The Speed of Summer

This has been the summer of slow: of washing the morning’s dishes; scraping and sweeping up Cocoa Pebbles off the ceramic kitchen tiles; straightening the throw pillows on the couch again; hanging pool towels on the line. There have been days when I wanted to scream, when I wished for salvation in the form of a plane ticket to Philadelphia paid for by my mother. There have been days I’ve feebly attempted to convince my 12 year old to wake up before 11 so we can spend a morning off the kibbutz doing “something,” but he’s never acquiesced and I’ve never pushed it.

It is August now, and we’ve done nothing, he and I. It is August, and we’re closer now to the end of the summer than the beginning.

Read more of this post at The Times of Israel.

Peanut-flavored twist of fate, or a miracle?

I’m writing this while it’s still very fresh.

Because I feel like I need to process it all.

Earlier this week I was engaged in a heated discussion in the comments section of a fellow blogger and fellow mom of food allergic kids about how Israel doesn’t take food allergies seriously.

Earlier this morning, I blogged about how frustrated I feel with the Israel medical care system.

And then, like a freak thunderstorm that knocks down the tree that just misses your house, the Universe decided it wanted to tell me something.

I think. Or else it’s all a very very strange coincidence.

Around lunch time, I got a call from my husband. He was on his way home with the boys from school. The 9 year old had just thrown up all over the car. My husband then told me that my son had eaten a candy at school and started feeling sick after. He was afraid it had nuts in it.

But he wasn’t sure. My son hadn’t read the ingredients.

Our smart son; our careful son; the one who has had now 7 years of experience living with food allergies… he slipped up.

Of course, one can understand. It was a sucking candy. Not a chocolate bar. Not a cake or a cookie or a brownie. An orange-flavored hard candy. At least that’s what it looked like and even tasted like to him.

In all our years of reading ingredients, we have never once ever come upon a hard sucking candy with nuts in it (save for coconut oil, which he is not allergic to.)

I think he got complacent. And, like any 9 year old boy, careless.

Maybe we got complacent. We stopped nudging him.

Either way, today, after years of wondering what it would be like to look anaphylaxis  in the face, I did. Smack dab.

This wasn’t my son’s first allergic reaction. He’s had three reactions in the past — one last Spring even to a new food he wasn’t allergic to in the past — but all have been treated  successfully with Benadryl, an antihistamine. It’s the first course of treatment according to our allergists, unless his lips swell or he can’t breathe.

Today, his lips weren’t swollen and he could still breathe, but yet, he was not right. I could tell. Kinda. But not for certain.

As soon as he got home, I could see he was pale. He also couldn’t breathe from his nose. And while he could still breathe from his mouth, his throat hurt and his voice sounded like he had something stuck in there.

I wasn’t quite sure he “needed” the epipen. But I held on to it as I evaluated him. I looked in his throat. It looked swollen.

I had just given myself the epipen a few months before for what I had thought was allergy but turned out to be food poisoning. At the time, I told myself, “It was good you did. Now you know it doesn’t really hurt. Now you will really give it to the kids if they need it and not worry about it hurting.” (Ask any parent of kids with food allergies and most will tell you they worry about having to give the epipen to their kid. “I don’t want to give him the shot. It will hurt.”)

I looked at my son and asked, “Do you feel I should give you the epipen?”

He was scared. He hesitated. He didn’t say, No. But he couldn’t say, Yes.

I said yes for him.

I reminded him that it wouldn’t hurt. It would help.

He was brave. Very brave, as I stuck the epipen in his thigh.

Thank goodness, I did. Later, after we took him to the doctor; after the doctor checked his vitals; after he gave him steroids as a follow up treatment; he told us, we did the right thing.

And it was only after that, my husband pulled out one of the wrapped candies the teacher had given us to show us what he ate. Another child had handed them out during recess when the teacher wasn’t there.

The candy said Praline on the wrapper.

Pralines are not nuts, themselves. They are a nut-flavored candy or cookie.  It wasn’t part of our vocabulary … the one we’ve always used when training him on what to do around food. My son didn’t know what a praline was. Because it’s a nut candy, he’s never eaten it. Also, it’s not something children generally eat in anywhere in America I’ve ever been (except Georgia, now that I think about it). My son has never seen anything like that.

