Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Flying Peanuts

I was in Arizona this weekend with a couple of girlfriends. We had a blast – we let “spontaneity” be our theme word, so we let our whims guide us and had a great adventure, somehow cramming a little of everything into our trip.

Then, just to keep that “spontaneous” theme going, the airline decided to help by bumping us off our return flight. So instead of returning Sunday night as planned, we returned yesterday. It meant a few fast phone calls to sort out babysitting, lining up people to get our kids ready and off to school without us, and another phone call for a friend to come pick up my two companions at the airport so that I could drive directly to a Monday morning work meeting that I couldn’t miss.

But it all worked out surprisingly well, and we eventually made it home safe, sound, slightly sunburned, and recharged – and a day off-schedule, which explains why my blog is a day late this week. Oh well. Sometimes life just has its own agenda.

Anyway, the flights to and from Phoenix were short, but still long enough for the attendants to bring out beverages and snacks – your choice of crackers, cookies, or peanuts.

I continue to be surprised that airlines still serve peanuts. How can they do it, knowing that 11 million Americans suffer from food allergies, knowing that peanuts cause the most fatal allergic reactions of any foods, and knowing that they are trapping people in a giant flying can far away from medical help?

Sure, people who fly a lot know that they can call the airlines ahead of time and ask for a peanut-free flight. But that doesn’t help eliminate all the ground-in peanut crumbs in the carpet, on the arm rests, on the trays, in the seats, on the lavatory door handles, and everywhere else. And what about people who don’t fly regularly and don’t know they can call and request a peanut-free flight?

Watching them hand out peanuts made me nervous, even though my son wasn’t on the flight with me. It’s funny how sensitized I am to nuts now.

About three weeks ago, a friend of mine flew across country for work. She’s allergic to a few tree nuts, but she doesn’t usually worry about flights because she’s not allergic to peanuts. But on this particular flight, her colleague, who was sitting next to her, ordered a food tray from the attendant. The food tray contained fruit, pecans, cheese and crackers. He ate the fruit and nuts, but offered my friend the cheese and crackers. Not realizing there had been cross-contamination, she had one.

Quickly, she felt her throat closing up, and knew she was reacting. She grabbed some Benadryl and some water, but it continued to get worse. A few minutes later, she found herself waking up in the back of the plane, a doctor’s face bent over her, with a blood pressure cuff on her arm. Luckily, there was a doctor who responded when the attendants had asked passengers “Is there a doctor on the plane?” There was also someone who had an EpiPen, who offered it to the doctor.

They didn’t have to use the EpiPens – the Benadryl began to work, and the doctor was monitoring her blood pressure to make sure she didn’t go anaphylactic.

It’s our worse nightmare – to have an allergic reaction when you’re that far from a hospital. In her case, she was incredibly lucky and just happened to be flying on a flight with both a doctor and another allergic passenger armed with EpiPens. (The fact that there WAS another allergic passenger on the plane with EpiPens shows how prevalent food allergies really are.)

But it made me wonder how often reactions on airplanes happen, and why the attendants who have to deal with it put up with nuts on their flights (the edible kind, not the psycho passenger kind). If I were a flight attendant, I’d speak up and ask that my employer discontinue nuts, just so I’d eliminate a few more chances for things to go wrong on my flights. You can’t eliminate all possibilities of problems, of course, but why not eliminate the obvious and easy ones? In business, that’s called “picking the low-hanging fruit” – taking the obvious steps to increase chances for success.

My friend’s experience may not have taught the airlines anything, but it did remind her that she can’t let her guard down, even for a single snack. And it reminded me that even adults forget to be vigilante, let alone kids, so I have to continue to remind my son to be aware of his environment, not to take anything for granted, and to be responsible for his own life, no matter where we are.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Kindergarten and First Grade Jitters

It’s spring! Yep, it’s that time of year when parents of 5-year-olds are registering their adorable little bundles of curiosity for kindergarten (or their 6-year-olds for first grade). It’s a crazy thought – that little bright-eyed toddler isn’t a toddler any more, and in fact is growing up right before our eyes! Look, there – another inch, another big word, another surprising utterance, another outgrown pair of shoes!

But then we take another look, and they’re still babies. So little, so dependent, so attached to Mommy (we hope), so ill-equipped to go out into that big, bad world. And when our little angels have severe food allergies, we find ourselves worrying even more.

My kindergarten angel is a third grade ruffian now, but kindergarten seems like just a heartbeat ago. I remember how worried I was when I filled out that registration form. What was I thinking, letting my sweet baby go into that wild jungle called “school”?

Well, here we are, wrapping up his fourth year in a public school, and we’ve both survived so far. Whew.

But because I know so many parents are going through those kindergarten and first grade registration jitters right now, I thought I’d offer up a list of suggestions for making the process of starting school a little easier. (For the parents, that is. The kids will have a blast. It’s us old folks that have all the problems.)

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. 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 the same grade, and if they can be assigned to the same teacher. That makes it easier for the allergic parents to trade off field-trip and party chaperone duties, 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.

4. Volunteer to shop for all the snacks or food materials for classroom parties or food educational units (like making noodle necklaces or gingerbread houses, etc.). Tell the teacher 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. Make several copies of your Food Allergy Action Plan (see FAAN’s website here) and ask to hang one in the office, the cafeteria kitchen, and 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.

6. Practice with your child 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 child words to use if something happens, but it helps impress upon the teacher how important it is.

7. 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 make the photocopies. It's easier when there are two of you involved!

8. Remember, In Utah, your child can legally carry his EpiPen. But he probably can't administer it to himself in an emergency, so make sure the teachers 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.

9. 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.

