Navigating the decision to send your child with food allergies to overnight camp
Children are different in so many ways; and this applies also to food allergies. While all parents look at sleep-away summer camps with this in mind, those of us managing food allergies have a longer list to think about. When food allergies are life threatening our anxiety level can grow along with the list of things to consider.
Once you’ve decided on the type of camp you want to look at for your child (sports, outdoorsy, academic, etc.), it’s time to move on to food allergy considerations: How severe is your child’s allergy history? Does that mean proximity to appropriate medical care is a larger or smaller issue? How clear is your child’s understanding of a reaction and what to do? How experienced is she with being responsible for food issues and allergy management? What is his level of comfort in communicating with peers and adults about allergy matters? In this particular camp situation what is the level of risk for getting the wrong food through kitchen mistakes or cross contact/contamination? What is the staff’s level of experience with real allergy situations, including managing a reaction?
Write the answers out. Be honest. Give yourself plenty of time to work through things. Remember, it may take a week or more to get clear info about the camp staff and food program. As you work through these issues, you might even devise a scoring system for the questions. Or, as you go through the process, the answer might just come.
For a child with a history of severe reactions to numerous allergens, I would suggest giving your most serious consideration to camps situated near a major medical center. (This doesn’t necessarily mean you are limited to camping in a city. There are probably a few in relatively rural areas!) I would also advocate for camp staff with specific experience handling allergic reaction and with specific experience managing the food preparation and selection issues you deal with. Also, for kids with past severe reactions it might be best to see high levels of comfort on all the self management issues. The good thing about this is that often severely allergic kids tend to be the ones that understand allergies and reactions the best. Sometimes, however, they are also the ones parents protect the most. We are driven to. Just remember, what we teach our children now, and empower them to handle now, is what they will build upon for future independence. It’s a process. Just like riding a tricycle prepares them to ride a bicycle, we get there gradually.
Since many children with known food allergies have only one or two allergens of concern, and may not have a history of severe reaction, decision-making can possibly be approached differently. Perhaps a more remote camp location is more reasonable. As the distance from appropriate medical care increases, perhaps you could balance this by tightening your approach to food types and preparation methods. It all comes down to risk management. When you reduce your ready access to definitive medical care (a fully staffed hospital), it is best to balance this by also reducing your risk of reaction. So, you might plan to send to camp more prepackaged foods that you feel confident are produced in a low-risk, allergy-friendly environment. Or, ask for more special care in meal preparation. And, make sure the staff are trained and experienced.
One more thing you’ll want to know concerns the local Emergency Medical Service (EMS). Make sure that EMS personnel are trained and equipped to administer epinephrine. Proper access to this life saving medication is critical in an allergic reaction. Though you’ll send epi autoinjectors to camp according to the food allergy action plan that you and your allergist have devised, you’ll want to know that EMS can also provide this medication if necessary.
It’s important to remember that just as we are driven to protect our children from their food allergies, we must also empower them to live fully with food allergies. For every parent it can be hard to imagine our children’s future. And, we are all generally looking to set them free one day. For parents of children with food allergies, we must imagine a future of independence and confidence in managing these issues. That way we are sure to travel the path to that goal.
On that note, I think it’s good to begin thinking about sleep away camp way ahead of time. And, I suggest that you discuss the question with your child’s allergist. He or she will know how to help you work through the best approach to balancing risk and timing. The first year you consider camp, you might conclude that it’s not time yet. However, all the hours and effort you spend on the matter this year will contribute to answering the question with confidence again in the future. The process might even provide the inspiration you need to allow her to sleep over at a friend’s house, or take a day trip with another family. These steps might lead the way to camp another year! Even if you wait until he’s sixteen to go. And, camp as a kid will prepare for college later!
About the possibility of a reaction, if your child is younger and you are worried about how she would handle an allergic event and trip to an unfamiliar hospital, you might schedule your own vacation in a nearby locale during the time of camp. If something happens, you are there to be her support and advocate. For older kids approaching college age, this might be less important.
Once you decide if camp is right for your child, I suggest you spend plenty of time preparing. For this you can refer to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network (FAAN) for great advice and materials on what to do when you are getting ready to go. Among other materials, they have a two page checklist on their website that was developed with the Association of Camp Nurses. I think their approach supports the idea that deciding about camp and balancing the risks associated is ultimately our job as parents, and we have very specific responsibilities to our children and to the camp in preparing. For more on camp matters, including great news about day camps, I suggest that you check out Living Without magazine’s excellent article this month. Written by Eleanor Garrow-Majka of FAAN, it is full of great information and tips.