Spring Breaks: 2011-2017

It is April 7, 2011, and my family is giddy.

Sitting around the sticky table of a local frozen custard shop are my daughters and husband, each of them with a mountain of gooey dessert: piles of custard under clouds of whipped cream and rivers of fudge. My younger daughter, aged 5, is grinning ear-to-ear. I’m snapping pictures like the mother of a baby trying solid food for the first time. At one point, I step outside to breathe the fresh air of a world restored.

For the ten months prior to today, my little girl has been on a path to discovery, she and her team of doctors searching for the food protein that’s causing the strange patches of white blood cells in her esophagus, the patches that were keeping her from swallowing well. For ten months, she’s been avoiding a list of common allergens — dairy, soy, egg, nuts, and wheat — and undergoing tests to see if the culprit could be found. Earlier today, we got the news that only one food was left to be added, since all the others had seemed to cause her no ill. Adding that last food — dairy — means that she can eat out at any restaurant she liked. It means that, for the first time in ten months, we can travel without worrying about her food.

We leave the frozen custard shop and embark immediately on a road trip. We feed her everything she’s been missing: restaurant pancakes with butter and syrup, cheese popcorn, candy bars, pizza, string cheese and yogurt. For the first time in nearly a year, I don’t carry a big insulated bag full of food for her. We rejoice, but under the rejoicing is the knowledge that this is just another food trial. It’s both a first meal and a last — this is the last food trial, and everyone expects it to be a failure.

Spring break, 2011: last meal. Continue Reading…

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They Called Me Again

I was watching tv with my family over dinner on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day last week when the phone rang. The caller ID told me that it was the children’s hospital where my daughter spent years being treated for issues stemming from a congenital heart defect (even though not all of her doctors realized it). We’d not had a call from that hospital in over a year.

“Hello, is this the parent of Samara Lewis?” someone asked.

I walked several rooms away from my family and answered, “Yes, who is this?”

“Thank you ma’am, this is the gastroenterology practice at [hospital name]. We’re just calling to discuss the socioeconomic impact of Samara’s treatment for eosinophilic esophagitis. Do you have time for a quick survey?”

I paused. I paused for so long that the woman asked if I was still there. I paused long enough to talk myself through the waves of anger, heartache, and indignance that crashed over me as I pondered the audacity of that question. I paused long enough to think about how I’d like to answer that question. Continue Reading…

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The Teal Pumpkin Project: Because We Remember

teal-pumpkin-remember

When my daughter Sammi was five, Halloween could have been just horrible.

Just a few months earlier, Sammi had been diagnosed with a disease called eosinophilic esophagitis. An inflammatory condition of the esophagus — the tube that runs between the mouth and the stomach — it is poorly understood and responds to only a handful of imperfect treatments. The treatment we chose for her was called the Six Food Elimination Diet, a set of food restrictions that required her to avoid anything with dairy, soy, eggs, nuts, fish, or wheat. We were already vegetarians; this was a huge lifestyle change for our entire family.

Sammi had just started kindergarten, learning to read and write and follow instructions in a classroom that necessarily had been forced to eliminate Play-Doh (wheat) and to keep a small box with “Sammi-safe” snacks available for the days — most days — when she could not eat the shared snacks brought by her classmates. It was a rough start. And then, it was Halloween.

On this particular diet, the only kind of typical Halloween candy she could eat were Smarties and Dum-Dums. All other candies contained a forbidden item or were produced on equipment that might be shared with a forbidden item, and so I tried to figure out how to save Halloween. How would it be to walk from house to house and say, over and over again, “No, you can’t eat that one. No, you can’t eat that one either. No, no, no”?

Finally, I decided to solve our problem with a combination of money and magic. Continue Reading…

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Sitting on Eggs: A Missed Diagnosis

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On this day in 2010, my tiny, unbreakable five-year-old daughter got the world-changing news that she would be allowed to eat eggs.

For more than six weeks before this photo was taken, Sammi had been asked by her team of gastroenterologists to avoid contact with — and certainly ingestion of — any foods containing dairy, wheat, soy, nuts, fish, or eggs. She was already a vegetarian, and this diet was meant as a way to pinpoint the source of her new, puzzling diagnosis: eosinophilic esophagitis.

We waited both anxiously and in frenetic motion for the first phase of this diet to be over. I hadn’t been afraid of experimenting with my cooking, desperate to find foods that mimicked those we’d eaten in our prior life, but I discovered to my growing disappointment that cooking a vegan, gluten-free, nut-free menu for three meals a day would require nearly all my attention and still be met with regular catastrophe. When it was time to add the first forbidden food back in to her diet, she chose eggs. They were crucial to so many of the things she missed most: matzo balls, deviled eggs, and something resembling a cookie.

I’m writing about this again (I covered the excitement of the day in a previous post) because the single most popular page on my blog is the post called Practicalities of the Six Food Elimination Diet. It is a post written with the memories of the desperation I felt during the early days of this diet, working like a mad scientist, seeking ways to bind starches and proteins, to flavor the world my daughter inhabited. I was in it for the long haul, I thought. I’d heard horror stories about how likely it would be that my daughter would never eat a normal diet again, that the foods her body could tolerate now would eventually become foods her body would reject violently. I cooked and experimented and baked and threw away and started over many times a day.

Years later, with the knowledge that her diagnosis with eosinophilic esophagitis was wrong, I keep coming back to the words of a radiologist who saw Sammi in 2013. You can read the story of her “swallow study” here, but the most important part is his impression that eosinophilic esophagitis was becoming a trendy diagnosis.

It has taken me years to process that idea.

Could it be, I wonder, that medical professionals are susceptible to popular diagnostic trends in a way that blinds them to less-common possibilities? Continue Reading…

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Your Strange Diet, Day One

There are hundreds of articles on the internet and in parenting and health magazines about what it’s like to deal with food allergies. From the relatively minor challenges of mild lactose intolerance to the devastating effects of an anaphylactic reaction, there’s advice on avoidance and labeling, special medical alert bracelets and school safety plans. There are lists of substitutions for these newly dangerous foods, recipes for making things “(fill-in-the-blank) free,” and products popping up on shelves to replace the foods you used to love before they became a danger to you or someone you love.

kitchen cabinetIt’s easy to find those articles. What I felt was missing was an article to help families in those first few days. The day after a child is first raced to the emergency room with a swelling throat, or after the gastroenterologist hands over the celiac diagnosis, or after an oncologist tells someone to follow an anti-cancer diet, they stand in their kitchens and stare down their former life  — and their kitchen cabinets — without knowing what to do first.  Continue Reading…

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