?
At school we had a lot of precautions taken, not necessarily all of the stuff I wanted, but I had a section in the cafeteria. It was actually written on the wall – “peanut-free zone” – where I had to sit every day for lunch.
Also, my parents and a few other parents went to the school board and tried to make this petition asking parents to try not to pack stuff that contained peanuts. [The petition] wasn’t to ban all nut products from school – obviously, that’s not going to happen – but it was just as a friendly reminder that, hey, this kid has a peanut allergy.
And it got pretty gruesome for a while. A lot of the parents and a lot of the kids freaked out and felt they shouldn’t sacrifice the big picture of the class for one kid, and that’s when I started getting death threats and stuff. It just got completely out of hand.
A lot of people in our community have expressed that their children are getting bullied or threatened for having a peanut allergy. Is this something you ever had to deal with?
Yeah, there were a few times. Every room I had a class in there was a sign on the wall saying, “Please try to keep this a peanut-free room.” There were instances when kids knew I was coming in next, and they would grind up peanuts on the desk.
There was a TV above my table in the cafeteria, and it was always a little dusty and kids would write in the dust, “Apply peanut butter here,” and point to the table. And I was the only kid in the school with a peanut allergy, so I was pretty singled out. And then I got hangman drawings in my mailbox with peanut butter on it. It was just totally out of control! This was going on pretty much from seventh until 12th grade.
What advice do you have for kids who are being bullied?
I just tried to ignore it and not get too worked up about it, but looking back I wish I had. I just took it with a grain of salt. I didn’t really hang out with these kids; they were just being bullies, and there were a lot of bullies at our school. I just did my best to ignore it and continue on with my daily life and tried not to pay too much attention to it.
Has it gotten easier to cope with your allergy over time?
Yeah. I’m 26 now, so I don’t even really think about it. I’m very careful about it. I always have got my med tag on me, and if we go out to eat I always have to ask if I’m getting anything fried and what kind of oil they fry it in and if there’s any nuts in the kitchen. For the most part, restaurants are pretty helpful.
Have you ever had a really bad allergic reaction?
Thankfully I’ve been pretty lucky in that department. We would tour a lot in my band. One of the scariest moments was when we were on tour with the All-American Rejects in England and we were touring all over Europe. I couldn’t understand anybody, and we didn’t have a translator, so I didn’t know what any of the food was cooked in.
I remember there was this one time in England when we went out and ordered burgers and fries after the show, and I asked the guy, “What kind of oil do you fry it in?” And he was kind of giving me a hard time and he said, “I don’t know. Vegetable oil.” And I said “Okay, no problem.” And then I got the plate of fries and had the fry almost in my mouth and one of the guys comes running out of the kitchen with peanut oil screaming, “Don’t eat that! Don’t eat that!” I was just like, “Wow! I’m in the middle of a country where I don’t know anybody and I almost just ate something cooked in peanut oil.” It was pretty scary.
As part of a band, you inevitably have to travel extensively. How do you cope with your peanut allergy when traveling on planes?
Planes are tough. Sometimes they’re very understanding. A lot of times I’ll call ahead and say I have a peanut allergy and they’re really understanding and pretty cool about it. But there have been instances where they say kind of the same thing the school board said when I was in school. Like, you know we can’t really accommodate you for the sake of 150 people so we’ll just try not to serve peanuts in that row of seats. I just kind of have to bite the bullet and say okay.
Are your friends and bandmates understanding of your allergy?
Yeah they’re really cool about it. We don’t have anything in the van because we all take turns driving, and touching the steering wheel is a problem. They’re really good about it. There’s no nuts, no candy bars with nuts, nothing like that. And it’s tough because when you’re on tour, it’s cheap living. You gotta eat cheap, and most days people would just eat peanut butter and jelly or, for snacks, they’d eat trail mix, so if [my bandmates] ever get real crazy and want to go have a Reese’s they just make sure they eat it outside and wash their hands before they get back in the van.
Being in a band, you must eat out a lot. When at a restaurant, what measures do you take to protect yourself?
I usually just mention it to the waiter or waitress, and I just say, “I want to let you know that I have a severe allergy to all nuts, and I just want to know what kind of oil you fry your food in.” Or, at the very least, I want to make sure that the chef knows that I have an allergy. Normally, they’ve been pretty cool and there are times when they say, “We can’t guarantee anything.” I just think to myself, I know you can’t guarantee anything. I can’t guarantee that I won’t crash my car on the way home. But I’m just asking for a little help here.
What is your best piece of advice for parents of children with peanut allergies and for kids with food allergies?
For kids, just to be smart because there’s been a lot of times where I’ll get halfway down the road and I’ve left my EpiPen at home and I just keep going. And that’s not safe.
I’ve learned over the years you’re better off just being safe. You just have to make sure you take care of yourself. It’s a very scary thing. A lot of people who don’t live with it don’t realize that.
And my parents were always really supportive and always helped me. I think it’s just good for parents to be protective of their kids when they have something like this so it can teach them how to deal with it.