Friday, February 25, 2011

No cake walk

My daughter ran to Joseph squealing, "I got cake!" He looked at me and immediately asked if it was OK to touch her. Once he knew he was safe when I explained that we had thoroughly washed her hands and face, his next response came in the form of tears. Joseph once again felt left out because of his life-threatening food allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg and soy. But this time his disappointment felt even worse because it was his own sister.

Pamela has followed her big brother's allergen-free diet all 21/2 years of her life because of her risk of developing allergies and also to continue to make his home the one place Joseph feels safe. Pamela's tendency to throw food, walk around with parts of her meal, and send food splattering by banging her food-filled utensils on the table made my decision to keep her on Joseph's diet simple. After all, one splash of yogurt in Joseph's dinner could send him to the emergency room or worse.

Joseph faces the risk of exposure to unsafe food everywhere he goes. For example, another child eating a peanut butter sandwich at the park and then hanging on the bars before Joseph touches them; or friends sitting closely while eating pizza, ice cream and cake at a birthday party. I didn't want the toys my children play with at home to be a source of risk for Joseph if Pamela were eating allergens then mouthing those toys or kissing her big brother. But once my daughter turned 2, I knew it was time to make sure her two negative food allergy tests panned out in real life. I didn't want to let her have a piece of birthday cake at a friend's party thinking she'd be fine without really making sure first.

So, I bought her a slice of cake and got out the Benadryl just in case. I watched her, looking for any signs of an allergic reaction, as she savored a huge forkful of dessert. Her only reaction was asking for more, which I refused until I was satisfied that she was OK. Introducing any new food — even after I've checked the ingredients and called the company to ensure there was no cross-contamination — has been nerve-racking since Joseph's diagnosis seven years ago. I was still anxious with Pamela's cake, after all I've witnessed my son's anaphylactic reactions to one tiny bite of food, so I knew what I might face if Pamela were to react to the cake. But this time was different because Pamela has not shown signs of any food allergies and she's been exposed to the allergens through nursing. I did read the label to ensure there were no peanuts or tree nuts (those were not entering my house under any circumstances). When we were done, I made sure there was no cake residue on Pamela or the table, and then I prepared for Joseph's return home from an outing with his Dada. 

I knew Joseph would be upset about the cake. He understands the severity of his food allergies and he loves all of the safe desserts we make, but that doesn't make it easy for a 7-year-old to be left out. I will be letting Pamela try some foods when Joseph is not home or when she and I are out just to make sure they are safe for her. But I don't plan on making Pamela's cake experiment a habit. Joseph's allergies mean he often feels isolated or excluded when food is involved. That doesn't have to be the case in his own home. I would like to avoid adding to his tears as much as possible. 

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Books provide an allergy-friendly nook

I came across a bookmark today from one of my favorite bookstores, the Book Nook in Block Island, Rhode Island. Much to my children's amusement, I immediately starting singing the silly little song I made up about the shop during a ferry ride leaving the island several years ago.

We haven't been back in eight years, but I have so many fond memories of our trips to the beautiful island in the Atlantic Ocean, such as enjoying sun-soaked days at the beach, walking on the bluffs, watching boats in the harbor while enjoying tasty seafood and stopping at the cozy bookstore on Water Street to pick out some reading material for our visit. The books I picked out during our trips to the Book Nook hold sentimental value because they transport me to those wonderful vacations with my husband. I hold emotional attachments to many other books because they remind me of various people, times or places.

My children, who also love books and the stories they tell, gladly accompanied me this week to two book sales — one to benefit our local libraries and the other to say goodbye to our local Borders store. Pamela was thrilled with her selections that featured Barbie, Kai-Lan and Dewey the library cat. Joseph was happy to pick up a guide to writing magical stories, a book about football and a Geronimo Stilton selection. But he was most excited to add to his Harry Potter collection.

He has been engrossed in J.K. Rowling's tales, joining Harry and his friends at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry for adventure. He can feel exhilarated as he imagines speeding on a broomstick to catch the snitch during a quidditch match, face the evil Lord Voldemort or beckon items with the wave of his magic wand. He can even enjoy a huge feast at the end of the term just like all of the other students without even mentioning his life-threatening food allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg and soy. That is not an option in real life, where even touching one of those allergens could cause a reaction and eating the same food as hundreds of other kids certainly doesn't happen.

Books give Joseph a chance to embark on fantastic adventures without worrying about what he or anybody else is eating. Sure he pauses when an allergen is mentioned in a story. For example, I think Joseph felt more fear when a schoolmate passed Harry Potter some peanuts at a celebration than when Harry went against a Death Eater. But it gave us a chance to talk about how he would handle the same situation and he went back to enjoying his book.

