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Food allergy forces Cary family to make big changes

After her oldest child's diagnosis with food allergies, Nicki Bhandaru had to make some big changes in her life. Now Nisha, 14, is honorary youth chair for the FAAN Walk for Food Allergy next month.

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Sarah Lindenfeld Hall

As a baby, Nisha Bhandaru had severe eczema. She threw up daily and had trouble sleeping. By the time she was coordinated enough with her arms, she couldn't stop scratching, remembers mom Nicki Bhandaru of her oldest child.

Nicki read somewhere that eczema can be related to food allergies. So when her daughter was two, she had her tested for allergies. It turns out Nisha had plenty of them. She was allergic to everything from milk, soy, eggs, peanuts and tree nuts to cats, dogs, dust mites and feathers.

Nisha, now 14 and the local honorary youth chair for the FAAN Walk for Food Allergy in Cary next month, is able to eat some of those things, including dairy and soy. But the diagnosis forced her parents to make some major changes in their lives.

The couple, of Indian descent, were 100 percent vegetarian and had planned to raise their children that way. But with so few options for protein, they decided to feed Nisha chicken and turkey. Nisha also isn't able to eat many of the dishes, including curries, that are popular in the Indian cuisine. The couple has two more children - a daughter with several allergies and a son with no allergies.

"Nisha was an amazing advocate for herself at a very young age," Nicki tells me. "She could read at age two and would read ingredient labels to make sure that foods were safe for her."

Nisha, now a bright sophomore at Panther Creek High School, remains allergic to sesame, chick peas, kiwi, fenugreek, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts and peas. She totes EpiPens and other medications with her in case of allergic reactions.

As youth chair, Nisha's goal is to educate people about the seriousness of food allergies. She's particularly focused on making sure restaurant waiters and managers are familiar with all kinds of allergens - not just the top ones. Nisha, for instance, is highly allergic to sesame, a common ingredient at restaurants, but restaurant staff often don't know whether dishes include it.

"I want to help others in dealing with the frustration of not being able to eat the same things as their friends," Nisha wrote in an essay when she applied to be the youth chair. "I know how it feels when you want to eat something but the food labels are not available. ... There are more and more people being diagnosed with food allergies everyday and ultimately with a strong awareness program those who suffer food allergies will feel better about their lives."

The annual Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network's Walk for Food Allergy starts at 9 a.m., Nov. 5, at Koka Booth Amphitheatre in Cary. The 1.5-mile walk is a fundraiser for the national nonprofit, which uses the money raised for its awareness, advocacy, education, and research programs.

Click here to learn more about the walk and how you can get involved. NC FACES (Food Allergic Children Excelling Safely), a Triangle-area volunteer support group that provides a social and emotional support network for families dealing with food allergies, is part of the event. It's a great group with lots of activities and programs for families in the region throughout the year.
Hear from Nicki and Nisha in the video.
Go Ask Mom features local moms on the site every Monday (but today we happen to feature a mom and daughter duo).

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