Of course, if he had read the ingredients written in teeny tiny crumpled up type on the wrapper, he would have seen the word “peanut.” We did.

I can’t be angry at my son. I am too thankful right now he is alive.

I am thankful he trusted his body and got help right away.

I’m thankful that his teacher called us immediately as soon as she heard he had eaten the candy.

I’m thankful my husband happened to be nearby with the car and could get him from school.

I’m thankful I had the courage to give him the epipen even though I wasn’t sure he “needed” it.

I’m thankful there was a clinic open to see my child (even though the first two ones we called were closed and no one available to answer the phones).

I’m thankful we had friends around to help us with our other kids.

I’m thankful traffic on the one lane road to the clinic wasn’t extraordinarily slow as it often can be.

I’m thankful the doctor on call at the clinic happened to be our pediatrician, who knew us, and who we felt comfortable with.

I’m happy he took us seriously. I’m happy the nurse and the receptionist at the clinic also took us very seriously. I’m happy the teacher (who called us later to check on him and express her concern) and the children in my son’s class all took it seriously.

Of course, I am most thankful he is sitting next to me right now bugging me to get off the computer and get him a popsicle.

He is ok.

He is ok.

And, perhaps, there are Israelis who take food allergies seriously.

After today, I imagine some of them will likely take them more seriously than they did before.

I’m not suggesting the turn of events was all the work of something supernatural or magical. Or that someone or something was really trying to send me a message.

(They do take it seriously.)

(He is in safe hands.)

(You will know what to do.)

(He will be okay.)

But, one way or another?

Message received.

Will Israel Wake Up to Food Allergies?

((Originally posted on The Jerusalem Post blogs on July 22, 2011. I ask you to please pass on to your Israeli friends.))

Yesterday, while swimming at the pool with my kids, my friend Daniella called me over to ask me if I heard about the girl who died from an allergic reaction in Tel Aviv.
 
Immediately my heart leapt into my throat.
 
No, I said. What happened?
 
Daniella told me what she understood from the story and the blanks were filled in later when I got home and googled “Girl dies from nut allergy in Israel.”
 
In my mind, the girl was young, like my son, but in reality she was a young adult; independent and out for a night with her young friends. Presumably, she did everything right. She asked the waiter if there were nuts in the Belgian waffle dessert she ordered, including Nutella, a popular hazelnut-based chocolate spread. According to testimonies from her friends, the waiter told her there was not.
 
And so she ate it.
 
It’s a choice each food allergic individual and the individuals who parent kids with food allergies have to make each and every day.
 
Do we live in a bubble or do we venture out into a dangerous world and do our best to keep ourselves safe?
 
I don’t know if the woman had an epi-pen on her or if it was used. The details are missing from the story. I do know that we insist that my 8 ½ year old son carried a green canvas Steve’s backpack with him wherever he goes: to school, to camp, to a friend’s house, to the migrash, to restaurants, to sleepovers at his Saba and Savta’s. Some people have indicated they think it’s excessive. I worry it might someday be a lifesaver for him.

Inside the small pack is his “epi pen pack” a plastic bag with two pens of epinephrine, Benadryl and an instructions note that indicates his allergens (peanuts, walnuts, pecans, almonds, and hazelnuts) and potential reactions to recognize.
 
Despite this visible reminder and verbal requests to keep him safe by keeping him away from nuts, I’m amazed at how often people forget. Or perhaps they don’t forget, but they don’t think that his allergy (or any food allergies) are truly life threatening.
 
I don’t know why, exactly, but Israelis, on the whole, do not take his food allergies seriously. This is in stark contrast to the States, where more and more parents are toting epi-pens as accessories.
 
In the weeks leading up to our aliyah, I anxiously researched schools and communities, but not so much to learn about education or teaching styles, rentals or housing markets. No, the most important information I needed to find had to do with food. And I was dismayed to find out that food allergy awareness, while growing, is still something that is not only severely lacking in Israel, but blatantly off the radar of important government officials and in schools.
 
