Monday, March 31, 2008

Babysitting Food-Allergic Kids

Every month, our Davis County chapter of UFAN meets and tackles a new topic. Our March meeting’s topic was Babysitting. Leaving your food-allergic child with a babysitter is a frightening thought. Will they understand how serious it is? Will they know what to do if the child gets into something they’re allergic to? Will they sneak harmful food into the house? Will they accidentally feed the child something bad?

One option is to never leave the child in the care of a babysitter. But is that the only solution? To help us find out, I invited three guests to our meeting: the instructor of the 6-week babysitting course taught at Davis Hospital, my own babysitter of several years, and a young girl who is just beginning her babysitting career and wanted to learn more about the care of food-allergic children.

Jan Staley, the babysitting course instructor, began our discussion by going over what she covers in her classes. Her perspective on food allergies is invaluable – her own niece and nephew have severe food allergies to a dizzying array of foods, and she has watched them grow up over the last twenty some-odd years. Her memories of watching those kids get rushed to the ER when they were visiting her family are still vivid. So when she teaches the course, she talks about food allergies and how serious they are.

Jan went through her course outline with us, and we discovered not only tips she gives the babysitters, but tips we parents can use when talking to our own babysitters. The course is extensive, ranging from basic growth and development issues for children at different ages, to making a babysitting kit, dealing with problems like crying and sleep patterns, fire safety (she even has firefighters give a presentation on how to prevent fire emergencies and how to handle one if it happens), poisons and first aid, Friends and Family CPR, and tasks like diapering, bathing, managing illness, bedtimes, and meals. We all were impressed and I would STRONGLY recommend that anyone who wants to babysit should take this course! Click here for the class schedule (next course starts May 14).

Then my babysitter talked about her experiences babysitting my son and his best friend, who are both allergic. She never had to deal with a reaction, because we told her (and her sisters, who have also babysat for us many times) about the allergies, explained the EpiPen and Benadryl, and showed her exactly which safe snacks and meals she could eat and offer to the kids. She said she was determined to NEVER have to use the EpiPen, so she goes to extra lengths to ensure she doesn’t cause a problem, including washing her hands (and sometimes even changing clothes) before she arrives.

Finally, the young babysitter just starting her career asked some questions and handed out flyers with her own contact info. She has known my son for years and has even had him at a few parties at her house, which her mother prepared safe foods for, so she’s grown up aware of food allergies and how serious they are. She is also in the generation of kids who have at least one food-allergic friend in every class, so it’s a concept that is normal to them, and something she and her generation are beginning to accept as a fact of life, not an abnormality.

Some of the most important tips we parents heard in the meeting were:

• Preplan meals for both the babysitter and the children. Meals should be cold, not cooked, so that the babysitter doesn’t have to use an oven or stove.

• Show the babysitter where the safe snacks are. Better yet, put them out on the counter and state “Only these snacks!” Make it clear that the babysitter can’t eat non-safe foods either, since he/she will be touching your children and their playthings.

• Show them where the phone is. If you don’t have a land-line phone, give the babysitter a cell phone so they can call you.

• Write down your own home address. If the babysitter has to call 911 from a cell phone, caller ID won’t show where she’s calling from, and if she doesn’t know your home address, precious moments can be lost while she hunts for mail or something that shows her where she is.

• Leave them your phone number, and also the phone number of an alternate contact who you know will be home.

• Tell the babysitter where you’ll meet her and the kids if she has to evacuate for a fire or other emergency.

• Leave a working flashlight beside the emergency phone number and address, in case there’s a power outage.

• Explain when and how to administer Benadryl and EpiPens.

• Leave a detailed note of bedtime routines – time to eat, time to bathe, time to read stories, time to watch TV or movie, time for lights-out. That prevents your children from wheedling or arguing for more.

• If you want to “try out” a babysitter, invite him/her over to watch the kids while you get something done inside the house. They have to take care of everything, but you are immediately available if there’s a problem. But leave them alone! If you hover, you won’t find out how they handle everything. Use the time to get caught up on scrapbooking, paperwork, some gardening, or whatever.

It was a great discussion, and we all learned some really helpful tips for leaving our food allergic kids with babysitters. More importantly, we learned it’s possible to do it safely and without panicking if we just take a little extra time to prepare and explain.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Hooray for St. Patrick's Day

St. Patrick’s Day and Easter fell in the same week this year. One holiday has a lot to do with food – chocolate bunnies, jelly beans, hard-boiled eggs, marshmallow eggs, and other unnaturally colored confections are a huge part of Easter.

