Monday, April 27, 2009

Nice Girls Do Ask for Snacks

Baseball practice started this week. Of course, it was cold, windy, and still damp from rain. Hardly baseball weather, if you ask me. But sports wait for no fair-weather moms, so there I was at the local ball field, shivering and hunched against the cold, while my son flexed his catcher’s mitt and chased after wildly thrown balls.

As part of the new season, the coach handed out a schedule, which included practice times, game times, and … treats.

I hate treats.

It’s hard to ask other parents to consider food allergies when they’re providing the treats. It’s still a little embarrassing, even after all these years, to have to speak up and ask that they limit their treat options. All our lives, we’ve been taught to be gracious about food that other people offer. “It’s not polite to ask for food, wait until they offer,” we were told. “Take whatever is offered, don’t turn up your nose at something they’re generous enough to provide,” we were scolded. So trying to tell someone else what they can and can’t bring for game treats goes against all our “good girl” training.

But as the mom of an allergic kid, I have to ignore the “nice girls don’t make a fuss” rule and make a fuss. (Although I try to make it a very nice fuss, of course.)

So as usual, as parents and kids huddled around the coach, when he mentioned treats, I spoke up. “Coach, I know we have at least a couple of kids on the team who have food allergies. If you’d like, I could send out an email to everyone with some suggestions for treats that would let those boys feel included.”

I braced myself for possible cold shoulders, puzzled looks, or exasperated sighs. But that’s not what I got. I got complete support – “Oh, what are they allergic to?” “What are some specific things they can have?” “Is there something you’d suggest?”

The parents were awesome. They pulled out pens and jotted notes on their schedules. They smiled and said, “Sure.” They weren’t exasperated at all. And they made jokes like, “Shoot, I was going to bring sushi for treats!” and we all laughed, instantly bonding.

We’ve come a long way in just a few years. When my son and his friend first started playing organized sports, people were still unfamiliar with food allergies, and it was harder to ask other parents to include our boys in their snack choices. But over the last five years, awareness has grown so much that we’re surprised each time we ask and we’re greeted with a positive reaction of support.

So despite the 40-degree weather, bone-chilling wind, and snowy rain, I think I’m ready for the season to start after all.

Play ball!

Monday, April 20, 2009

A Well-Written Article

One of the best articles I’ve seen lately about food allergies was in the Salt Lake Tribune last Wednesday. And no, I don’t think it’s a great article just because Michelle Fogg (UFAN founder) and I are both quoted in it. (In fact, that usually makes me nervous – I’m much more comfortable doing the interviewing than being the interviewee!) No, it’s a great article because it’s very comprehensive, easy to understand, and (get this) useful.

The writer, Sean Means, set out to tell parents of children newly diagnosed with food allergies the most helpful information they need to know right away. And I think he did a great job. If you haven’t read it yet, click here.

One of the most valuable things this article accomplishes is reassuring parents that feeling overwhelmed and frustrated is normal and reasonable – and experienced by every other parent of food-allergic children (and food allergic adults themselves). Then the article goes on to explain that before too long, you learn to live with food allergies, and those “why me?” emotions fade, eventually being replaced by competence, confidence, and a positive attitude. How amazing is that?

Just knowing there really is “life after diagnosis” can help you get through those first couple of months. I sincerely thank Sean Means for showing more Utah parents that light at the end of the tunnel last week.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Hidden Ingredients in Lotions

While we were in Mexico, my son and husband began calling me “Picasso.”

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking it was my natural artistic talents that earned me this nickname. My penchant for patterns. My love of colors.

You’re right. It was all of those.

Unfortunately, the canvas for my artistic endeavors was my family’s winter-white skin, and my paint was sunblock.

Every day, I would dutifully apply sunblock to myself, my son, and my husband. And every day I would miss a spot or two, which would reveal itself later that evening as another bright red patch in a place it didn’t belong. By the end of the week, we all looked like patchwork dolls pieced together from a dozen different red fabrics.

Artistic, perhaps. Smart, no. Attractive, even less so.

The resort where we stayed was quite nice, and it graciously provided a decent-sized bottle of “Gilchrist & Soames Chamomile Aloe Vera” lotion in each bathroom. As usual, there was no ingredients label on the bottle. There never is, on hotel-sized toiletries. So I don’t use those lotions on my son – I always bring my own small bottles of safe lotions and shampoos, because I never know when a manufacturer is going to use a nut oil in a cosmetic product.

I did use the lotion on my own sunburned legs, and it really felt wonderful – the aloe vera in it did the trick. I was tempted to use it on my son, because he got a bad sunburn on his cheeks, but instead I washed my hands and used my own lotion on him.

Turns out, that was the right decision.

When I got home from our vacation, I logged on to the manufacturer’s website, found a phone number, and called and talked to a very friendly and helpful woman. She didn’t have the ingredients list, but promised to track it down and email it to me.

The next day, the email arrived. Sure enough, the lotion contained sweet almond oil. Choosing NOT to use the lotion was definitely the right way to go. The lotion also contained sunflower oil and soybean oil.

