DETROIT - Bill and Nancy Swink devoted their lives to protecting their son Chandler from his severe peanut allergy. Now, after Chandler's death, they're devoting their lives to spreading a message that the hope could help save others.
Chandler loved sports cars, was an avid swimmer and played lacrosse. His parents said he was popular at school and always had a lot of friends.
"He had a gift. He had a smile. He knew how to talk to people. He just loved being around people," Bill Swink said.
Chandler also had a level 6 peanut allergy, the most severe of its kind, that doctors discovered when he was 2 years old.
"If I could have changed everything, I would have in a heartbeat," Nancy Swink said. "We have no idea how he ended up with an allergy."
When their son started school, his vigilant parents did everything they could to make sure he was safe from peanut butter, peanut oil and peanut flour, and that he lived as close to a normal life as possible.
"I was the school baker for 12 years. I did all the baking for all the parties because I didn't want my son to feel left out. I wanted my son to fit in," Nancy Swink said.
Chandler's school went peanut-free for his sake, but that brought on a different challenge: bullying. Nancy Swink said people would put signs on her son's back that read, "Peanut boy."
"(They) ridiculed him, ridiculed our family … I think by the grace of God, the kid must have had the thickest skin that existed. He just kept saying, ‘Mom, don't let it bother you. It's OK,'" Nancy Swink said.
The bullying continued through high school, but Chandler's parents said he never complained.
"I know how deep down inside he hurt. He hurt from all those years, but he never, ever complained. I don't know how he did it. I honestly don't know how he did it," Nancy Swink said.
At 19, Chandler was studying nursing at Oakland University and found a new type of freedom.
"Nobody knew who he was. He wasn't labeled. He wasn't the peanut boy," Nancy Swink said.
While he was away from home, Chandler remained vigilant about his allergy. His parents said he always carried his EpiPen and Benadryl.
But on Nov. 19, 2014, his parents got a phone call from a hospital employee.
"They wouldn't tell us anything over the phone. They wouldn't tell us if it was a car accident or if he had gotten into a fight," Nancy Swink said.
The Swinks rushed to Saint Joseph Mercy Hospital in Pontiac. The first thing they saw was Chandler's car parked outside the emergency room doors.
They learned that Chandler had been with friends earlier that night at an off-campus apartment. At some point, he came in contact with peanut butter and told his friends that he felt sick.
Chandler used his EpiPen and drove himself to the hospital. He collapsed from cardiac arrest outside the hospital.
"You couldn't even recognize him. He was laid down and he had tubes coming out of his face. He had tubes coming out of his chest. He was just so bloated. The nurses looked at me like they had no idea what to say to me at that point," Bill Swink said.
Chandler spent more than a week in a coma.
"We did a lot of praying. I never left the hospital. I was in his room for an entire week," Nancy Swink said.
When brain scans revealed that Chandler's condition wasn't getting better, the family knew it was time to say their goodbyes.
"We had to let him go," Bill Swink said.
Chandler's parents said one of the hardest things they've had to deal with after their son's death is not knowing exactly what happened that led to his exposure to peanuts. Still, the family was flooded with support. Thousands of people showed up for Chandler's funeral and his university honored him with a certificate.
The family has made a promise to teach others about living with food allergies.
"This wasn't around 30 or 40 years ago. We need to find out why this is becoming so common now. And because it is becoming so common, along with wheat allergies, egg allergies, milk allergies. Those allergies are just as severe as a peanut or a tree nut allergy," Nancy Swink said.
The family not only wants to bring more awareness to how serious food allergies can be, but also fight for regulatory changes in food production.
"Something needs to be done, and people just don't get it, they don't understand it. And they think it's not going to affect them. In hindsight though, it's eventually going to catch up to everybody. And if you don't fix it now, it's just going to get worse and worse and worse," Bill Swink said.
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