November 23, 2009

Poti a winner in this battle

Tom Poti (photo: Getty)

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Playing defense in the National Hockey League is a tough enough challenge as it is, but Washington Capitals defenseman Tom Poti has had to overcome the difficult obstacle of severe food allergies in order to thrive as a professional athlete.

The 32-year-old Worcester, Mass., native and veteran of more than 720 NHL games with the Oilers, Rangers, Islanders and Capitals was only an infant when his parents realized that something significant was wrong with their otherwise healthy son.

“As soon as my parents took me off of the formula and started me on real food, the trouble began,” Poti told the New England Hockey Journal. “I would have trouble breathing, break out into hives … I had a lot of itching and rashes and things like that. They immediately took me to a pediatrician who figured out pretty fast what the problem was.”

Poti was diagnosed with anaphylaxis, a serious allergic reaction that occurs rapidly and can result in death. Food-related allergies, according to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, are the leading cause of anaphylaxis outside of a hospital setting -- and result in more than 50,000 to 125,000 emergency room visits per year in the U.S.

Eight foods account for more than 90 percent of all identified food allergic reactions: milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat -- and Poti’s own allergies fall squarely into that demographic.

“Nuts, chocolate, fish, shellfish and MSG are the big ones for me,” he said. “It was tough on my family when I was a kid; when we would take weekend trips to Canada (to play in hockey tournaments), my parents would have to pack up the food I could eat and we would spend about three or four days at a time living out of coolers.”

Poti’s safe meals of choice growing up consisted of cereal, pancakes and cold cuts. He credited his pediatrician, Dr. John Harding of Worcester, with empowering him with the knowledge to overcome his severe allergies at a time when the Internet was not a part of culture and available information was scarce.

Without food-label regulations, and with product warnings not a requirement in the 1980s when Poti was growing up, he and his family had to exercise excessive caution when it came to his diet, and couldn’t afford to take the ingredients he ingested lightly.

The former Worcester Crusader took to hockey at a young age, primarily because the more sterile environment of the ice rinks was preferable to the allergens found outside on baseball diamonds and soccer fields, not to mention the asthma he was diagnosed with at an early age.

One of Poti’s big breakthroughs in dealing with allergies came when he left home as a teenager to play for Cushing Academy. While attending the boarding school, Poti and his coach met with the school’s chef and nurse to explain his food allergies in detail and come up with a menu and diet plan that would not put him at risk for anaphylactic shock. That could be lethal for Poti in minutes, as strict avoidance was the only way to prevent him and those like him from being at risk.

“We went into the kitchen and I was able to see how they did things there,” Poti said. “He had a list of all the stuff I couldn’t eat and we all made sure that we were on the same page in terms of what my situation was. That really opened my eyes to the importance of going into the kitchen and making sure that the people preparing the food understand that it’s a pretty serious thing that I’m dealing with.”

Poti credited his experience at Cushing with providing him the confidence to be able to go to any restaurant and talk to the management and chef about his food allergies to ensure no mistakes in preparation affect his health. It also helped that Poti’s grandmother, Gloria, made sure that he had ample amounts of home-cooked Italian meals to take back to school with him.

Poti stressed that people with food allergies must take control and not put themselves at risk for fear of putting other people out. He said being comfortable talking to restaurant managers and cooks can also reveal what kind of establishment it is.

“If you go into a restaurant and the manager and chef are concerned about your allergies and take the time to talk to you because they want to make sure they get it right, then it says a lot about the place,” Poti said. “If you go somewhere and they aren’t really paying attention or don’t seem too concerned about how to deal with it, then that’s all you need to maybe go somewhere else.”

Poti has dealt with his condition long enough that it hasn’t affected him in his collegiate or professional hockey career. However, the experience and knowledge he’s acquired over the years has reinforced the importance of always and being careful and certain about what he puts into his body.

He carries an EpiPen, which provides him with an emergency shot of epinephrine via spring-loaded needle, along with an albuterol inhaler for his asthma. However, while both items serve as daily reminders of the conditions he lives with, neither have hampered his zest for life and his success as a pro athlete.

“My mother once told me, ‘This is your thing — you have to deal with it, and there’s always somebody out there who’s got it worse than you do,’” said Poti. “So you have to go out, learn everything you can about it, ask questions and never take shortcuts.

“That’s the best advice I can give to anyone with food allergies: Ask lots of questions, don’t take chances, and never be afraid to talk to people about your situation.”

Kirk Luedeke can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.