Imagine a world without baseball games, without movie theaters, without certain restaurants, without circuses. Imagine living in a state of constant fear. That world was Westwood Elementary second-grader Michael Richards’ reality from the time he was a baby. It was not until after his first birthday that Michael’s parents discovered their son had been born with a life-threatening peanut allergy.
“Back then, [doctors] said ‘no peanut butter’ until they turn one. I was a rule-follower and I waited. After he turned one, I gave him a tiny bite of a peanut butter sandwich,” Rachel Richards, Michael’s mother, said. “Within seconds, he had hives and was vomiting. I was a first-time mom, and I was clueless about peanut allergies. [My husband and I] thought maybe he had a virus. I gave him Benadryl and that helped calm things down. A few weeks later, we tried giving him peanut butter again, and again, it was an immediate reaction.”
After the second reaction, Michael’s parents took him to an allergist. Tests came back showing Michael was “highly allergic” to peanuts.
“We got an EpiPen that we carried with us constantly and we entered protection mode: guard up 24/7,” R. Richards said.
The family had to alter its lifestyle, knowing each additional exposure to peanuts would cause Michael to have a more severe reaction than the last. Anywhere peanuts could be (including in the air), the family avoided. Despite their best efforts, R. Richards and her husband could not protect Michael from everything. When he was just three years old, Michael had a really close call.
“We’d go to the allergist about every six-months to having testing done. The allergist did a test to see where he was, and we got a false-positive,” R. Richards said. “My husband thought God had healed him, so he gave him a bite of a peanut butter cookie and we were immediately calling 911. To this day, we don’t know what happened with that test.”
That incident only instilled more fear into the hearts of the Richards family, especially when it came to Michael entering public school.
“Before he entered kindergarten, it was February and I was having panic attacks all the time,” R. Richards said. “I was full of so much fear.”
R. Richards decided to call Westwood to explain her situation.
“I had never even stepped foot in Westwood. I needed to go see it, I needed to talk to someone, so I did,” R. Richards said. “Lee [Whitlock] called me and met with me for at least an hour, showed me the whole school, everything that would pertain to Michael, and how we would set up a 504 plan to make sure he was protected at all times. When I arrived, I was full of fear, but when I left, I was excited for Michael to go to school.”
The next Fall, Michael started kindergarten at Westwood.
“Whenever I first saw Westwood, I thought ‘Oh no! This is huge! It’s like a mansion!’” Michael said. “Then, when Nurse [Laura] Migl showed me around, I thought ‘Hmm, this is a good place.’ Then, I met nice teachers and it made me want to go [to Westwood] every day.”
During the Spring of Michael’s kindergarten year, R. Richards and her husband learned about oral immunotherapy (OIT), a break-through allergy treatment where patients are administered tiny portions of food allergens until the patient is desensitized to the allergen.
At the time, no one in Houston did OIT, so the Richards family would go to Dallas once a week for treatments. After doing this for 10 months, Michael officially “graduated” from his peanut allergy and became completely peanut-tolerant.
“After I graduated, we went to the store and bought a big container of Peanut Butter Cups,” Michael said. “I was excited. I can now eat whatever I want.”
In celebration of Michael’s accomplishment, Assistant Principal Whitlock threw Michael a “peanut party” in his office, showing how loved and supported Michael was by his new Westwood family.
In all of the great celebrations, perhaps Michael’s favorite was when he got to attend an Astros game.
“That was a big moment,” R. Richards said with tears in her eyes. “I give God the glory for Michael being able to overcome so much. He has freedom and he’s going to be able to go on and do whatever he wants to do.”
Michael’s teachers all believe in him too, noting his kindness and inclusivity will take him far.
“He’s got the whole world ahead of him,” Amber Collins said. “He is kind, he is smart, he is not allergic to peanuts. Whatever he wants to do in life is his.”
With newfound confidence, Michael is sure to find success. Starting life with many limitations, Michael has proven how anyone has overcome adversity and be limitless.