Valentine’s Day with Sweethearts with Allergies

Valentine’s Day is here which means love is in the air and stores are filled with boxes of chocolate candy. Boxes that my sweetheart cannot buy for me. For as Forest Gump tells us “you never know what you’re gonna get” and that is never a good thing for one with allergies! 

So without the ease of omnipresent candy, my sweetheart is forced to be very thoughtful every February 14th! And each year, he comes up with experience gifts. This year, I’m anticipating tickets to see a band who is coming to town (whose music I love) and previous years have included a guided tour of our city at night (where we first fell in love), a museum membership (for my love of art), a tennis lesson (for my love of the game), and a spa gift card (loved – and needed – by any mom). 

Happy experience gifting to all with sweethearts with allergies! 

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Paying Medical Bills as Simply as Possible

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I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason.

When I graduated from college, I spent several months job searching for an entry level position in the arts. A kind family member allowed me to work in his office part time while I searched. He was an insurance broker and I handled claims and additional administrative customer service tasks for his clients. In short, I spent hours on the phone with healthcare providers. Not looking at paintings.

While I was frustrated to not be gainfully employed in the arts, I should have been bubbling over with gratitude. In those few months, I learned the necessary skills for organizing, communicating, understanding, and generally dealing with medical claims. I had no idea how much this would come in handy in the subsequent years of my life.

The complexity of both mine and W’s allergies means that we have stepped foot in too many doctors’ offices to count and our subsequent bills are, simply put, not the simplest. Some specialists are in-network, others are not. Some labs and procedures count towards our deductible, others do not. Some hypoallergenic formulas are covered, others are only processed if they are a certain weight or poundage (that is actually true). Some food introductions need an additional authorization, some need the official seal of the Governor (that is not actually true, though it doesn’t feel too far off).

To navigate as simply as possible (drawing on my healthcare customer service days), I stick to a strict system for paying bills.

As a first step, I collect:

-Oodles of patience
-A writing utensil
-A stapler
-A telephone
-Folders marked Explanations of Benefits, Bills, and Paid Medical Bills

The second step is to marry Explanation of Benefits documents (EOB) and bills. After I receive both an EOB (sent by the health insurance company) and a corresponding bill (sent by the healthcare provider), I make sure they align. For example, if the EOB says the immunologist appointment is covered by insurance except for $34, I ensure the bill from the immunologist is $34.

The third step becomes sort of like “choose your own adventure.” If the EOB and bill amounts are the same, I pick up the phone and pay the bill. I pay via phone and speak to someone in the billing office instead of sending a check so that I have a confirmation number or authorization code immediately. This limits the room for error such as checks lost in the mail, an administrator claiming it wasn’t paid, etc. I then write the confirmation number down on the bill, staple the bill to the EOB, and file it in a folder labeled “paid medical bills” and the year.

If the amounts on the EOB and bill are not the same, I call insurance customer service. A friendly yet generally annoyed agent then tells me – while I stay cool, calm, and collected as that is always best – that they will reprocess / put it in a queue / whatever they need to do to determine the reasoning for the discrepancy. I always ask for an anticipated time frame for an answer and write that date, as well as the date of our phone call and the name of the representative with whom I spoke, directly onto the EOB. (Some unfortunate lost Post It notes led to writing all related notes directly on the paper.)

Afterwards, I immediately call the billing office of the healthcare provider to speak to a different friendly yet generally annoyed individual and request that their office put a hold on the bill until the date insurance provided. This way, they will not send a second bill. I then patiently wait for insurance to provide their answer, or follow up if I have yet to hear back by the given date. (Here is where it helps to have the name of the representative.) Once the insurance folks and I connect, I take notes on the claim status per the representative and then get to work chasing down the Gov’s signature or whatever I must do to make sure all discrepancies are corrected. And once they are, I pick up the phone and finally pay the bill and add it to the “paid” file.

Then I take one of W’s olives and make a well-deserved martini!

Favorite Condiments

Condiments can be tricky for those with allergies. One of my most severe anaphylactic triggers is mustard, which is a common condiment in and of itself, not to mention that mustard seed pops up in most barbecue sauces and salad dressings. With W’s dairy, soy, and egg allergies, we also eliminate cream cheese, mayonnaise, ranch, butter, soy sauce, sour cream, and countless other condiments.

So what do we use to dip, marinate, and spread?! 

In addition to olive oil, my tops are:

Honey 

Honey is not an allergen for anyone in my family so we use it and use it lots! Local and organic is almost always the way to go.

Organic ketchup

There are several on the market to choose from, but I make sure that organic tomatoes is the first ingredient, with no allergen additives. 

Local or homemade jams

As spreads or marinades, jams from local berries and fruits are a fabulous option.

Organic maple syrup

Tater tot hots dipped in maple syrup for breakfast? Yes, please!