The other holiday, St. Patrick’s Day, has nothing to do with food. OK, technically green beer is a food, but I don’t know anyone who wakes up to a basketful of green beer, and I’ve never heard of St. Patrick hiding beer bottles in the grass for the kids to find. (Well, maybe some fraternities do that. It’s been a while since I’ve been to college.) Alright, and maybe there are a few people out there who actually cook corned beef and cabbage for dinner, but really – you have to admit, St. Pat’s food just isn’t worth getting that excited for.

And yet, St. Patrick’s Day is still fun – it’s all about wearing green clothes, pinching those who forgot, talking in silly accents, and playing Irish music (the louder, the better). Even my son’s school, which has a school uniform, let kids replace the uniform with something green on St. Patrick’s Day.

That got me thinking about holidays that aren’t closely associated with food. There aren’t many of them. Let’s see… Martin Luther King Jr.’s Day, April Fool’s Day, Earth Day, Arbor Day, Columbus Day, Veteran’s Day. That’s about it. And most of those we celebrate primarily with big sales at furniture stores.

Everything else is all about food – brunches, barbecues, cherry pies, candy, family feasts. We do love to celebrate the big things in life by eating, don’t we? It’s not the kind of thing you think about, unless you spend way too much time thinking about food to begin with. Like us allergy-concerned types.

So holidays and food are just an inseparable pairing we have to live with. It means each holiday has that extra bit of stress, that extra amount of work to cook from scratch, that extra expense to order the “safe” foods from online sources, that heightened worry as we venture into someone else’s home. It means holidays, already stressful to begin with, strain us that much more.

But for our kids’ sakes, we still find ways to have fun. We strive to make the day seem normal, effortless, and special. And often we think no one appreciates what we go through. But just now, I asked my son what I should say about Easter in my blog, and he said, “You can talk about how everything the Easter Bunny brought me was safe, just for me! I got safe chocolate bunnies, safe chocolate eggs, safe candy in my eggs, safe white chocolate chickies, and really fun toys!”

He DID notice. He DID appreciate it.

And suddenly it doesn’t seem like food-centric holidays are quite as bad, after all.

Of course, I’m still voting for St. Patrick’s Day as my favorite holiday of the year. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go put some Irish music in the CD player…

Monday, March 17, 2008

All the News That Fits Food Allergies

My son and I were in the newspaper this week. (Click here to read the article.) Nope, we didn’t get caught embezzling money from a multinational conglomerate. Nope, we didn’t win the lottery. Nope, we didn’t take first place in “Dancing with the Stars.”

We made brownies.

Yep, pretty newsworthy stuff.

Back in November, a reporter from the Salt Lake Tribune came to our Davis County chapter of UFAN to see what we were all about. She interviewed several people from our chapter, and everyone let loose and told her exactly what it was like to live with food allergies in a food-obsessed society. We told her how we felt, how we dealt, and how we melt. We told her how scary it is to find out your child could die from eating a cookie. We explained how hard it is to convince your extended family that you aren’t making this up. We shared how thrilling it is to find a group of other food-allergic people to commiserate with, draw strength from, and cheer on.

Then she asked if she could come over to my house to photograph me and my son cooking something. “Sure!” I said, then ran home to throw everything in the closet. We were leaving for a vacation the next day, so I had suitcases lying on the floor, snorkel gear in the living room, maps and brochures scattered around the kitchen, and all the calm self-control of a hummingbird on crack.

But by the time she got there, I’d hidden most of the laundry, tossed the random piles of paper into the nearest drawer, and rooted through the pantry for brownie ingredients. Whew!

Sure, my house ALWAYS looks this neat. And sure, you can ALWAYS see my kitchen countertop. And sure, I ALWAYS look like June Cleaver. Want to see me vacuum in high heels and pearls? I do it all the time. And the last thing I do before leaving on vacation is bake a batch of egg-free, milk-free, and nut-free brownies. You betcha.

Journalism is, after all, pure truth on paper. Everyone knows that.

But the reporter didn’t care what my house looked like, of course. She was there because our food allergy support group was worth writing about. It’s worth letting people know that there’s a local resource for people who are learning to cook and eat without the foods that can harm them. It’s worth a little added pre-vacation chaos to show people that living with food allergies doesn’t mean living without joy.

So the reporter snapped photos while my son and I measured, mixed, poured, and giggled. She laughed as my son licked the beaters, because egg-free batter makes licking fun again. She smiled as he told her that being allergic was a “minor inconvenience” in his life.

A few days later, when I asked her how the article was coming, she said it was “writing itself” because the members of our chapter had given her such great information.

It took several months for the article to finally appear, simply because there is such a backlog of human-interest stories for the Davis County Close-Up section of the Tribune. But it finally appeared this week. So there we are, along with two other wonderful members of our chapter, sharing our stories and reaching out to other food-allergic people in Davis County.

