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An allergy almost killed her son. Now she’s trying to change Mass. law

Tripp Hollister at the Patriots’ Super Bowl parade.
Tripp Hollister at the Patriots’ Super Bowl parade.

Last year during Super Bowl Sunday, Nicole Arpiarian experienced every parent’s worst nightmare: She watched her child almost die.

Arpiarian was enjoying a post-church brunch with her family at a Harvard Square restaurant. Her then-12-year-old son, Tripp Hollister, ordered a special menu item — a fruit-filled pastry. Eating out is hard for Tripp. He has a severe peanut allergy. But the family tries to live as normally as possible, communicating Tripp’s allergy with servers and always carrying an EpiPen.

In part, the family is buoyed by Massachusetts’ already strong food allergy law. The state is a forerunner in awareness, having passed a law in 2009 championed by chef Ming Tsai, whose son suffers from food allergies. Among other stipulations, the law states that restaurants must place general information about food allergies in kitchens; requires menus to include a statement that a customer should inform wait staff of any food allergy issues; and requires standard food service courses, including the viewing of an approved food allergy video.

But on Super Bowl Sunday, it wasn’t enough. The family told their server about Tripp’s allergy, who assured them that the pastry was filled with strawberries.

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“She told us, ‘We don’t use peanuts here,’ ” says Arpiarian. She reassured Arpiarian that the pastry was safe, and she wrote out the allergy on the ordering ticket.

Arpiarian was delighted. She felt heard.

“We always say no to pastries. They’re usually the most dangerous,” she says.

The dish arrived coated in powdered sugar, and Tripp took a bite. Arpiarian was busy chatting — until her daughter, Tripp’s sister, poked her.

“Finally, my daughter punched me. I looked over, and Tripp was in the booth, holding his throat as if he were choking. He yelled, ‘I ate peanut butter! I ate peanut butter!’ ”

Arpiarian tried to reassure him until she saw a telltale dark goo oozing onto his plate. Surely it was apple, right? No. It was peanut butter.

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Her son’s throat began to close. An anxious kid by nature, Tripp began to panic, gasping for air as her husband fished for their EpiPen and Arpiarian tried to calm him down.

They called 911 while a manager waited with them on the sidewalk.

Suffering from an anaphylactic reaction, Tripp was transferred to Cambridge Hospital for stabilization — but he went downhill, covered in hives, unable to speak. He was transferred to Massachusetts General Hospital’s pediatric intensive care unit for further monitoring.

“When it’s your child, you just want to take their problem away and solve it,” she says.

And so she is, by crusading to build upon Massachusetts’ current allergy law.

Over the past year, she worked with state Senator Cindy Creem, a sponsor of the original legislation, to file the Act to Improve Food Allergy Awareness. The bill was filed in January and requires a server or another individual who is knowledgeable about relevant issues concerning food allergies as they relate to food preparation to coordinate food service and preparation for customers with identified food allergies. Essentially, this person would serve as a liaison between a customer and kitchen staff, averting miscommunication.

“Humans make mistakes. The more you train, the less you have mistakes. The better and more efficient the system, the less you have mistakes,” says Tsai.

Creem has a personal connection to Arpiarian, because she has a sister with food allergies and has seen how difficult it is for her to dine out safely.

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“There are still people who are unaware of the serious side effects of [food allergies]. When you talk about having a peanut allergy, you don’t just have a hive. You could die,” Creem says.

Arpiarian — a Sudbury resident who runs a home health care agency with her sisters — says that she’s naïve in the ways of politics and legislation. But persistence helped.

“There’s always Google. I Googled everything! Maybe it’s corny. I’m not perfect, but I feel that if you’re a good person, people are there to help you,” she says.

People such as Dr. Michael Pistiner, director of food allergy advocacy, education and prevention at MassGeneral Hospital for Children’s Food Allergy Center. Arpiarian consulted with Pistiner while pitching her bill.

“Massachusetts is ahead of the curve as far as food allergy awareness goes in eating establishments, but as with anything, there are improvements that can be made. This amendment will help improve communication and staff awareness without being overly burdensome on the restaurant industry,” he says. “It closes the loop on communication.”

Another supporter is Janet C. Hanson, board president of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of New England and the founder of Educating for Food Allergies, a consulting group for families with food allergies.

“What’s great about SD680 is that it’s building on our existing law. It speaks very well for how our government works — it’s the best of government at work,” says Hanson. “We know that 15 million Americans have some type of food allergy, and 5.9 million are children. We know that every three minutes, a food allergy sends someone to the emergency room. It takes an infinitesimal amount of [food] to cause a severe allergic reaction and anaphylaxis. More than 170 foods can cause reactions,” she says.

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Arpiarian hopes that those numbers will change if her bill passes into law. She’s still amazed that she was able to effectuate change as an ordinary person without political connections, spreading her message through e-mails to family and friends, cold-calling stakeholders and notables like Tsai, and sometimes waiting months for meetings. It was worth it, although the bill, if passed, wouldn’t be implemented for another two years.

She’ll wait.

“I’m a mother. I don’t know politics,” Arpiarian says. “I’m winging it — but it’s been effective because whomever I talk to hears my story and knows it’s coming from the right place. I’m not going to raise my kid to be scared. You can’t live in a hole because you have a disability.”

Tripp certainly doesn’t. Last week, he was in Boston for the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory parade.


Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.