10. Ask about setting up a food table just for allergic kids. All that’s required is a table with a sign that says allergies only, and the cafeteria monitors clean it with a separate marked bucket and cloth. Don’t let them make your child eat in a separate room or the principal’s office. He shouldn’t be punished just because he’s allergic to some foods! Ask the principal to mention the allergy table in a newsletter or other information that goes home with kids at the beginning of the year. You may find other kids with allergies expressing an interest in sitting at the table if they know it’s available.

11. Ask the parents of your child’s friends to send safe lunches with them every once in a while, so they can eat with your child. Make it a fun place to be!

12. Most peanut-allergic kids don’t react to the smell of peanut butter in the air, but a few do. If you are worried if your child will react to the air in the cafeteria, ask to take him in for a “practice run” right now. Sit in the cafeteria for half an hour and see if he reacts. If he doesn’t, cross that worry off your list.

13. Eat lunch with him for the first few days. That will reassure both of you that you can both handle this!

14. Talk to the teacher about which cafeteria door your child should use to avoid peanut butter contact (usually the one furthest from the playground), where to put his lunch bag after lunch, and where his EpiPens will be.

15. Remind your child NOT to throw away his lunch trash. Tell him to bring it home in his lunch bag, so that he can avoid using the trash can. If another kid slam-dunks a half-full milk carton in the trash can, you don’t want your milk-allergic child to get splashed.

16. 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, April 14, 2008

Friendly Faces in the Food Fight

Last week, we had our April meeting of the Davis County chapter of UFAN. It was great – six new members joined us!

The most amazing transformation takes place at meetings like this. Often, when we first arrive, we come feeling like we’re the only ones dealing with food allergies. We’ve had a rough week, perhaps. Maybe we’ve had a conflict with an in-law, a teacher, a stranger, or a neighbor. We’ve dealt with a reaction. We’ve had to explain for the umpteenth time why our kid can’t have a piece of that birthday cake, and no, we’re not just overly protective. We’ve read approximately eighteen thousand labels, give or take a million, and we’ve heard another scary story about finding food allergens in unexpected places. (“What do you mean, my new exfoliating soap uses almond shells as the abrasive grit?!”) We’ve tried to explain to yet another 16-year-old waiter that there can be absolutely no cross-contamination with nuts in our kid’s meal.

We’re tired of feeling like Don Quixote tilting at windmills all day long. Talk about feeling isolated.

Then we walk into a meeting like a UFAN chapter meeting, or we run into another mom at a soccer game whose kid is allergic, or we stumble across another parent’s blog, and suddenly we connect! There’s someone else who’s dealing with this! There is someone else to nod and say, “Yeah, don’t you hate that.” Someone else who says, “Sure, I’ve got a great birthday cake recipe.” Someone else who suggests, “Have you tried telling your neighbors this?”

We all need a friendly shoulder sometimes. I’m blessed with many good, dear, wonderful friends who’ve been with me for years and are as committed to keeping my son safe as I am. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have tough days when that brick wall has left a really big imprint on my forehead. So a friendly face is always a welcome relief.

I’m so glad we have our Davis County chapter meetings, where we know we can see a bunch of friendly faces every month. At our meeting this month, we shared our own stories and struggles, as well as our successes and ideas. We learned, and commiserated, and cheered each other on. We even compiled a list of local restaurants where we’ve had some good experiences ordering food that accommodates our allergies (which I will give to Kay to post on our UFAN website)! I left the meeting re-energized and ready to fight the weekly battles again. Thank you to everyone who came!

Bring on those windmills!

Monday, April 7, 2008

Trace Adkins Raises His Voice for Food Allergy Awareness

Food allergy awareness has hit the Big Time! You probably know by now that Trace Adkins, country music star, was recently on The Celebrity Apprentice TV show, competing to win $250,000 to donate to the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN). What an incredible advance in awareness, over the course of just a few weeks.

Trace’s 6-year-old daughter has severe food allergies, and because of that, the singer has joined the millions of families struggling with food every day. But unlike most of us, Trace has the ability to turn his efforts into national campaigns raising hundreds of thousands of dollars! Although he lost to Piers Morgan in the last episode, he won the hearts and minds of millions of viewers. Everyone seems to agree that he showed uncommon integrity and values in a show (and genre) not necessarily known for rewarding good guys. To see a Celebrity Apprentice video clip of Trace explaining what it’s like to have a child with food allergies and why his chosen charity is FAAN, click here.

Just because the show is over doesn’t mean Trace has quit working for food allergy awareness, though. Trace is working with FAAN to raise money for research and awareness programs in several ways. If you’re a country music fan, you can help Trace raise money for FAAN by downloading a live recording of his hit single “You’re Gonna Miss This” from iTunes for only 99 cents. Proceeds from sales of the song go directly to FAAN, but hurry, because it ends April 10. To download the song, go here.

And finally, Trace will once again be the National Honorary Chair of FAAN’s Walk for Food Allergy this year. The first Walk in 2008 will be in Richmond, Virginia on May 3.

In the blog world, Trace is everywhere. The Allergy Notes blog has several videos related to Trace’s work on the Celebrity Apprentice. The CMT Lifestyles blog talks about Trace’s heartbreaking story. The CMT Country Music Blog has a lot of comments from readers that show how Trace really touched people’s hearts.

Trace will be performing in Wendover, Nevada on May 2. Members of the Utah Food Allergy Network (UFAN) are signing a poster to deliver to him, thanking him for all he’s done for food allergy awareness. If you want to be a part of that poster, just post your message to him as a comment on my blog, and I’ll make sure it gets to the right person.

Personally, I don’t listen to country music, and I’d never heard of Trace Adkins before all this started. Now, however, if anyone asks me who my favorite country singer is, I won’t hesitate to answer. Trace Adkins sounds pretty darned good to me.