And in one of those peculiar strokes of serendipity, the Tooele chapter of UFAN was in the Tooele Transcript Bulletin the week before. (Click here to read the article.)

My son thinks it’s pretty neat that he’s in the paper. He thinks it’s even better that other allergic kids might see the article and come to our support group.

And that’s what it’s all about. Not the brownies. Not the pre-vacation last-minute stress. Not the “glory” of seeing our names in print. Just the knowledge that we’re making another tiny step of progress towards making this world a little more food-allergy friendly.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Are Food Allergies Kosher?

When you first learn that you or someone in your family has food allergies, grocery shopping suddenly becomes a much bigger challenge than you ever expected. Shopping trips take twice as long because you’re standing in the aisle reading every label. You’re rethinking all those recipes you’ve made for years. You’re dreaming up new ways to cook.

It’s overwhelming at first. Unless you are freakishly well-adjusted (and don’t talk to me if you are because I don’t want to know) you will go through every one of those infamous “five steps of grieving” – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

Eventually (believe it or not), we all make it to that fifth step, acceptance. We are creatures of habit, so we simply begin to make new ones. After a while, we learn how to shop again. We rebuild a little repertoire of quick dinner recipes. We slowly restock our pantry with a new selection of snacks. We fall into a lunch routine. Grocery shopping becomes an ordinary activity with no-brainer purchases again.

So it’s really interesting when a new wrinkle gets tossed into the routine.

Last week, my oldest friend – wait, “oldest” is wrong (she’s a year younger than me)…I’d better start over. My “longest-enduring” friend came to visit me! We met in junior high school when I lived in Maryland. That was more decades ago than I really want to say out loud. Just before twelfth grade, I moved to Utah.

Despite the miles, we’ve stayed best friends, even though we’ve only seen each other in person once in the last eighteen years or so. So when a convention finally brought her out west last week, she finagled a 36-hour detour to Utah to come see me. It was wonderful, as if no years had passed – we picked up right where we left off, and never paused for a breath (so my husband says).

What made this quick visit a little more interesting is that in the decades since she last stayed with me, she began keeping kosher and I had a son with food allergies.

Some Jewish people keep kosher at sort of a nominal level. Others, like my friend, keep very strict kosher. It’s not possible to explain all the details of kosher cooking, but suffice it to say, I’m not Jewish so my kitchen isn’t even nominally kosher. Therefore, I can’t use my dishes, pans, utensils, or stove. So right away I know I’m going to have trouble feeding her, and I haven’t even set foot in a grocery store yet.

I called around to find out if Utah has a kosher restaurant. We don’t. We have a kosher caterer, but it was less than convenient and very expensive. More searching revealed a grocery store in Salt Lake City that actually has kosher sections marked. I went there and walked around. The good news was, I saw lots of kosher choices! The bad news was, it all needed to be cooked, and I didn’t know how we were going to do that if I couldn’t use my stove, oven, or grill. Our choices were going to be pretty limited. Then I picked up several packages and started reading labels to see if any of the kosher snacks and treats were nut-free. They weren’t.


After about five packages, I got discouraged and went home. It felt like the old days, when I first learned I had to eliminate nuts from our food and it suddenly seemed like every single food item in the store was contaminated. I had almost forgotten that feeling. Now here I was, right back in “food is the enemy” territory again.

My friend had assured me that if came right down to it, she could survive on an apple and cottage cheese. But I wasn’t sure any of the cottage cheese in Utah would be kosher. I hoped my friend REALLY liked apples.

I picked her up at the airport and drove her directly to the grocery store with the kosher sections. She calmed me down and told me how we could clean and purify my microwave to make it kosher, or how if we really needed to, we could double-wrap a kosher pizza in aluminum foil to heat it in my oven. She showed me how to interpret the little kosher symbols. She found pretzels that were nut-free. We bought apples. We found kosher cottage cheese. We bought carrots and Cheerios and milk and bagels, all of it kosher, and all of it nut-free. We ate off paper plates and used plastic forks, and even discovered one sweet treat that both she and my son could share – Oreos.

Then the really amazing discovery -- we found a package of kosher Ramen noodles that appears to be egg-fee and milk-free, which will be great news for my son's best friend!

For both me and my friend, shopping for our own needs has become second-nature. Adding in the wrinkle of each other’s food issues ratcheted up the challenge, but we managed to work together to solve even that.

