The day after the birth of our first child, my husband Victor and I purchased a property in cottage country north of Toronto. A nature lover who thrives on solitude, it had been Victor’s dream to own land since coming to Canada.
He had grown up with a conservation park as his backyard in Nairobi, Kenya. As a “city girl” born just outside of Toronto, I would have been happy sipping margaritas by a hotel pool after a day of sight-seeing and shopping. At first I was not keen on becoming a cottage owner (too much work), but I’ve come to relish the time spent there.
The cottage has become a respite from our busy lives. As we take in the country air, our shoulders relax as the tension oozes out with each breath. With no phone line or Internet access, Victor and I are able to decompress. For our children, Julian, 14, and Samarra, 11, the cottage has taught them that they can have fun beyond electronic devices. Their imaginations run wild as they run barefoot through the woods and hunting for snakes and frogs. Their adventures are endless.
When we signed the mortgage to the cottage the day after Julian was born, little did we know that our family would embark on a different kind of adventure a few years later: the food allergy journey. When he was 3, Julian was diagnosed with a severe allergy to peanut, and his list of food allergies would grow. Life would change for all of us.
We quickly learned the basics of keeping him safe, but we worried about what would happen if he had an allergic reaction at the cottage. In the city, we were five minutes from a hospital; in the country, it could be a 40-minute wait before the paramedics arrived.
It’s not as easy to find a cottage in the country as a house in the city. Ambulance crews may not know which crossroad is closest to the address they are looking for, and there may be multiple country roads which feed into one lake. The locator system (a number system) in Ontario’s cottage country is not flawless.
We were nervous about taking Julian up north after we learned that he was at risk of anaphylaxis, but we settled down after we realized that the safety strategies we adhered to in the city would also apply in the country; we just had to do more planning. So far we’ve been fortunate – Julian has never had an allergic reaction at the cottage. But if he does, we know what to do.
Below are some of the rules we follow, and that Food Allergy Canada suggests as well. I hope they can guide you to safe cottaging, so that your family, too, can enjoy the wonderful remote areas of this country, but still feel ready in case of an allergy emergency.
Cottage or Beach House Tips
• The basic safety rules apply: Carry an epinephrine auto-injector and don’t eat without it if you’re food-allergic. Wear medical identification. (People with an allergy to insect stings should stay with a buddy who knows what to do to treat a reaction.)
• Keep extra auto-injectors at the cottage in case you forget yours on the trip. There may not be a pharmacy in town.
• While it’s optimal to have your child transported to hospital by ambulance, map out routes to the nearest emergency facility in case you need to transport him yourself. Leave this information in a visible area, along with your child’s emergency plan and the locator number for your cottage. (Find out from your local services what to do if your cottage is accessible by water only, e.g. an island cottage.)
• Teach other adults how to recognize signs and symptoms of anaphylaxis and how to use an auto-injector. You might not be the one who is with your child if a reaction occurs.
• Remind guests about your child’s food allergies. When food is brought in, inquire about ingredients and double check labels.
• Prepare your child’s meal first to reduce the risk of cross-contamination if dishes are being served that are not safe for him or her.
• Now is not the time to experiment with having your child try a new type of food or perhaps an exotic fruit a guest has brought. Serve only foods which your child has eaten safely in the past.
• If you’re renting a cottage, it is advisable to clean utensils, plates, and cutting boards that are being used to prepare foods for your child. This includes barbecue grills.
• Remember that cell phones do not always work in cottage country. You might not have service in a rural area or the battery may have died. Have a back-up communications plan at all times.
Laurie Harada is the former executive director of Food Allergy Canada, www.foodallergycanada.ca.