I'm so glad that my children find so much joy in books. Maybe someday they too will visit the Book Nook. But, whether they find those stories in a cozy island bookshop, the local library, chain bookstore or online, they are developing connections to last a lifetime. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Doctor care is the best medicine

On most Tuesday mornings, I can be found sitting on the floor of the local library with my two children listening to a few stories and chuckling at a puppet show during story time. But we haven't been there in a month. Instead, we have spent the past three Tuesdays at Western Wake Pediatrics.

Today as I sat listening to the doctor explain the latest illness to afflict one of my children, I wasn't begrudging our lack of library time. On the contrary, I was feeling blessed that such skilled, attentive and caring doctors and nurses care for my children.

Both kids have been battling various illnesses, including the flu, ear infection, sore throat and now, a sinus infection, during the past three weeks. Each time we have visited the doctor's office or I have called the nurse's advice line, we have gotten the help we need — medically, mentally and emotionally. For example, the nurse I called last week soothed and informed when she promptly called me back with a detailed answer to my question. And during each visit, the doctor has taken the time to patiently assess my child's symptoms and explain our latest plan of action. I appreciate that level of care even more this week because I know the pediatrician's office is busy attending to a lot of sick children. I can only imagine the amount of snot, vomit, crankiness, crying and anxiety they have had to deal with from kids and parents.

When my husband and I were choosing a pediatrician before Joseph was born almost eight years ago, never did I imagine how much we would rely on the doctors we chose. Sure, I knew our child would go for regular checkups and the occasional virus or ear infection. But I quickly developed a greater appreciation for our doctors after Joseph's first anaphylactic reaction to dairy at 9 months old and the subsequent diagnosis with life-threatening food allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg and soy. Joseph's pediatricians, allergist (Carolina Allergy & Asthma Consultants), nurses and their staffs have been our partners as we navigate life with food allergies, along with asthma and environmental allergies. 

Because we have spent so much time at doctors' offices during the past seven years, Joseph is comfortable and happy to be there knowing they care about him. He grins when we walk to the exam room as doctors and nurses call out a quick, "Hey, Joey!" They are always friendly, often taking the time to hear about the latest book he is reading or newest tennis skill he is practicing.  We leave relieved to have more knowledge, reassurance and a plan of action.

Next week, I hope to be back on the library floor with two healthy kids fully engaged in the children's story. But I'm thankful that a caring group of doctors, nurses and staff are right down the road if we need them.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Lovin' allergen-free sweets for Valentine's Day

My kids have caught Valentine's Day fever. I much prefer it to the other kind of fever that has been lurking in my house for the past two weeks. Both kids have been in various stages of fighting the flu, fever, ear infection, sore throat and the accompanying misery. They are not out of the woods yet, so jumping into Valentine's Day seemed like a great way to perk them (and me) up.

They have been reading books with warm and fuzzy themes, playing concentration with heart-shaped cards, creating heart paintings and making crafts featuring what my 2-year-old calls "love hearts". Today, we started making desserts to celebrate.

Yes, I know there are still four days until the holiday. But I couldn't resist the huge strawberries at Whole Foods, knowing they were perfect to cover in melted chocolate. Pamela loved helping me dip the juicy strawberries in melted Enjoy Life semi-sweet chocolate chips, especially as she took a bite out of the sweet fruit. Those simple chocolate-covered strawberries delighted my husband and son, as well. We are all looking forward to the sweets we will whip up next.

There are so many yummy options for our allergen-free Valentine's Day desserts. Even starting four days early, we won't be able to make everything that catches our eyes. That wasn't the case when I tried to sweeten Joseph's first Valentine's Day after his diagnosis with life-threatening allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, milk, egg and soy. He was thrilled with the heart-shaped pancakes I made him when he was 1. But thankfully, during the past seven years I have greatly expanded my allergen-free baking repertoire and skills to match his much higher expectations. The recent explosion of allergen-free recipes and cookbooks has provided a plethora of delicious options and has made my job much easier.

Valentine's Day is a chance to make some desserts that have become part of our tradition, such as heart-shaped sugar cookies with frosting and homemade sugar sprinkles. Both kids also requested two must-have desserts that are favorites in our family. Pamela will be thrilled when she sinks her teeth into the fudge we make from the Divvies Bakery Cookbook "Oh Fudge" recipe. (I substitute Earth Balance dairy-free, soy-free Natural Buttery Spread for the margarine; Vance's DariFree milk alternative for the creamer; and Enjoy Life semi-sweet chocolate chips). Joseph can't wait to eat a big slice of red velvet cake thanks to Cybele Pascal's wonderful recipe for Red Velvet Cake with Velvet Frosting. This scrumptious cake, which we all enjoyed with orange-colored frosting for Halloween, will have fluffy pink frosting for this holiday.

We also look forward to trying new recipes. This year, I'm excited to make biscotti for my husband. It is a treat he has always enjoyed and I haven't yet tried my hand at an allergen-free version. So I was thrilled to see Mary Capone's recipe for Gluten-free Orange-Cherry Dipped Biscotti in the latest issue of Living Without magazine.

