Ariella Nelson grew up reading the labels on boxed cake mix at friends’ houses, asking waiters to double-check the ingredients in dishes, and carrying an EpiPen in a special sparkly gold or neon green belt, for fear of accidentally consuming a tree nut. Doing so could lead to face swelling, tingling in the throat, stomach cramps, or even anaphylaxis, a life-threatening reaction that can cause the
airways to swell and make breathing impossible.
“My friends were really supportive, but it was difficult for me to be at a party where I couldn’t have the foods other kids were having,” the Mercer Island teen says. “I would have ice cream at home or Hershey’s Kisses or something else instead.”
When she was a freshman, Nelson — now a senior at Lakeside School — had a particularly bad reaction to cookies at a brunch that the host believed didn’t have nuts. After that, her family enrolled her in an experimental immunotherapy study at Stanford University. It started with consuming minuscule amounts of nut flour — the size of the tip of a toothpick — and progressed to eating four nuts a day, a protocol she has to follow indefinitely. Now, if Nelson is accidentally exposed to a nut, the likelihood of a bad reaction is reduced.
After Nelson made a video about her experience with the study, which won second prize in the National Parent Teacher Association’s Reflections contest, she wanted to share her story about coping with the allergy and finding help for it with a younger audience. That led her to write and illustrate a children’s book, What’s in this Cookie? (Hedgehog Graphics, 2019), available online and at Island Books.
“In the last few years, nut allergies have increased a lot, and so most people who have these allergies are young kids,” she says.
Nelson is donating the proceeds from her book to the nonprofit Food Allergy Research & Education. “They’re doing the kind of research that will continue these types of trials that I participated in,” she says. “I’m just one data point. It’s really cool to see all the different things that they’re trying.”
She hopes that by sharing her story, she can help other children who know what it’s like to sit at the nut-free table in the cafeteria or visit the emergency room on vacation. “I didn’t really know that studies like these existed — I thought they were so far in the future,” Nelson says. “I wanted to tell kids, ‘Hey, it is possible for this to get better, and even if you don’t end up in one of these studies, it’s totally manageable to live with an allergy.’”