Monday, February 25, 2008

Remembering to be Thankful

Here it is, a week since I wrote about staying up at night with my son because of his illness, and today, I’m tempted to just write, “Ditto.”

I am so DONE with this virus. You know this virus. Chances are good you’ve had it in your family already. Fever, cough, headache, stomachache. And now a sore throat. We thought he was getting better at the end of last week, but it returned with a vengeance on Saturday. I took him back in to the doctor today to make sure he hadn’t gotten something on top of it, like strep throat or pneumonia, but nothing showed up. It’s just viral, which means all we can do is out-last it.

And that might be the trick, because I’ve got to tell you, cabin fever is getting nearly as bad as this virus. I want to get out of the house. Even going to the doctor this morning was a welcome change of scenery, never mind that we had to sit in a waiting room full of other sick kids.

The one-hour-per-day TV limit flies out the door when he’s sick. So I’ve endured an all-day “Mythbusters” marathon and an all-day “Dirty Jobs” marathon, punctuated with occasional “Smash Lab” episodes. Thank goodness for the Discovery Channel. These shows let my son watch stuff blow up instead of doing it himself. I tell myself he’s learning lots of math and science, too, which is good since he keeps missing school because of this bug.

He’s not the only one. Eight kids were missing from his class last Tuesday (out of 25).

Supposedly, there are two different things going around – an influenza strain that’s different than what they vaccinated everyone for, and this virus (and possibly multiple strains of it). Everyone is sick, everyone is inconvenienced, everyone is annoyed.

But fortunately, very few people have died. And I think we’re forgetting to be grateful for that.

Just 90 years ago, in 1918 and 1919, an influenza outbreak killed somewhere between 20 and 40 million people worldwide. That’s more people than were lost in all of World War I. That’s more people than were killed by the Bubonic Plague in the 1300s.

28% of all Americans were afflicted with that flu, and it was incredibly scary. My grandmother’s favorite aunt died from it.

That was only 90 years ago. Yet somehow, almost no one seems to remember it today, even though most of us know people who were alive then. So now, this flu and viral stuff is going around, and we’re all annoyed and talking about it, but no one is terrified of it, like they would have been 90 years ago.

That says a lot for how much medical science has changed in 90 years. And it says even more about how our lives have changed because of that medical science. Despite all the news about bird flu danger and drug-resistant bacteria and mutant viruses, we have so much confidence in our medicines and doctors that we just aren’t all that worried.

So we hit WalMart and stock up on ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and cough drops. We make chicken soup. We call in sick for a few days. We watch TV and complain for a while, and then we continue on with our lives.

We aren’t planning funerals and boiling everything in sight and putting quarantine signs in our windows. We aren’t wondering how to piece our lives together after losing loved ones to this epidemic. Instead, we’re wondering who’s going to drive the carpool tomorrow and how to get missed homework.

I’m trying to remember not to take all of this for granted. I’m so grateful that my biggest worry today is that I’ve got a little cabin fever and my son has missed another day of school. I’m so glad we’ve gotten nine more decades of science under our belts since then, and I’m thankful for all the scientists and doctors who’ve made it their lives’ work to try to prevent another pandemic like the Spanish flu.

I’m so grateful we are living in 2008.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Love in the Time of Fever

My horoscope today says something about being especially energetic and feeling like cleaning the whole house.

Yeah, right.

If ever there were an example to prove that horoscopes are hooey, today’s would be it. I have the all the energy of a battery in my son’s remote control car. In other words, I’m totally drained.

We were up several times in the night because my son is sick. Since Saturday night, he’s had the high fever and cough virus that’s managed to blast through every family we know. Half the school must have had it by now. The other half will get it this week.

So I spent a long night with Tylenol, thermometers, cool washcloths, blankets, humidifiers, stories, and lullabies, chasing away the fever nightmares and trying to get him comfortable enough to go back to sleep.

