Recently I was in the hospital for a small procedure, which required anesthesia. Upon my arrival, I was asked about any allergies I have, at which point I disclosed my intolerance to gluten. A large, red bracelet was secured prominently on my wrist, the word “GLUTEN” in bold, black writing. This indicates to the doctors and hospital staff that I should not be given “gluten” under any circumstances. Comfortably nestled in my pristine hospital bed, I feel the anesthesia quickly take hold.
Procedure: Over and successful! As I awake from my induced slumber, a nurse asks me if I’d like water. I accept. Then she asks, “Do you want a cookie?”
I look up. Perhaps I am still foggy-brained from the anesthesia and had been dreaming of a land where I could eat cookies without worry. “A cookie?” I ask her, to be sure. She waits patiently for me to answer, earnest in her desire to provide me with the baked wheat product. I look at my red bracelet. It screams patiently at the nurse amidst the hospital whites, yearning for a glance in its direction. I speak on its behalf. “No thank you, I’m gluten-free.” Should I also tell her I’m in the hospital for a celiac-related procedure?
“Oh! Then no cookie for you!” And she walks away.
When I regained full control of my mental state, I wondered what might have happened if I had not been awake enough to comprehend the situation, and accepted the cookie. Would she have looked at the bracelet then, or would I have gone on to eat the very thing that landed me in the hospital in the first place?
It’s like looking for the mayo in the fridge for ten minutes when, in fact, you picked it up and moved it aside to look for it. Wheat is ubiquitous. It’s existence is normal, natural, not something that we consciously consider. Even though the nurse may have known that I was gluten-free, it may not have registered with her because “cookie” doesn’t immediately bring to mind “gluten” to those who do not suffer from celiac.
This is one of the dangers of wheat–it fits our existence like flesh, and is easy to overlook. This is also why educating chefs, nurses, servers, etc. is so important. The practice of consciously considering gluten is different than passively knowing facts about gluten consumption and celiac disease. If a chef trains her mind to see “GLUTEN” in bold, black letters when she sees soy sauce, she may not accidentally offer it to a gluten-free customer along with the sushi rolls with which it so naturally pairs.
Also appears on The Huffington Post.