Friday, December 12, 2008

Butter, Creams, and Hayden's Health

I buttered my toast today.

For you, perhaps, hot buttered toast may not be a thing of excitement, but if you have ever spent a period of time without dairy products, you can understand my sentiment. Just four weeks ago, I tasted butter for the first time in seventeen months. And while extra virgin olive and coconut oils made a decent substitute for that time, now that I can eat butter again, I am enjoying every excuse to spread it on something.

Hayden was just five months old when he was diagnosed with food allergies. He had screamed through much of his early life. We suspected colic, reflux, teething, even allergies, but the three week elimination diet I tried seemed to have little effect on his symptoms. The eczema on his cheeks became infected and increasingly severe. Five different doctors diagnosed the oozing, crusting disease as impetigo and prescribed more than half a dozen medications, including topical and oral antibiotics that only made him scream more when we had to force them into his mouth. We even tried baby Zantac for possible reflux, but Hayden's irritability never ceased, and his skin only became more raw and infected. We had to swaddle him, even at four and five months old, to keep him from scratching his face; if a hand got loose, he would wake up bleeding. Finally, after the family doctor admitted he was "out of ideas," and there had been more than a few particularly bloody scratching episodes, my husband insisted that we drive an hour into Boston to the emergency room at Children's Hospital. In retrospect, it was the best thing we could do for our miserable little guy.

The doctors at Children's Hospital were a true gift from God, as they actually had the knowledge to properly diagnose and treat Hayden's ailments. They supplied us with prescriptions and specific instructions for the care of his eczema, such as daily daths and frequent use of emollient creams. The dermatologist faithfully kept in touch with me through email as we worked out a cure for Hayden's delicate skin. We ended up using Protopic, an ointment that was not normally recommended for children under two, but any possible risk proved to be far outweighed by the benefits. Meanwhile, they also scheduled allergy testing for him, since there is often a link between eczema and allergies. The skin prick test exposed Hayden to approximately sixteen common allergens - and he had positive reactions to seven of them. Since he was still exclusively breastfed, the allergist instructed me to avoid all traces of milk, eggs, soy, peanuts, and tree nuts in my diet. It meant strict adherence to a limited menu and a rigid skin care routine, but the result was well worthwhile.

Once his skin was mostly clear and the allergens were out of his system, Hayden's personality seemed to change. He was happy instead of fussy. He laughed instead of shrieking. No longer did I have to spend evenings pacing back and forth in our small apartment, bouncing him on my shoulder in a vain attempt to hush his cries. No longer did I have to cover his hands with socks to keep him from scratching himself while he cried through car rides. Any sacrifice of time or taste on my part paled in comparison to the charming gummy smile and kissable cheeks of my youngest son.

In fact, since I enjoy baking, the challenge of allergen-free cooking became a bit of a hobby. I experimented with different recipes and substitutes in order to make cookies, pies, breads, and other yummy treats (though a few not-so-yummy concoctions did end up in the trash). In fact, eating at home was not much of a problem at all. I quickly replaced my nightly dessert - a big bowl of Breyer's ice cream - with popcorn popped in coconut oil and sea salt. I cooked with rice milk and coconut milk, and I ate more meat since I could no longer get protein from dairy, eggs, or nuts. The hardest part of the elimination diet was eating at restaurants and other people's houses, when I often had to ask for ingredient lists and then say to a well-meaning waitress or hostess, "Oh, I can't have that." But when Hayden started solid foods around nine months, it was easy for me to know what to feed him in spite of the limitations - after all, I had already been following his dietary restrictions for months!

Since I believe breastfeeding is one of the best things I can do for my children's health, I am committed to exclusive breastfeeding until they start solid foods, and continuing breastfeeding as a valuable source of nutrition throughout the first year and beyond. In Hayden's case, since he had few other options for protein intake and his diet was so limited, I was all the more committed to nursing him for as long as possible. It may have been easier for me to wean him on his first birthday so that I could eat dark almond bark and mozzarella sticks, but what would be the result for my precious little boy? I made it my goal to nurse him at least until he turned two years old, and I praise God that I was able to meet it.

I nursed Hayden right up until his second birthday, spending the last month weaning him because I was pregnant (which is a subject for another post altogether). Now he enjoys drinking rice milk from the green Klean Kanteen cup we bought for his birthday. And I can enjoy a varied diet, so free from restrictions that I feel spoiled with all the choices available to me. Sometimes Hayden still asks, "You gonna share that with me?" and instead of being able to freely offer what is on my plate, I have to reply, "No, I can't share this because it has butter on it." Hayden is so good, though. He usually accepts what he can't have without protest, and he knows the word "allergic." Even at his young age, he seems to understand what is off limits, perhaps because he has never known any other way.

It's interesting to me to reflect back on the ordeal with Hayden's health that seems so distant and forgotten now. I know it was nothing compared to the trials so many parents face with children who have special needs, chronic health conditions, and even life-threatening allergies. (Praise God, though we were prescribed an EpiPen for Hayden, we have never yet needed to use it!) Yet I feel honored that God chose Don and me for the task of raising this special child of his, and that I was privileged to be able to make some small sacrifices in order to promote his health and well-being for so long.

And today, as we celebrated Donny's fourth birthday, I was able to taste-test the chocolate cheesecake that Donny requested. Donny got to lick the egg beaters (the ones covered with cream cheese, eggs, and condensed milk) while Hayden licked the spoon I used to stir the chocolate. Chocolate, you ask? Yes, during the course of my allergen-free days, I discovered that Ghiradelli semisweet chocolate chips do not contain milk (or soy flour, as some "dairy free" chips do!). I made sure to use those particular chocolate chips for today's dessert so that everyone could partake in some way. After our baking project, I was of course careful to wipe Hayden's face and apply Cetaphil cream to protect his skin.

And when I wake up tomorrow to enjoy a buttery fried egg on buttered (store bread!) whole wheat toast, I will be thanking my Lord for two wonderfully healthy, happy boys. He is so good.

Praise the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits-
who forgives all your sins
and heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit
and crowns you with love and compassion,
who satisfies your desires with good things
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.

Psalm 103:2-5

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