Every parent knows exactly what it feels like to sit up all night with a sick child. The emotions are so strong – the despair when he moans and you can’t make it better, the utter relief when you feel his cheeks grow cooler and hear his breath steady out into sleep.

It’s part of the job of parent, to spend long nights battling helplessness and worry. And that’s just over a virus that we are pretty confident will eventually wear itself out and fade away. Imagine what we go through when it’s even more serious.

But we do it because we signed up for it in the very beginning. Right there, at the start, when we said, “Yes, we want a child!” we knew we were signing on for sleepless nights, bottomless fears, desperate worry, and semi-permanent exhaustion.

You’d think sane people would know better. You’d think we’d look at the list of “Known Side Effects” of parenthood and say, “Whoa, maybe we should get a cat.”

But we didn’t. We went ahead and signed on the dotted line, took the baby home, and what’s more, we took the tags off so we couldn’t return him.

And right there, in the middle of the night, when the fever made him dream of boulders falling toward him, and his hair was damp and clinging to his neck, and he couldn’t stop tossing and turning, I thought about how hard parenting is, and how I wouldn’t trade it for anything in this universe. And the reason is this: every few seconds, he kept whispering, “I love you.”

Through the fever, the bad dreams, and the miserable feelings inside, the lifeline he held on to is the same one I hold on to every day. We cling to it, knowing that we can survive anything as long as that lifeline is there. He loves me, and I love him, and eventually the fever will break, but the love will still be there, stronger than ever.

So even though this morning I don’t have the energy to make my bed, let alone clean my house, there’s a different kind of energy burning strong inside me. And that’s what makes being a parent worth it after all.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Preparing for Kindergarten

It’s the time of year to start thinking about registering 5-year-olds for kindergarten. What a scary, exciting, scary – did I mention scary? – time. And as if it weren’t scary enough, if your child has a food allergy, it’s just that much … um… scarier. (Where’s my thesaurus?) A woman on the UFAN forum asked for advice on easing her son into kindergarten. Several people answered her, and it seemed like a great topic for my blog, so here’s my two cents’ worth.

My son is in 3rd grade now, and he and his best friend have been at the same school since kindergarten and they haven't had any anaphylactic reactions at school. (Knock on wood!) We’ve been lucky, but we’ve also worked hard to prepare ourselves. You can’t completely eliminate the risk of a reaction at school, but there are lots of things you can do to minimize the risk and prepare yourself to handle it if it happens despite your best efforts.

1. Volunteer a lot, so the staff knows you and counts on you (not just for allergy issues). If the only time they see you is when there's a food allergy, then you may start feeling like they're whispering "Oh no, here she comes again." But if they see you as a "Gosh, what would we do without her" kind of volunteer, then the occasional food issue will be coming from a great mom who's making a reasonable request.

2. Becoming the class mom lets you both coordinate and participate in all special events, parties, and field trips, which gives you a lot more control over food choices at those events. If someone else is already the class mom, or you can't volunteer for that position, tell the teacher you really need to attend all parties and field trips because of the food allergy. The teacher may want to let the other parents know that you'll be selected for all the special events because of the food allergy, so that they don't think the teacher is playing favorites or something.

3. Ask the principal if there are other food allergic kids in kindergarten, and if they can possibly be assigned to the same teacher. That makes it easier for the allergic parents to trade off field-trip and party chaperone duties if necessary, it puts all the kids in the same class so that the classroom can be more allergen-free, and gives you some backup in food issues. (It's nice to NOT be the only one.) Statistically, about one in twenty kids has a food allergy, so chances are good there will be more kids than just your child in his grade.

4. Volunteer to buy all the snacks or food materials for classroom parties or food educational units (like making noodle necklaces or gingerbread houses, etc.). Usually the teacher has to buy these or request donations. So tell her if she'll collect money donations, you'll go buy all the ingredients. They're usually delighted to get out of having to shop.

