From Despair to Hope

By Katie Vloet
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The roads were icy the evening that Chandler Swink was leaving a friend’s apartment in November 2014. He texted his mom to make sure she knew he was okay, and she texted back to ask him to stay at the friend’s place.

Nancy Swink would learn later that 19-year-old Chandler came into contact with some kind of peanut, peanut product, or cross-contamination at the friend’s house, used his EpiPen, and drove himself to a nearby hospital. “I’m sure he didn’t tell me because he didn’t want to worry me,” she recalls. And, presumably, he thought he would be okay with medical treatment.

But Chandler had a level six (the most severe) peanut allergy, first diagnosed at age 2. He was found unconscious in the parking lot of a Pontiac, Mich., hospital, and he never regained consciousness. He died a week later from the effects of the allergy attack: anaphylactic shock, asthma attack, and cardiac arrest.

Now, three years after Chandler’s death, a series of fortuitous meetings has led to the creation of a professorship at Michigan Medicine in his name. Mary H. Weiser — namesake, advocate, and founder of the Food Allergy Center at the University of Michigan — had met Nancy Swink at an annual food allergy event and learned about Chandler. Meanwhile, a generous anonymous donor whose family is affected by food allergy was in the process of giving $1.25 million to the Mary H. Weiser Food Allergy Center. The gift was at the named-professorship level — but, of course, an anonymous donor would not want his or her name on the professorship.

So Weiser connected the dots, leading to the creation of the William Chandler Swink Research Professorship. “It just seemed like divine intervention,” Weiser says of the donor and the Swink family being brought together. “It also shows just what a broad tent we have at the Food Allergy Center. Chandler wasn’t a student from the University of Michigan, the donor wasn’t from Michigan — but because we have this great center, we are able to bring people together from around the country to try to develop new cures for food allergies.”

Swink Family
Chandler Swink and his family

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The huge spike in food allergy diagnoses between 1997 and 2008 — in which the prevalence of peanut or tree nut allergies more than tripled in the United States, according to Food Allergy Research & Education — came years after Chandler was first diagnosed. For most of his life, he and his family navigated a world that was not friendly or particularly accommodating to a child with a severe food allergy, facing everything from ambivalence to hostility. Representatives of a school district even told the Swinks that the necessary accommodations could not be made for Chandler and that the family should homeschool him or send him to a private school instead. “We hardly had any friends,” Nancy Swink recalls. “It was very lonely.”

College marked a new beginning for Chandler. He was given a full academic scholarship to Oakland University, and he was studying to become a nurse. “In college, he was able to start a new life. He was the happiest kid around,” she says. “He touched so many lives.” Indeed, more than 1,500 people attended his funeral.

Although parents today may be more willing to host a peanut-free birthday party to accommodate a guest, and many schools have peanut- and tree nut-free classrooms or entire buildings, there is always that uncertainty, that risk. Mary Weiser, herself an “allergy mom,” is familiar with that anxiety. “I want my kids to have the same opportunities that everyone wants for their children, and I know that in some ways, their lives will always be different,” she says. “As their parent, I am committed to helping make their lives better and as an advocate I’m also committed to improving the lives of the 15 million Americans who suffer from food allergies.”

James R. Baker Jr., M.D., the founding director of the Mary H. Weiser Food Allergy Center, says the William Chandler Swink Research Professorship will help his team recruit a top researcher. “We hope to attract someone who has done excellent research in a related field. We can bring them in, direct them toward food allergy, and they can really make a difference in this area,” says Baker, the Ruth Dow Doan Professor of Biologic Nanotechnology.

Baker refers to food allergies as an “unforeseen epidemic,” adding that one in every 12 kindergarteners in the U.S., or two kids in each class, is afflicted. Understanding the reasons for the surge — as well as the best way to treat food allergies — is a work in process. But Baker believes the new professorship will lead to important developments.

“Chandler was a very smart young man. He wanted to be a nurse, to help people,” Baker says. “I can’t think of anything that’s more reflective of his desires than to bring in a researcher who will investigate and find data about food allergies.”

For Chandler’s family, the professorship already has made a difference. Says Nancy Swink: “We have always wanted some good to come out of our tragedy. We are so happy and honored that Chandler’s name will live on.”