I have new-found respect for people with food allergies who also must keep kosher (or any other type of special diet). But human beings are pretty amazing. As overwhelming as it must seem at first, we all have to play the hand we’re dealt, so if that were my lot in life, I suppose I’d eventually get to the point where grocery shopping once again became a habit, and food became a routine instead of an enemy.

Thanks to my calm and unflappable best friend, I learned two things this week. Upping the challenge every once in a while is a good reminder to appreciate how far you’ve already come. And sometimes tackling new challenges brings rewards you weren’t expecting… like a simple little package of Ramen noodles.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Best Of: Phthalates, Matthew McConaughey, and Fish, Oh My!

February, the month of 1000 days (none of which are pleasant) has officially ended, but it still feels like it can’t let go. Because I’m so unbelievably behind on all my various projects and deadlines, I’m going to run a “best of” blog entry today. So here is my blog entry from October 8, 2007. Enjoy it again!

I was reading an interesting book this week – Boys Adrift, by Leonard Sax. It describes what he considers the 5 factors that are contributing to the decline of the productive male in American society. Basically, he sees an epidemic of “slacker dudes” everywhere he looks – young men who have no ambition and no drive to do anything but play video games, live like parasites off their parents and/or girlfriends/wives, and indulge in online porn. He likens them to the Matthew McConaughey character in the movie Failure to Launch.

I read it with a degree of skepticism. I don’t know too many males living this life he describes. Most of the men I know are gainfully employed. Those that aren’t have chosen to be at-home dads, and they’re working hard at that role. They’re definitely not the slackers Dr. Sax is describing. But then again, most of the men I know are already well into their 30s or above. And none of them look like Matthew McConaughey. Maybe my sample is skewed.

However, as I talked to some friends this week, a couple of their younger brother-in-laws cropped up in the conversation, and they sounded suspiciously like the slacker dudes in the book. Hmmm.

While I don’t necessarily agree with everything the doctor was describing in his book, it made me think about some things I hadn’t really considered before. One of the 5 factors he describes is the unfortunate celebration of violence and law-breaking in video games – I agreed 100% with that one. But one factor I hadn’t ever heard of before was “endocrine disruptors.” Basically, he cites a bunch of studies that show that phthalates –chemicals in polycarbonate plastic used in things like bottles, plastic wrap, and baggies – are being blamed for mimicking estrogen, causing a drastic drop in men’s testosterone levels (among other things), and killing the ambition and drive that testosterone controls in men. I’m oversimplifying, of course, but you get the idea. He even cites studies that show one out of every three college-age men have sexual dysfunction now. One in three? Wow. That certainly wasn’t the case when I was in college!

Oddly enough, the estrogen-mimicking chemical seems to have the opposite affect in women – women seem to have more energy and drive to accomplish things than before, and their bodies are maturing at an earlier age.

He also reports that in some areas where phthalates are prominent in the water supply, such as the Potomac River, male fish are growing eggs instead of sperm and male animals are becoming feminized. As my son says, “Ewwey!”

So what has this got to do with food allergies? Maybe nothing. But this alarming decrease in men’s testosterone levels has been happening over the last couple of decades.

That got my attention. Food allergies have drastically increased over the last couple of decades, too.

And, coincidentally, the rate of autism has been increasing over those same couple of decades.

Nothing says these three things are related. But it kind of makes me wonder. Thirty or forty years ago, we didn’t use plastic in nearly as much food packaging. We didn’t have as many synthetic chemicals in foods. We didn’t lug pre-bottled water everywhere we went – we drank it out of glasses or metal thermoses. (On the other hand, we did use a lot more really nasty stuff like DDT and asbestos. So perhaps we’ve just traded poisons.)

Phthalates have made our lives more convenient. But maybe it’s changed our bodies in ways we’re just beginning to suspect.

During the Roman Empire, the Romans made amazing strides in civilization. Their forms of government, their art, their philosophy, and their architecture grew by leaps and bounds beyond anything that had come before. One of their incredible inventions that made city life so much more progressive, hygienic, and convenient was indoor plumbing. They ran water pipes throughout their cities, bringing fresh water to the populace and draining “used” water away. It was a phenomenal accomplishment.

The only problem was that the pipes they laid so precisely were made of lead.

Madness was an unexpected, and to the Romans inexplicable, side effect of convenience.

I can’t help but wonder if, in the name of convenience, we are now changing our environment in ways we don’t yet understand, introducing problems we don’t know how to fix, or affecting our society in ways we can’t recover from.

Great. Like I needed something new to worry about. Of course, I’m just grasping at straws and probably making mountains out of coincidence molehills. We’ve got years of studies ahead of us before we really find out what’s happening to cause all these food allergies. I would welcome some solid science right about now.

Oh well. I gotta run. I’m going shopping for a steel thermos.