Monday, August 27, 2007

K.D., Food Allergy Warrior Princess

Much to my son’s surprise, he survived his first week of third grade. What’s more, he didn’t get sent to the principal’s office! I was relieved.

The first day had an interesting element to it, however. My son’s best friend is also food-allergic (to milk, eggs, nuts, and seafood), and they are in the same classroom. This is fortunate, because the friend’s mom, Kim, is also one of my best friends, and this means we can share all the classroom food issues that come up.

The first issue came up surprisingly fast.

After lunch, all the kids started coming back into the classroom before the teacher returned. One girl brought in her little carton of milk from lunch. Now, the school policy is that no food leaves the cafeteria. This is partly for food allergies, but also (perhaps mostly) to keep the carpets clean.

There’s another girl in the class, K.D., who has been a best buddy of my son and the other allergic boy since they were all about 18 months old. She’s grown up understanding food allergies nearly as well as either of the boys, and the three of them have been through thick and thin together. She and my son have always acted like siblings – they are both strong-willed, opinionated, determined to be the leader, and unwilling to back down. In other words, brother and sister in all but blood, and they’ve weathered the fights to prove it (and the teacher has already told them they can’t sit together anymore). But despite that, each of the three of them will defend the other to the death, if need be, and woe be to the person who tries to lay a finger on any of the Three Musketeers.

Guess what happened when the unsuspecting student brought the milk into the classroom. As both boys were apparently looking worried and trying to figure out what to do, their female champion tackled the problem headlong. She began chewing out the hapless milk-girl, telling her she couldn’t have milk in the classroom, demanding that she remove it and go wash her hands, and telling her the damage she could cause the stunned boys. The other girl tried to argue, but she was up against a master.

By the time the teacher returned, it was all over, and none of the kids even thought to tell her about it.

After school, Kim noticed a tell-tale itchy spot near her son’s eye, and the boys reluctantly told us about the confrontation. Kim and I asked both boys what they did while their BFF defended them. They admitted they didn’t do anything. In fact, it was clear they were both intimidated. “Why didn’t you do something?” we both asked, aghast. What had happened to all our counseling about standing up for themselves and letting an adult know when there was a dangerous situation? My son has never been one to back down from a confrontation, and certainly he’s never been shy about informing people of his allergies.

“It was girl talk… a girl argument,” he said, as if that explained it all. “I was staying out of that.” His friend agreed. It was obvious that both boys thought Kim and I were nuts if we expected them to get in between two girls having an argument. Besides, they knew their friend had the situation in hand, and if they tried to jump in, they’d just get hit by nasty female crossfire.

I know adult men who haven’t figured out that lesson yet – proof that our boys are above average in the smarts department, if you ask me.

After Kim and I sputtered maternally for a few minutes about how they need to be responsible for themselves and they can’t rely on their friend to handle every situation, we backed off. After all, an amazing thing had happened that day. Kim and I realized that we aren’t our sons’ only protectors. There are other people in this world who care about them enough to protect them.

They’re called friends.

And even if they’re only 8 years old, they make a huge difference in our lives. And we can’t thank them enough.

Thank you, K.D. We love you.

Monday, August 20, 2007

In a Cooler World

“In a cooler world, I’d be allergic to school,” says my 8-year-old son.

Alas for him, he’s not allergic to school, and today is his first day of third grade. The first day is always a tad traumatic. First, there’s the annual “Dragging him bodily out of bed” ritual, because despite our good intentions we let bedtime slide the last few weeks, and now he’s used to sleeping in.

Second comes the lively “No you can’t watch cartoons, you’ve got to get dressed” debate – a perennial favorite.

Third, of course, is the “Oh, no, look at the clock, we’re going to be late!” dance, which no back-to-school morning is complete without.

Then, once we get to school, I’ve got a whole additional set of annual kick-off traditions, including reminding his new teachers about his food allergies, visiting the lunch lady to make sure she’s got the allergy table set up for all the allergy kids, and asking the principal for a time to demonstrate EpiPen usage to the new staff.

