On an overcast October afternoon, tennis coach Les Smith arrived at our New Jersey home to pick up my son Josh, 16. The coach and his player would soon be on the road, headed to a USTA National tournament in Delaware.
Tennis is Josh’s passion. He works hard on his game, has talent and has become competitive on the national juniors’ circuit. Yet, he also has a severe peanut allergy, which adds a big layer of diligence in a sport that requires travel to compete.
Coach Les and his player would be gone from Friday until Monday afternoon. I calculated in my head: there were 11 meals and countless snacks that Josh would be eating without any input from my husband or me.
I asked Les to come inside for a few minutes and led him to a table with two grapefruits and a bunch of expired epinephrine auto-injectors. Les needed to feel confident using the auto-injector to treat anaphylaxis, in case of a reaction, and to understand the feel of injecting epinephrine into the thigh. It was a good practice session, and Les was glad to see there was no huge needle with either the Auvi-Q or EpiPen.
I felt happy that auto-injectors were a little more familiar to the coach now. Les also has copy of Josh’s anaphylaxis emergency plan and knows the symptoms of a reaction.
Training the coach on proper auto-injector technique was the easy part, though. The hard part for me as a parent was handing over allergy management control to someone else.
While Josh lives under our roof, my husband and I have taken steps to keep him safe. We have taught him to read ingredient labels, advocated for him in school, and we make sure he always carries his auto-injector and knows how to use it. But I know when Josh is no longer living in our home, he will need to know how to protect and advocate for himself. Transitioning food allergy management to him as a teenager is vital, but it’s certainly a process – for both of us.
Peanutty Matches, Plus a Reaction
In competitive tennis, Josh has faced some challenges because of the food allergy, right from the get-go.
Our son entered his first USTA Intermediate tournament at 8 years old. We were on vacation in Florida, and the matches were all outside and started at 8 a.m. on a hot humid day. Midmorning, everyone went inside the club to watch professional tennis on TV. It seemed like a good place to rest – until I saw the huge bowl filled with peanut M&M’s.
All the players’ hands were inside that bowl. These were the pre-COVID days, when everyone would shake hands after matches. I had forgotten to bring wipes. I grabbed Josh and we went to buy some. We then sat in our parked car until his next match. I never forgot wipes again.
Josh’s first USTA National tournament was in Rochester, NY. Our son, now 13, had unluckily drawn the No. 1 seed in his first match. My husband, in an effort to cheer Josh up after the loss, took him to a local ice cream shop.
In his consolation match soon afterward, our son began having a reaction. The score was 4-3 and the opponent told my husband that Josh started coughing, then hitting less hard, and then took a knee saying he was having trouble breathing. While the ice cream they ordered was meant to be peanut-free, we believe there was cross-contact.
My husband treated Josh right away and raced him to the emergency room, just five minutes from the tournament. Josh was observed, then released after a few hours. While the incident ended well, this was a valuable lesson that my husband and Josh never forgot. Snacking at unfamiliar food outlets when away from home would always present cross-contact issues.
At another competition, I saw a player between matches eating from the biggest jar of peanuts I have ever seen. Josh wanted me to leave him at the club until his next match. I was freaked out in my head, but he assured me he would be OK. He reminded me that he went to school every day with peanut butter offered as a choice at lunch.
Normal teenage years are full of peer pressure and risk-taking behavior. When it comes to food allergies, studies show teenagers and young adults with the condition are at the highest risk of fatal food-induced anaphylaxis. Importantly, Josh has built a network of friends on and off the court who are highly aware and supportive of his food allergy.
I will never forget overhearing his friend Nate, at age 14, saying to a player who had just eaten peanuts: “Yo dude, you have to go wash your hands, Josh has a peanut allergy.” That player was about to play a match with Josh. In a corner eavesdropping, my eyes welled up with tears.
How My Son Travels
We have learned to always have a “tennis go” bag. Wipes, foods, meds are all inside. Perishable food is always kept inside a freezable lunch bag because sometimes tournaments last into the night, and it’s a tough task to try finding a safe restaurant after-hours.
When traveling by air or driving distances with overnight stays, we have a different “tennis away go” bag with some important add-ons. For instance, I make pancakes, freeze them and place in the freezable lunch bag. At our destination, they can be easily heated up for breakfast. We bring more perishable snacks, safe desserts, microwavable mac and cheese and nut-free protein bars for those in between match grab and go.
To help ensure success, I engage in serious research before traveling. I try to fly with JetBlue because of their peanut allergy policy in writing, but they do not fly to all locations. I have also had success with Delta, United and Alaska Air. After choosing an airline, if possible, I’ll choose the earliest flight of the day that is nonstop. I make sure the food allergy is noted in the reservation, and we always remind the gate agent when checking in. We pre-board the airline (a right afforded to all food-allergic passengers) and clean the seat area (in case of residue) – and then put a seat cover on Josh’s seat. We also ask for an allergy P.A. announcement, whenever that’s possible.
Our family is careful about the hotels; we choose only rooms that have a microwave and refrigerator. Sometimes, we rent a condo that has a full kitchen. Josh loves Jersey Mike’s, a restaurant chain with locations in many states. We’ll look up one close to our destination, and still ask the questions about cross-contact, just in case another outlet does things differently. We also call restaurants in advance, so we know ahead of time whether they can deal with a peanut allergy.
Success On and Off Court
Josh learned over time that Mom and Dad had devised a food allergy “playbook” that needs to be diligently followed to keep him safe away from home. Our hope was that the playbook would become as second nature as hitting a tennis ball. As time has passed, we have seen Josh’s awareness grow of how to keep himself safe. As he moved into high school, he began to ask if he could travel just with his coach for tennis. To tell you the truth, we were still very reluctant for a while.
This past summer, Josh qualified for the USTA National Championships in Michigan, and Coach Les accompanied Josh and my husband. We felt this was a first step, showing Les what steps we take when flying and eating with our allergic son. After all, up in the air far from medical care is a very different situation than being on the ground. As a leading advocate for food allergy passenger rights, I know airlines do not have to carry auto-injectors nor do flight attendants have mandatory training on food allergies.
On the flight to Michigan, my husband was able to show Les how we pre-board, clean the seat area, and never snack on the airline’s food. Restaurants were vetted in advance and safe chain sandwich locations were scouted.
When the USTA National tournament was announced in Delaware for early October, my husband and I had a conflict. Josh asked: If he could go alone with his coach? Realizing we have to let Josh, at the age of 16, start taking the reins to keep himself safe, we said “yes”.
The long weekend was a resounding success. Josh won sixth place in singles. Then he and his doubles partner Giuseppe won the doubles competition in the 16-year-olds’ group. After this tournament, Josh is currently ranked in the Top 10 in the United States for doubles for his age group.
His coach told me that he was “proud of Josh’s behavior both on and off the court”. Music to a mother’s ears. He mentioned how Josh was easy to be with, and how he spoke up at restaurants about his food allergy. He told me that Josh asked all the right questions about cross-contamination. I am so proud of Josh, and he is equally proud of himself.
The college years loom in the near future. I am still nervous about Josh managing his food allergies without us. However, this trip with his coach has given me an optimistic glimpse of how Josh will handle his food allergy in the future.
Lianne Mandelbaum is the founder of NoNutTraveler.com, the website advocating for food allergy passenger rights.
Risk Taking and Allergic Teens – What I’ve Learned
DOT Warns American Airlines: Food Allergy Family’s Rights were Violated
At 30,000 Feet, Why We Can’t Count on Epinephrine Vials on an Airplane