Stubb’s barbecue sauce

This Texas made sauce is often the only one on the shelf that leaves out mustard – and it’s delicious!

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Loving Lacoste

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Perhaps it’s because my sweet grandfather has two button-down cardigans with the iconic crocodile that he wears on a rotating basis and has since I was born. Or because my inner prep comes out whenever I see a polo collar. Or because my #1 bucket list item is to watch a match at the French Open and Lacoste sponsors the tennis tournament. Whatever the reason, Lacoste holds a special place in my heart. 

My affinity for the brand skyrocketed beyond belief when perusing lacoste.com. For on their site, Lacoste not only offers an array of 100% cotton clothes, but they provide the filter option  … wait for it … BY MATERIAL. One can simply scroll down to cotton and find all of the options for pure cotton threads. 

Oh, how I wish every retailer would follow suit and add material to their scroll options. For those with textile allergies, this is a resource unlike any other. So many hours of clicking, scrolling, and reading descriptions could be saved and so much joy and ease added to the act of online shopping! 

I remain hopeful that this material filter becomes the norm and until then, I remain grateful for the brands who consider the importance of what textiles are used in their products and communicating such with their consumers. And I keep loving Lacoste! 

Finding My Happy Place

I discovered my passion for art in high school when my European History teacher incorporated art history into our lessons. I found myself excited to see what the Dutch painted as their maritime industry boomed and how the Spanish responded visually to civil war. After high school, I continued my exploration in art by majoring in it in college, volunteering and working in organizations dedicated to it, and generally involving myself with it as much as possible.

So what does being an art nerd have to do with allergies?

When I see a work of art I have studied but never seen before in person, or one that simply intrigues me, I am transported into the details of the brushstrokes, the color palette, the creative process, the texture of the paint, and every other visual element of the painting. If it’s a sculpture, I walk around and around, standing close and then backing away and then moving in again, taking in the lines of the marble or the shapes of the metal.

I completely lose myself in the act of looking. And at no point in my looking do I wonder if I need antihistamines for this.  

As such, art is not only a passion but one of the greatest forms of escapism for living with allergies. In a world where countless experiences might lead to the Emergency Room – or at least to the nearest pharmacy to drink Benadryl straight from the bottle – I take great joy in the moments dedicated to simply observing, studying, and adoring. My art appreciation is further underscored by the places in which it is exhibited. Given the nature of art and its preciousness, museums and galleries are my happy place, generally free from any potential triggers. The floors are bare. The walls are stark. No food and beverage are allowed. In almost every single art museum and gallery is a deliberate omission of food, pets, fabrics, balloons, nature, mold, pollen, scents, medicines, and pretty much anything that may initiate an allergic reaction.  

As such, the presence of art plus the absence of allergens equals an unparalleled place and space of enjoyment, safety, and joyful living with allergies.

Off to see the next exhibition!

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Happy Hypoallergenic Holidays

IMG_0427‘Tis the season for joy and laughter and beautiful décor and delicious once-a-year treats. My steps for making merry with allergies include:

1. Trimming an artificial tree. I know this is a polarizing issue for Christmas celebrators, but for those with environmental allergies, the scented, sapping needles in your home for weeks at a time aren’t ideal. They have come a long way in artificial tree aesthetics, too.

2. Filling our candle holders with unscented candles. Perhaps not as festive as Peppermint or Christmas Cookie scented candles, but avoiding fragrance is generally a good idea with severe scent allergies.

3. Collecting stocking stuffers that aren’t candy. Most retailers have trinket sections in both their stores and catalogs and I make sure to grab any adorable ones I find throughout the season so I can fill each family members’ stocking with non-food items for Christmas morning.

4. Bringing the goodies for the class holiday party. This way, I can ensure everything that is served is safe, and I leave the Nutcracker paper plates for the parents who are unfamiliar with allergies.

5. Hosting a nut-free cookie exchange. A few years ago, my sweet sister organized a cookie exchange and invited guests to bring their favorite nut-free cookie to share. It was not only the kindest gesture ever for her sister with allergies, but was tons of fun and I look forward to making it an annual tradition.

6. Refreshing our holiday music mix. Even if we are following the same tried and true allergen-free recipes we cook all year long, it feels way more festive if “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by She&Him is playing in the background.

Happy hypoallergenic holidays!

The Safe Haven That is Chick-fil-A

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As a family with allergens, we strive to eat the purest form of any food. On our quest to do so, we learned that french fries (“hots”) are most often NOT simply potatoes cut and submerged in oil. They are potatoes that are egged, soyed, milked, breaded, and generally altered. They also are often cooked in the potential allergens of peanut or soybean oil. 

We have also realized that french fries frequently share fry baskets with other products. This alters the purity of the fries, my friends, as if a basket had shrimp fritters in it moments earlier, it now swims with seafood and gluten. 

