ROCKY MOUNT, N.C. — the freezer at the Summerlin house is packed to the last cubic inch with ground turkey.
It isn’t because the family finds the meat irresistible, but rather because turkey is one of the staples of 4-year-old Paxten’s diet – one of the few foods the child can safely eat.
Since he was born, Paxten’s parents said he has had approximately 15 allergic reactions to everything from cashews to apricots to milk and were a regular at Heritage Hospital’s emergency room.
Now, his parents are seeking canine help to prevent future hospital visits with the goal of raising $12,000 in an effort to buy a highly trained dog that will follow Paxten everywhere.
When he was only a few hours old, Paxten already was having allergic reactions to baby food, which evidenced themselves through watery eyes and a runny nose.
“With each reaction a person has, they just get worse and worse,” said Gray Summerlin, Paxten’s mother. “For about four or five months we thought it was cold, until he got older and would start breaking out in hives and having respiratory problems.”
Stricken with asthma in addition to severe food allergies, Gray said her son’s reactions grew worse and worse as he was introduced to more and more foods.
“He’s allergic to beef, pork, chicken, milk, eggs, potatoes, green peas, watermelon, apricots, peanuts and tree nuts,” she said. “I can remember four or five months later when the doctor suggested trying milk again. Five minutes after I had given him his bottle, he was throwing up across the living room.”
Gray said she and her husband didn’t feel the gravity of Paxten’s situation until they saw nothing on the shelves at Food Lion that was safe for their son.
After that, trips to the grocery store digressed into scanning the packages of every item bought, and Paxten’s parents still were wrought with uncertainty as to whether a new ingredient would trigger a reaction in Paxten’s body or he would suddenly become allergic to something he’s previously been impervious to.
“His diet consisted of homemade food, and that’s about it,” she said. “The only restaurant he can eat at is Chick-fil-A. He can only get a plain, char-grilled filet.”
Paxten’s pallet is akin to a vegan’s, she said.
In the early years, Gray said she and her husband, Kevin, were scared because they had no idea how to take care of Paxten.
“I’ve never been able to find a child that has as many allergies as him,” she said. “If we were up 24 hours a day, it would be a 24-hour-a-day job to watch him.”
Paxten can easily go into anaphylactic shock if he comes into contact with a food he’s allergic to, she said, which raises the severity of his reactions and necessitates an immediate response.
“When we go to a friend’s house, I’m constantly stalking him. When I’m at work, I stay on pins and needles because for so long, every phone call I received was about Pax going to the emergency room,” Gray said.
For a long time, she said she and Kevin hated meal time.
Asking themselves whether or not they would stay home from work to watch him or even home-school him instead of sending him to G.W. Bullock Elementary School, his parents opted to provide Paxten with a partner that would follow him religiously.
In the process of researching ways to make Paxten’s life easier, his mother found Florida Canine Academy online, an organization known for training dogs to sniff out bedbugs and allergens in food.
“I came across the allergy alert service dogs and thought it was just amazing,” she said. “Once we raise the money, they will begin to train the dog to Pax’s specific allergies. of course the dog will be hypo-allergenic, too.”
Serving almost the same role as a seeing eye dog, the new four-legged addition to the Summerlin house would be able to identify when cross-contamination cases occur, Gray said.
“That dog will be able to sniff it, and if there is something in there, it will know it. We can’t do that just by looking at Pax’s food,” Gray said.
Until the money can be raised, Paxten’s parents will continue to Clorox and disinfect his toys after other children have played with him, and continue to tote around a bag packed with an EpiPen, Benadryl and multiple breathing apparatuses.
“Paxten is legally disabled because of his allergies, and that dog will go to school and sit in his classroom with him every morning and make sure there is nothing in there that’s not supposed to be,” Gray said. “It will go to church and basically wherever we go.”
At church, baseball games and birthday parties, Gray said everybody knows not to give anything to Paxten.
“He’s like the mascot at the ball fields,” she said. “Everybody watches out for him, and everybody packs his kinds of snacks.”
He also can be spotted by the sign on his back that reads, “Don’t feed me.” she said their entire lifestyle will need to change again upon the dog’s arrival, because the same foods the dog is trained to sniff out will no longer be allowed in the house so as not to confuse it.
“By no means is Pax a hindrance to our lives whatsoever. We feel blessed to have him as our child, because God chose us as parents knowing that we could take care of him and protect him,” she said. “He’s very special to us.”
Kevin said he and his wife initially were worried mainly about what they were going to feed their child.
“We keep fish sticks, chicken sticks, chicken nuggets in the freezer, and turkey is kind of a substitute for hamburger,” Kevin said. “We don’t hardly keep ice cream or regular milk here because of the chances of it getting mixed up and him getting his hands on it.”
Now, he said Paxten has grown to the point where he will ask permission to eat certain foods, he said.
With Singulair, a pill that prevents asthma attacks, before bed every night, and a snack list limited to Skittles, Sweet Tarts, Pop Tarts and plain animal crackers, his father said a lot of people who don’t have allergies cannot understand how hard it is.
Every night, the Summerlins cook two suppers, he said.
“He’s got the best personality that you can ask for,” Kevin said. “A lot of people know him and know how important it is that he stays away from everything that he reacts to. anything people can do to help him would be a great benefit to us.”
In addition to a barbecue plate sale this past Thursday at Oakdale Baptist Church and an ongoing T-shirt sale, the Summerlins will hold a carnival in March and benefit gospel concert to raise money to bring in Paxten’s dog.
“There’s so much stuff out there that he can’t have – it’s just scary,” Kevin said.
The parents’ responsibility is to protect Paxten, and the dog will be born just for him, he said.
“Accidents happen, but Paxten can’t afford an accident,” Gray said. “That’s why we stay so alert and are constantly on our toes.”
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