Safety calls for lots of due diligence … and being a little annoying.
My wife and I have spent countless hours thinking about something we can’t always control. Like many kids, our six-year-old daughter has allergies. Like many kids, her allergies have life-threatening implications.
We learned the hard way. At the time, our youngster was 18-months-old and we were in the midst of making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. You can guess what happened next. Within seconds, one of her eyes closed shut and her lips ballooned to gargantuan proportions. Next stop: allergist. It was there that we discovered she was allergic to peanuts, tree nuts and dairy. Frightening doesn’t begin to describe it.
Nearly 15 million Americans have food allergies, according to research compiled by FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education). It affects 1 in every 13 children under the age of 18, roughly two in every classroom. A study released in 2013 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that food allergies among children increased by roughly 50% between 1997 and 2011. The number of people with allergies continues to grow yet no one knows why. It’s caused a lot of angst for kids, and mostly for parents who have no choice but to be on the lookout.
Experience has taught us that, when it comes to allergies, nothing is foolproof. We’ve learned that the biggest problem is not necessarily being unprepared, it’s preparing others to make serious decisions. Our daughter goes to public school, and each year one of the routine requirements is a form that outlines her medical issues. It’s a step to ensure the safety of our daughter, but it’s just one of many. We try to put our minds at ease by following a few routines and by taking nothing for granted.
Meet the administrators
Every fall we schedule a visit to see the school nurse. Our conversation starts off like this: “Our daughter has a peanut allergy. Here’s the plan we’ve outlined for this year in case something happens.” Note that we say this year. Phone numbers change. Addresses change. Staff members change. Even allergies change. We like to get ahead of the curve. We make sure the school understands the severity of our daughter’s allergy, we agree on an unambiguous plan of action, and we keep the dialogue open throughout the school year. Most importantly, we make sure everyone is comfortable with the plan and that no one is afraid to contact us if there’s a problem.
Next, we talk about equipment: “Our daughter has an allergy that requires an EpiPen. Does your staff know how to administer an EpiPen properly?” The answer can vary. It’s almost always 50-50, depending on new staff hires. In some cases, we’ve made sure to watch staff members demonstrate administering medication so we’re assured they know what they’re doing. Yes, we may be the irritating parents all admins talk about when we’re not around, but we’re not taking any chances.
Here are some other questions we like to ask: “Where do you keep the EpiPens? Do you keep them in the classroom? Do you keep them in the cafeteria? Who has access to them? If they’re locked up, do multiple people have keys to access?” With allergies, time is the most critical component. Any delay can turn into a big problem. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, even if they seem annoying. If we have a choice between annoying parents and overly cautions parents, we go with overly cautious.
Know your child’s personality
A child’s demeanor is one of those unassuming obstacles a parent has to face when it comes to allergies. Our daughter is relatively shy, but we’ve taught her to speak up. We’ve taught her to make sure that people know when something is wrong. Some kids may not be so vocal because they feel embarrassed. Teaching them to recognize their symptoms and to feel comfortable approaching an adult is one of the most important lessons we’ve learned over the years. No one wants their child to feel stigmatized, but no one wants them to be in the ER because they didn’t alert someone to the problem.
Don’t sell your kids short. It’s important to have a frank conversation: Here’s what to do if “X” happens: “If someone offers you food be sure to ask if it contains a food you can’t eat. If you’re not sure, don’t eat it.” Soon it becomes habit. As shy as my daughter can be, she’s not afraid to tell people she’s not allowed to eat a particular food.
Schools are routinely putting systems in place to separate kids with allergies, informally but perhaps detrimentally. A mother in Aliso Viejo, California was shocked when she learned her young son, who suffers from a severe peanut allergy, spent a cookie-baking activity sitting in the corner of the room while the other students pressed on. In Northern New Jersey, school districts have experimented with the “peanut-free table” during lunch break, perhaps unwittingly forcing kids to overcome a different type of social stigma. Overcoming these issues is largely about developing a relationship with the school. My wife and I chose a specific pre-school over others because they did a better job explaining food allergies to their staff, and had a better plan in place in case something happened.
Make it fun
Our daughter doesn’t go outside without an allergy bracelet, even though it’s not the most attractive accessory. But some places have creative alternatives that can make choosing a bracelet fun, including different colors, themes, etc. MedicAlert, for example, boasts a superhero sports band collection and a “sweetheart” charm bracelet. Lauren’s Hope, a company that specializes in medical ID bracelets, looks like a pseudo Amazon.com, offering an array of Men’s, Women’s, Girls and Boys products, anything from waterproof bands to leather and stainless steel. The “Fun and Funky” category is always a good choice. When wearing a bracelet isn’t viewed as a punishment or Scarlet Letter, it’s a win-win for everyone.