So where does one with severe FPIES and a love of french fries go for some good ‘ole hots?! 

Enter Chick-fil-A and their waffle fries. The ingredient list is simply real potato and a color retention additive. They are cooked in pure canola oil. They are also fried in a basket dedicated solely to waffle fries, eliminating the chance of cross-contamination. They are also pure deliciousness, and pair perfectly with lemonade (“made”).

Since discovering the purity that is Chick-fil-A waffle fries, we have frequented the drive-thru lane and bounded through the doors of this Atlanta-based chain too many times to count. Instead of toys for W’s birthday, we received gift cards from family members who know his frequency of requests for “hots and made”. For over a year, it has held not only the top – but the only – spot on our restaurant list as it is the single dining establishment where we know that W can eat with no issues. 

Chick-fil-A has certainly become a safe haven for us in the midst of FPIES. It provides an option for road trips, a place to meet friends for lunch, and a sense of inclusion for W who eats the same thing as his siblings (and let’s be honest, his parents – who can resist Chick-fil-A waffle fries?)!

More hots & made, please!

A Thanksgiving Meal for All

IMG_0388Thanksgiving is a time for grace and inclusion and so, more so than ever, it is especially important that W can eat our family’s meal. It is also a must that everything is delicious enough for the obligatory Thanksgiving seconds!

As such, I have carefully curated a menu in which the main cooking ingredient is olive oil and each recipe is free from dairy, wheat, egg and additional allergens for W.

Here’s the spread:

A turkey that is free-range, local, and organic.

Mashed potatoes

Brussel sprouts with bacon

Garlic roasted carrots

Cranberry relish

And for dessert, we serve apple popsicles made simply by freezing local apple cider in popsicle molds.

Happy thanksgiving!

You Are a Badass

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I recently picked up this New York Times bestseller by the same name. WORTH THE READ. 

Let’s be honest, allergies don’t necessarily make one feel like a badass. To live safely with allergies, we must often remove ourselves from certain situations instead of confidently joining in the fun. 

Having lived in the coastal town of Hilton Head, South Carolina with a seafood allergy, I have stood at many a low country boil watching others indulge while I hover in the corner with an EpiPen and a rumbling stomach. Thanks to my latex allergy, I’ve literally run – not walked – away from friends at parties to avoid balloons. In school cafeterias today, separate tables exist to which children with allergies are assigned, removing them from their classmates and friends. 

It can also be hard to feel like a badass if your young child has FPIES. I once took W to run errands with me and decided to not wear our matching uniforms of sweats. Instead, I dressed him in a seersucker onesie and myself in a flowered blouse and skinny jeans. I even refrained from pulling my hair into a knot on top of my head. I was feeling pretty darn good about ourselves and swaggered on into the first stop of our outing. A sweet high schooler said hello and then smiled at W. He paused for a second, looking slightly funny at her, then proceeded to projectile vomit. The moment quickly spiraled from one of shopping in cute clothes (insert regrets about not wearing our sweats and leaving my hair down) to the beginning of one of his worst episodes which ended with us in the hospital for days. 

While reading a book doesn’t make these instances stop, nor does it make allergies and their seriousness disappear, there are coping mechanisms, mantras, and just good sentiments certainly relevant for living with allergies. It is also super well-written, hysterical, and sweet. 

As an allergy navigator as well as a parent to one, I particularly connected to the parts that covered:

Gratitude – for I am grateful for the foods that nourish us, safely, and the friends and resources we have to go through life with allergies, joyfully

Money – for I am undeterred by the bills for the medical care, organic groceries, and other costs that keep us healthy 

Faith – for I have faith that a higher power will keep that Goldfish out of my little’s grasp

Loving Yourself – celiac disease and all 

I’ll end this post with the same sign off as the book – you are a badass. (Now go snuggle up with a 100% cotton blanket and read it.)

7 Fall Family Outings that Don’t Include a Restaurant

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For the last year, we have avoided all but one restaurant to ensure no allergen cross-contamination for W.

So instead of eating out, we take advantage of resources in our area and find experiences that keep us local, busy, and away from food allergens. 

Our recent favorites make the most of fall weather by:

1. Starting each Saturday with a visit to a different playground or park in town.

2. Grabbing pompoms and cheering on the local collegiate team at a game. 

3. Attending a harvest festival at a cultural institution. The beverage on tap is most likely apple cider and thankfully, apples have always been a safe food! 

4. Filling a basket at a pick your own orchard or farm. Bonus: this creates a positive experience around food for W.

5. Inviting friends for an afternoon at a vineyard or brewery – two places where children are surprisingly and increasingly accommodated and outside food is often allowed.

6. Hearing outdoor live music.

7. Indulging W’s love of horses (and lack of a horse hair allergy!) and participating in anything equestrian, from horse races to barn feeds.

So many options that don’t include “Waiter, table for minus one”!