For some of you, those last three annual routines may be really challenging. I am lucky -- I love my son’s school because the administration and staff have been understanding about food allergies since day one. One of the reasons I worked to get my son into this school (it’s a charter school) is because the school has a policy of not allowing food (in other words, candy) to be used as rewards in the classroom. That wasn’t because of food allergies – it’s because we Americans have gotten into the bad habit of rewarding ourselves with food, and the school’s original principal wanted to start kids out with a healthier approach to food. So right way, my son’s already better off in this school.

Then, when I and another mom of a food allergic child approached the staff about accommodating food allergies, they were willing to listen. They set aside a table in the lunchroom for all kids with allergies. Half the table is dairy-free and nut-free; the other half is just nut-free. The kids with allergies are invited (but not forced) to sit there. Other kids can sit there, too, but only if they bring a “safe” lunch and have a note from someone the lunchroom staff trusts saying it’s safe. That way, best friends can join their food-allergic pals for lunch.

The lunchroom staff have a separate bucket and rag to clean the table with, and a sign declares the table off-limits to non-allergic lunch eaters.

The funny thing is, the allergic kids view the table as kind of a club. It’s fun to sit there; they feel special. When a new kid shows up, it’s cause for celebration. If someone tries to sit there with danger foods, the other kids speak right up and let the kid know they need to sit at another table. The allergic kids don’t seem to feel ostracized – quite the opposite. They feel bonded with each other.

So with all the challenges of starting a new year of school, it’s nice to have one small thing going my way. I’ve talked to other parents from other schools who fight constant battles over how to keep their children safe at lunch. I still have to worry about whether my son is swinging from monkey bars smeared with peanut butter from another kid’s hand at recess, but at least I know that for lunch he’ll be sitting at a safe table with kids he knows he can trust.

It may not be a cooler world as far as my son is concerned, but as for me – well, I’ll be adding one more item to my list of back-to-school rituals: making a special point of thanking the folks at my son’s school who go out of their way to keep him as safe as they can.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Food Allergy Skepticism

I’m practicing wearing contact lenses today. I gotta say… yuck. I don’t like ‘em. This is my fourth day wearing them, and they are irritating. Literally. My eyeballs feel sticky and gummy and cold. Yeah, cold. I don’t get why, but they do.

You’ll never guess what my first thought was.

OK, you did guess: “I wonder if I’m allergic to the solution?”

I wonder why we’re so quick to assign the word “allergy” to anything that makes our body feel funny.

I don’t know if I’m allergic to my contacts. I’m going back to the eye doctor in a couple of days to find out his best explanation. In the meantime, I’m still wearing them for a couple of hours each day so I can make sure it’s not just a “getting used to them” sort of problem. Maybe I’m just being whiney. (Hard to believe, but my husband might suggest it’s a possibility.) But it’s really, really tempting to assume I’m allergic right off the bat, with no data to support it.

Have you ever encountered someone who doesn’t believe you when you describe how serious a food allergy is?

Silly question. Of course you have. We all have.

I can’t figure out why some people don’t believe me. Do I look like the kind of person who would walk up to you and say, “Hey, let me tell you a big, fat lie”?

Maybe part of the problem is that too many people have used the word “allergy” in so many ways for so many reasons for so long, that the word no longer has any impact.

How many people have you heard say they were allergic to cigarette smoke, when really they just hate it and don’t want to be around it? (I admit it. I used that excuse in my teen years, thinking I was being clever and creative. Surely it would have been easier to just say, “I don’t like it,” but that’s teenage logic for you.)

And a huge percentage of folks have pet allergies or common hay fever, which is an allergic reaction to pollens. In most of these people, pollen allergies cause discomfort (or misery) in the form of watery eyes, sneezing, sinus pain, itchiness, etc. But for the majority of sufferers, pollen allergies aren’t usually a life-threatening disease and don’t usually cause anaphylactic reactions. (There are always exceptions, unfortunately.)