I wrote back to the woman and explained that I was glad I didn’t apply the lotion to my son, because having an allergic reaction in a foreign country would be scary. I also let her know that soybean oil and almond oil represent two of the top eight food allergens that cause 90% of the reactions, and I politely asked if I could make a suggestion to include at least a small warning on their bottles about nut and soy allergies. I explained that since these lotions are found in hotels around the world, the people most likely to use them are always far from home and familiar medical help. It could be a problem.

The lovely woman promptly wrote right back and said she’d forwarded my email to her supervisor, explaining to him how serious nut allergies are for so many people, and she thanked me for taking the time to let her know.

She could have blown me off. That’s the typical response from customer service people these days. But she didn’t – she took the time to let me know she thought my idea and concern were valid.

I doubt we’ll suddenly start seeing ingredients labels on hotel bath amenities any time soon because of one little email on my part. But if we all start sending simple email requests to manufacturers whenever we encounter something like this, it might make a difference someday. I hate to think that somewhere in Mexico right now, a mom is putting lotion on her allergic child to soothe a stinging sunburn, and that simple remedy is going to make a good vacation day turn bad, when a simple label could have prevented that.

So use caution when you’re staying at a hotel, and avoid using those unlabeled toiletries. And apply sunblock twice as often as you think you need to. Unless you want to take over my role as “Picasso.”

Monday, April 6, 2009

Avoiding “Cacahuates” in Mexico

“Remember,” my dad explained to my son last week while we were all together on vacation in Mexico, “don’t eat anything that starts with ‘caca’.”

Good words to live by.

Cacahuates” is the Spanish word for peanuts. “Nueces” means nuts. We practiced them a lot on our vacation, making sure we didn’t accidentally order or buy anything that contained them. We were having too much fun playing in the waves, lounging on the beach, and splashing in the pool – we sure didn’t want to cut any of that short by having to practice the Spanish word for hospital (which is, fortunately, “hospital”).

We did have one close call, however. At our resort, we ate dinner one night at the buffet. When we walked in, I told the hostess that my son was allergic to peanuts and nuts, using both the English and Spanish translations. She completely understood, and turned to tell another waiter beside her the same thing. I could pick out enough of her words to know what she was saying. They both nodded emphatically and explained to me, in English, that they understood, and that he would find many foods to choose from.

So far, so good.

When our real waiter arrived, I again explained to him that my son was allergic to “cacahuates y nueces,” tackling it in both Spanish and English, and he assured me, in very nice English, that he understood and he would talk to the chef.

Again, so far, so good.

At this buffet, you order a main entrée, then go to the buffet for salads, fruit, various Mexican specialties like fajitas and empanadas, and desserts. My son ordered the steak entrée, then we strolled the buffet looking for safe things for him to eat. The breads were out – no way to verify the baking ingredients. But the chicken fajitas were okay, the cheese empanada was tasty, and the watermelon was right up his alley. We avoided the dessert table completely – pecans and almonds were evident.

When his entrée arrived, there was the steak, a mini quesadilla, and a tiny rolled thing under sauce. “What is that?” I asked the waiter who delivered the food, who was not the same waiter we’d ordered from.

“Enchilada,” he said.

“What is the sauce on it?” I asked, eyeing it. It looked suspiciously like a mole sauce, which is often made with peanuts, almonds, or other nuts.

“No, no,” he assured me. “Nothing like that.”

“Are you sure?” I asked, “because he’s ‘alérgico’.”

He assured me again that it was nut-free. A little part of me still worried, but I’d told four different people now, all of whom assured me that they understood.

My son started in on the steak. Fortunately, he doesn’t care for sauces on much of anything, so he started on the side of the plate away from the mysterious sauce.

He was on his third or fourth bite when our original, main waiter suddenly appeared at my son’s side, and began whisking away the plate. “I need to take this away,” he said, breathless from having run across the whole restaurant.

“Stop eating!” I commanded my son, and he dropped his silverware and sat back, while the waiter scooped up the plate.

“I am so sorry,” the waiter was saying. “It was a mistake. It should not have happened. I will bring him a new plate with new food.” Within a minute or two, he was back with a new plate, new steak, and no sign of mole sauce.

The waiter was clearly embarrassed and upset, because he wouldn’t look me in the eye when he came back to refill our glasses with water. Finally, I called him over to me.

“Thank you for catching that. His allergies are scary, so I appreciate that you discovered the mistake and told us right away.” He still was embarrassed and contrite, but I could see the relief in his shoulders.

I’m a big fan of the “encourage good behavior with rewards” school of thought. I could have made a scene, chewed him out, or been angry. But that wouldn’t have helped anything. The close call and his embarrassment alone left a huge impression on him, and I know the next time an allergic person sits at his table, he’ll be extra vigilant about their food. I hope that by telling him how much I appreciated him being honest and fast in fixing the mistake, I left him with a good feeling about allergic people, and not a dread. Fear causes mistakes. I want him to care, not fear.

Also, I had made a mistake, too. I had a bad feeling about that sauce, and I didn’t act on my motherly instincts.

Next time, I’ll know better, too.

Fortunately, the whole story had a happy ending. My son loved the steak, I loved my mahi-mahi steamed in a banana leaf, and when we left the restaurant, the waiter purposefully caught my eye and said “thank you.”

And for the rest of the week, my son successfully avoided eating anything that started with “caca.”