Life StoryAug/Sep 2010 Issue

School Safety Plan

Whether a child is instructed at home or in a traditional school setting, it’s important to strike a balance that allows a food-allergic youngster to be safe while experiencing a normal childhood. So says ER doctor-turned-entrepreneur Lucy Gibney, MD, whose son, Colin, inspired her to trade in her scrubs for baker’s attire.

Colin, now 6, was 4 months old when he had an anaphylactic reaction to infant formula. Tests revealed that in addition to dairy, he was allergic to eggs, wheat, peanuts and tree nuts. Gibney, who loves to bake, decided to create a cookie recipe that Colin could enjoy. Her husband, also an ER doctor, liked the treats so much that he encouraged her to go into business. She did just that in 2007, and now her company—Norfolk, Virginia-based Lucy’s—makes and distributes its line of cookies (and plans to release other allergy-free snacks in the future) to 2,000 grocery stores and 7,000 Starbucks nationwide.

At the same time that Gibney was building her business, she worked out ways for Colin to safely attend preschool, then pre-kindergarten and all-day kindergarten. She calls her plan, which she shares with other parents, The Three P’s:

  1. Prevent Be available to explain your child’s allergies and present proactive solutions. At Colin’s preschool, Gibney approached the director and teachers and offered to do whatever was necessary to help teachers monitor food matters and ensure that Colin would be safe in the classroom. This ultimately meant that she personally provided all classroom snacks with the cooperation of (and monetary contributions from) other parents. The key, she says, was her willingness to handle it in a way that was easy and comfortable for everyone involved. She was aware of the potential downside: “For people who don’t understand food allergies, providing special snacks perhaps overdramatizes food allergies and might create a barrier that I don’t think is good,” Gibney says. “With this kind of challenge, you have to take a couple steps back and say, ‘What can I do that will minimize that effect?’” She was sensitive to her son’s perceptions, too. “I wanted to let Colin be a little boy without being too distracted by having to protect himself,” she says. “I didn’t want him to have too much of an experience of being different.”
  2. Prepare Help caregivers understand exactly what to do in the event of an allergic reaction. During Colin’s preschool years, Gibney conducted teaching sessions with staff members and helped create an emergency team of people who each had a specific assignment: one person to administered the EpiPen while another held Colin; one person called 911 while someone else called the parent. “They would do practice drills. There was redundancy in the group in case someone wasn’t at school on a particular day,” she says. “We left room for people to opt out, too, if they weren’t comfortable.” Gibney says that having such a response system in place is especially important at schools that don’t have a full-time nurse on staff.
  3. Participate Be involved in promoting food-allergy education. “Sometimes families think that schools should know more about food allergies and sensitivities but we’re at a place where schools haven’t dealt with these issues as much as we have as parents,” Gibney says. She suggests coordinating programs for school officials in which a local allergist or food-allergy support group presents information and possible solutions. “I think that if we are patient, open and flexible, eventually we can help to create the right scenario in most school settings.”

Gibney says she hopes her plan will help other parents strike the right balance. “We want to protect our children but we also want to empower them.” And she’s gratified when she catches a glimpse of that balance in her own life—such as the occasion a few months ago when a reporter from a local TV station interviewed her about the pending opening of the new Lucy’s factory.

“We were watching it that evening on the news, and they stated that the inspiration for the business was my son, who ‘suffers’ from food allergies,” Gibney says. “Colin looked at me surprised and said, ‘Mom, I don’t suffer!’ It completely filled my heart, and I thought, this is exactly what I’ve been working for.”

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