So when people hear “food allergy,” they tend to think, “So you sneeze a little. For Pete’s sake, take some Benedryl and get over yourself.” Because most of their experience with allergies up to this point has been either imagined annoyances or the real -- but mostly non-fatal -- hay fever or pet allergies.

And then there’s the confusion with food intolerances. Lactose intolerance is a well-known disease now, thanks in large part to all the commercials for drugs that treat it. But now non-sufferers often think a milk allergy is just lactose intolerance. They don’t understand why we’re so freaked out about whey in the ingredients list of a cracker. “Why can’t you just take a pill?” they ask, annoyed, clueless that a food intolerance is a completely different disease than a food allergy.

So they, and I, and probably you, have developed a healthy skepticism for the word “allergy.”

I don’t know what to do about it, though, short of coining a new word for life-threatening food allergies, or using the adjective “life-threatening” in front of the word “allergy” in all my conversations. (I don’t know about you, but I don’t like using that term on a frequent basis in front of my impressionable 8-year-old.)

I guess I’m resigned to having to explain patiently to the uninitiated, over and over. A little education goes a long way.

I’m also vowing to be careful how I use the word “allergy.” So when I go see the eye doctor, I’m not going to say the word. I’m going to describe the symptoms, and let him suggest possible cures. And if he says “allergy,” I’m going to ask how he knows. Maybe there’s a test to prove it.

How do you handle people who don’t believe how serious a food allergy is? Do you have any ways of explaining that seem to get through, without creating a new enemy? Let us know your tips!

Monday, August 6, 2007

One in Twenty Kids Have Food Allergies

By Kelley J. P. Lindberg

When I was in school (150 years ago), I didn’t know a single person who was allergic to food. Not one. Never even heard of it.

Now, organizations such as the National Institutes for Health and the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) estimate that as many as one out of every twenty kids in the United States has a severe food allergy. That rate is double what it was just five years ago.

Holy Peanut Butter, Batman!

How did this happen? No one really knows.

There are plenty of theories, naturally. One says maybe kids are exposed to more potential food allergens earlier and more often than they used to be. (Well, maybe, but every kid in my generation cut their first tooth on a peanut butter sandwich.)

On the other hand, another theory says maybe kids aren’t exposed to ENOUGH allergens and bacteria at an early age to build up immunity. Perhaps we’re too anti-bacterial for our own good.

Maybe in earlier days, babies and toddlers with severe food allergies died more often without anyone ever knowing why, so they simply didn’t live long enough to get to school, let alone to reproduce and pass on their food-allergy genes. And now that medical science has improved, so have these kids’ survival (and reproductive) rates.

Maybe peanut allergies are increasing because we dry-roast peanuts in the United States, unlike in Asia where they boil them and have a lower allergy rate.

Maybe the proliferation of petroleum-based and synthetic chemicals in and around our bodies has been messing with our immune systems for the last generation or two, confusing our bodies into mis-identifying what is and isn’t a hazard.

Or maybe doctors just recognize food allergies more often now, and it’s getting reported more consistently.

Or maybe it’s a combination of all of those “maybes.”

Or maybe it’s something entirely different.

We just don’t know. And not nearly enough funding money exists to do the type of long-range and in-depth studies that would be required to find out. So we speculate and shake our heads and pack Epi-pens everywhere we go.

It’s easy to think it doesn’t really matter why – we should focus on finding a cure. But that brings up the old adage about treating the symptom and not the cause. If we can find out why food allergy rates are doubling every five years now, maybe we can stop the causes and reverse the trend. If we find out, for example, that synthetic food additives we eat every day have caused our immune systems to whack out, then we could spend more energy talking food manufacturers into eliminating those types of additives instead of just printing better warning labels.

I don’t have a solution. And I don’t have a few million dollars lying around to fund my own study. (Wouldn’t THAT be lovely?) But I do have a voice, and I like to talk. (Heck, I’m female. That goes without saying!) And I would like to support those who ARE trying to work on understanding the causes.

So if you know of any on-going scientific studies into the root causes of the rise in food allergies, let us know. And if you’re involved in one, thank you!