I was shocked to find there was no school nurse on site to administer an epi-pen should my son need it. (We had to train him how to administer it himself.) I was shocked to find out that unlike in the States where there is some regulation on labeling, in Israel there was none; instead manufacturers slap everything with a “May contain traces of nuts, sesame, or gluten” label in order to avoid liability issues, leaving our food allergic children with no true concept of what they can and cannot eat from the packaged food selection.

Worse yet for us, my two kids with allergies react to nuts and sesame, I daresay two of Israel’s “national” foods.
 
I was not surprised to find out that parents here still served peanut butter-smothered Bamba at every childhood function, from birthdays to Yom Hatzmaut. But I was devastated to learn that most bread products in Israel, including pita, pizza and challah, are covered in sesame; and most ice cream and candy are swimming in nuts, from pesek-zman to kit kats.
 
Nothing terrifies me in this country more than the risk my children face when they eat outside their home.
 
Not terrorism, not kassam rockets, not enemy infiltrations into my small Northern community.
 
No, nuts and sesame scare me a whole lot more.
 
We’re doing what we can to try to eliminate our fear and to continue to empower our children to speak out about their food allergies. To make sure they ask adults to help them when we’re not around. To engage their friends in protecting them by keeping away from them their food allergens. Some of it’s working. I saw it yesterday at the pool when my son’s 5-year-old friend told him to stay away from his sesame covered sandwich.
 
But what can we do when we continue to find ourselves in situations where Israelis pooh-pooh food allergies; even when our child speaks up and requests assistance? Our son has been told by teachers and camp counselors that a food product does not contain nuts without reading the label. When he insists they read the label, they insist back that it’s “fine for him.” This is unconscionable.
 
This is contrary to what we have spent 6 years teaching our son and, while these laid back adults don’t mean my son harm, they do likely think, “Ze lo big deal.” But, I assure you, it is a big deal.
 
I’m sorry to say it, but somewhere in that café in Tel Aviv, someone thought “ze lo big deal” and a woman died. Or someone wasn’t thinking at all.
 
If we, as a country, can take so seriously the issues of kashrut labeling on our foods, we can and should take life threatening allergies just as seriously, if not more.
 
I’m seeing more awareness of Celiac disease in Israel and noticing more gluten free foods popping up even in the mainstream markets. This is great. But it’s just a baby step. In North America, there are eight common food allergens: fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, wheat, eggs, soy, with sesame and corn following close behind. And while there are studies that Israeli children seem to be less susceptible to peanut allergies than their Jewish American counterparts, considering the influx of their Jewish American counterparts as new olim to Israel, I suggest that Israel wakes up and starts treating this as a serious issue.
 
What do I mean by that?

1. Start by regulating labeling in the food industry. Require strict guidelines on food labeling and differentiate between CONTAINS and is PREPARED ON EQUIPMENT WITH. The government should monitor this labeling.

2. Hold restaurants accountable for what they serve their customers. Educate restaurant owners about the life threatening nature of food allergies. Some restaurant chains in the US have started preparing and offering food allergy versions of their menus so that guests can know which foods contain what.

3. Be closely in touch with FAAN (Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network), a US non-profit that has already made great strides in both creating awareness and supporting parents of food allergic children by creating local and regional support groups.

4. Educate ganim and school staff on the seriousness of food allergies. Suggest they incorporate food allergy awareness into their “diversity” and “good citizenship” programs. Bullying and teasing of food allergic kids is on the rise. 
Right now, there is no magical cure for food allergies. And even worse, the numbers of food allergic children are on the rise. (That’s a blog post in and of itself; if you want to get started, check out AllergyKids.com or read my friend Robyn O’Brien’s book The Unhealthy Truth.)
 
As Naama Katzir from the food allergy advice and counseling association says in the YNet story on the tragic death this week, “The Health Ministry has sadly been dragging its feet for over three years and is tarrying over launching regulations for the marking of food products. Over the last few years there have been a vast number of harsh allergic reactions, mainly with children. Sadly both cases ended like this tragic case – in death.”
 
Does Israel need another tragic death to wake up to a growing public health concern?
 
This very frightened mother of two Israeli food allergic children hopes and prays the answer is no.