5. If he's going to be having lunch at school, talk to the Lunch Lady and cafeteria monitor. Introduce your child, tell her what your child is allergic to, and let your child know that the Lunch Lady is a friend that will help keep him safe. Then remember the Lunch Lady and the cafeteria monitor on holidays with little thank you cards or gifts to show you appreciate them. Few people do that. But it will help keep your child's food issues fresh in their mind, and they'll get to know him well.

6. Ask about setting up a food table in the cafeteria just for allergic kids. The table has a sign that says allergies only, and the cafeteria monitors clean it with a separate marked bucket and cloth.

7. Make several copies of your child’s Food Allergy Action Plan and have the office staff post one in the office, give one to the lunch lady, and have the teacher post one inside her closet door or elsewhere in the classroom, so that your child's photo and "What to do in case of a reaction" instructions are handy no matter where he is. The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) has a great Plan on their website here. Just have your child’s allergist fill it out and take it to school.

8. Practice with your son what he should do if he "feels funny." Role-play and pretend you're the teacher, and have him come up and tell you what's wrong. Often our kids are too shy about asking for help, so have him practice with you, and with the teacher if possible. Not only does that give your son words to use if something happens, but it helps impress upon the teacher how important it is.

9. I get on my principal's staff meeting agenda at the first of the year and give a 5-minute talk about allergies and demonstrate the EpiPen. I also give a presentation to my son's class, and all the teachers and aides he comes into contact with. If you're not comfortable doing this, ask if there are other allergic parents that you can contact. Talk to them about ways to teach the teachers -- maybe another mom would be willing to give the presentation if you get copies made of some information, or something like that. It's easier when there are two or more of you involved, trust me!

10. Remember your son can legally carry his EpiPen with him. But he probably can't administer it to himself in an emergency, so make sure the teacher and everyone else know where it is and how to use it. My son carries his in his backpack so that it's always in the classroom, and I also fill a second prescription and they keep it in the office. So he has two sets at school.

11. Be aware and be prepared, but don't panic! Kindergarten is going to be a lot of fun, and your child will do just fine. And believe it or not, so will you!

Monday, February 4, 2008

Vote for a Martha Stewart Allergy Publication!

When I was a kid, no one I knew had a food allergy. No one talked about food allergies. No one knew anything about treating them, let alone accommodating them.

Times have changed.

I think we can safely say food allergies have become mainstream knowledge when Martha Stewart considers a publication dedicated to food allergies and sensitivities! You go, Martha!

Yes, it’s true. This week on her blog, Martha Stewart is asking people to vote for their favorite of seven potential “Big Idea” projects for her to think about adding to her considerable empire. One of these Big Ideas is a publication dedicated to recipes for people with food allergies and sensitivities.

This is incredible. Even five years ago, spreading news about food allergies felt a lot like trying to shove an elephant through a pinhole. FAAN was out there on the internet, but unless you had food allergies and actively looked for information, you weren’t going to just stumble upon it. Magazines wouldn’t publish stories about food allergies (I know, I tried pitching stories to all the big parenting magazines back then). Everyone I talked to about my son’s allergies looked at me like we’d just made up stories about flying pigs.

Now, the view is completely different. Everyone seems to know someone with food allergies. Schools are aware (and adjusting slowly). The media is filled with food allergy news. Blogs and support groups are cropping up everywhere. Menus display allergy information. Registration forms ask about allergies.

And now Martha is even considering an entire publication devoted to helping people cope with food allergies and sensitivities. Good news is so welcome these days!

With one in twenty kids allergic to some sort of food now, the timing of such a publication couldn’t be better. Our numbers are doubling every five years, but despite these growing numbers, we often still feel very alone in our daily food struggles. A publication like this could give us connections, show us new recipes, give us up-to-date information, grant us a more unified voice, and help us work together to find ways to make the world safer for our kids.

I already voted for this Big Idea on Martha Stewart’s blog. Take a second and vote, too, by clicking here. One out of every twenty kids needs your click.