Child's allergy becomes research fodder for busy faculty member

Feb 27th, 2014

Marcia Porter

Karen Dobbin-Williams and son Ian
Child's allergy becomes research fodder for busy faculty member

Making cupcakes is a great way to spend time with children, and a favourite activity in the Dobbin-Williams household.

But for Karen Dobbin-Williams, a busy mom, assistant professor in the School of Nursing and a PhD student in the Faculty of Medicine's Community Health and Humanities program, it's more than fun family time.

When her youngest son Ian was diagnosed with a life-threatening food allergy to milk and milk products, it became a way to keep him safe, and healthy.

"Ian is not able to eat many other foods that are prepared in bakeries or factories because of cross-contamination with milk and milk products," says Karen, who is studying what it's like to parent youth and children who have life-threatening food allergies for her PhD topic.

Not only is it a relevant and timely research project for Karen; it's relevant for the times.

These days about 1.3 million Canadians have at least one food allergy, and more than 50 per cent of Canadians know someone who has a food allergy.

A Canadian study in 2012 found that about eight per cent of the student population had at least one food allergy.

It's a dramatic change from years ago, back in the days when peanut butter sandwiches were a lunchbox staple and you'd rarely see notes in school warning of severe allergies to peanuts, bananas, shellfish and a growing list of other foods.

Yet in spite of these increases, very little qualitative research is available that reflects the experiences of parents who have teens living with these life-threatening food allergies.

When Karen looked for the research, it simply wasn't there. So she decided to make it the subject of her PhD. She's in the first year of her PhD program. Her research is grounded in philosophical hermeneutics, a research approach that draws on the experience of the researcher and participants.

And Karen brings significant personal experience to her work.

Ian was just five-weeks-old when he suffered his first anaphylactic reaction to a small amount of formula. He was diagnosed from that early age with a life-threatening food allergy, but his parents knew almost right away after his birth that something was wrong because Ian would cry and become extremely irritable whenever he nursed.

Since then he's had several severe reactions, including one that saw Karen rushing through the doors of the Janeway Children's Hospital Emergency Department, holding a limp Iain in her arms.

"I almost dissolved on the floor," she said. "It can be scary sometimes."

Karen had administered Benadryl and Epinephrine immediately, but got stuck in traffic en route to hospital.

"I learned from that experience to give Epinephrine and call 911 so the ambulance can come right away."

But despite that frightening episode, managing life-threatening allergies can be easier in young children, because parents decide what to eat and when, and supply food for their child in school lunches, at birthday parties and family events.

Pushing for greater independence and feeling a strong need to fit in, teenagers can find themselves in situations beyond the control of their parents. It's a time of transition that can be rife with anxiety for parents of teens with life-threatening food allergies.

Karen's husband Greg, a junior high school teacher, says it's not unusual for students in this age group to leave epi-pens in their lockers, out-of-sight and out-of-reach.

"The immediate administration of epinephrine can mean the difference between life and death," says Karen. "Time is of the essence.

"When you have a child with a live-threatening food allergy, you are worrying...will he have his epi-pen with him, will he engage in risky behavior?"

Karen wants her research to have practical application, to help policy makers and parents alike identify resources and necessary supports.

"I would like my research to inform health practitioners about resources needed to help families," she says. "Nurses play a key role in helping families transition through living with allergies at various stages.

"There are no support groups here in Newfoundland and Labrador," says Karen. "There are no formal supports and that is something that nurses could influence."

She plans to begin her research interviews later this fall.

If you are parenting a child or youth with life-threatening allergies, and would like to share your story with Karen, you can contact her at or call her at 777-6756. She'll explain more about the study.


School of Nursing

230 Elizabeth Ave, St. John's, NL, CANADA, A1B 3X9

Postal Address: P.O. Box 4200, St. John's, NL, CANADA, A1C 5S7

Tel: (709) 864-8000