I still make heart-shaped chocolate chip pancakes, but I've tweaked them so they taste better now. I hope as my family enjoys the Valentine's Day treats that the only fever remaining in our house is for the holiday celebrating love.  

Friday, February 4, 2011

The only peanuts that make me smile

Peanuts have recently been making my kids crack up. I can even refer to them without feeling like I'm going to be sick to my stomach or thinking about how one speck of the legume could kill my son, who is severely allergic to peanuts and several other foods. I'm talking about the gang led by Charlie Brown, of course.

How could I resist the round-faced boy, his precocious beagle Snoopy, his little sister Sally and her "sweet baboo" Linus, and various friends created by Charles M. Schulz?

I broke out "A Charlie Brown Valentine" yesterday as an early treat to help cheer up my sick daughter and to reward Joseph for being such a patient big brother this week. His giggles were infectious as Snoopy donned a red wig, Charlie Brown got his sleeve stuck in the pencil sharpener or Lucy doled out her psychiatric advice. Pamela was excited to see "love hearts" on Valentine cards throughout the show.

Both of my children developed an affection for the Peanuts gang during the fall when they watched "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown." They watched it over and over again, giggling as Charlie Brown tried to put on his ghost costume, and heartily laughing every time Charlie Brown said, "I got a rock", while trick-or-treating. Pamela loved the Halloween special so much that she requested it well into December. We watched it so often that Joseph and I were debating details, such as the position of the moon in various scenes. The kids also fell in love with the Thanksgiving, Christmas and Happy New Year specials. So I knew the Valentine special would be a sure thing when we needed an extra giggle.

Thankfully, Schulz's characters rise above the name that puts so much distaste in my mouth. Apparently, even the gang's creator disliked the "Peanuts" title that the syndicate provided for his strip, originally called "Li'l Folks." (The Great Idea Finder)

While the name makes me cringe, I'm glad that the Peanuts gang has been so popular. Those kids have made millions laugh for generations and I'm so happy that they can bring comic relief to my house. 

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Wishing for some magic during flu season

My children were happily chattering tonight as they enjoyed their dessert, homemade dairy-free ice cream with my really easy version of magic shell (melted Enjoy Life chocolate chips). But I couldn't fall under the chocolate spell.

We were indulging in the ice cream dessert at my daughter's request to help ease some of the misery she is feeling with the flu and an ear infection. I was thrilled to see that the treat did make her smile for a bit. But my worries needed more than chocolate this time. Not only do I wish that I could wave a magic wand to make my little girl feel better, but also I'm concerned about my son's health. Today he's fine, but I'm just hanging on waiting to see what path this illness will take us.

Joseph has asthma, in addition to multiple, life-threatening food allergies. A cold is never just a cold for him and the flu is certainly nothing to take lightly. Flu-related complications cause about 36,000 deaths in the U.S. each year, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology (ACAAI), and people with asthma are at a higher risk for those complications. Everyone in our house, except Joseph (because of his egg allergy), gets a flu shot each year to try to shield Joseph's exposure to the virus. Joseph already takes a full slate of daily maintenance medications for his asthma and environmental allergies, and he also receives weekly immunotherapy shots to help combat his environmental allergies. But when he gets any type of respiratory illness, we immediately increase his asthma medication. Because it is likely that he will catch any illness his sister has, we also ramp up his treatment when she is sick. So when I came home today with Tamiflu for both children, Joseph knew he would also be joining his sister for breathing treatments tonight. As the nebulizers hummed, I hoped the medication would do the trick for both of them.

In the fall of 2009, all four of us contracted swine flu. As soon as my husband came home sick, we followed our usual procedure of increasing Joseph's asthma treatments as a precaution. But, as expected, he too came down with the virus. He, however, couldn't kick it without a trip to the emergency room for oral steroids to help him breathe. It took a long time, but his lungs returned to his normal breathing capacity. Then, a year ago this week, he started a pattern I hope we can avoid this year. Respiratory illnesses and environmental allergies plagued him during the beginning of February, March and April 2010. Each time we followed his asthma plan for illness, but two of those times he still ended up in the emergency room with breathing trouble serious enough to warrant oral steroids. While we were dealing with those illnesses, his doctors again modified his maintenance medications and recommended immunotherapy shots to help with his environmental allergies, thus hopefully decreasing his asthma symptoms when those allergies trigger breathing difficulties.

So tonight, I anxiously pray and wait to see if maybe this time Joseph's body can respond to preventative treatment and fight off the germs that come his way. As I soothe my sick daughter, I'm also waiting for her fever to break and hoping breathing difficulties won't plague her. I've never been good at waiting. I would much prefer a little anti-flu magic.