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When Patricia Hirsch looks back on her childhood, she remembers health problems including allergies, stomach pains, mood swings and other physical ailments. It wasn't until 2005 that she discovered she had celiac disease (CD). From there, she found relief by going on a gluten-free (GF) diet and learning more through the Southern Arizona Celiac Support Group (SACS). For more information, visit the group's Gluten Free Food Faire from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday, May 9, at Christ Community Church, 7801 E. Kenyon Drive, or visit southernarizonaceliacsupport.org.

How did you find out you had Celiac Disease?

I was sick all vacation long in Colorado in 2005. We were visiting friends whose 4-year-old son had just been diagnosed after two years of life-threatening symptoms. ... Tyler's parents told me his story, which was a rerun of my own. Right then, I decided to go entirely GF, as they had done. In two weeks, I felt better. In three months, I lost 30 pounds of unhealthy fat without exercising. Tyler's parents told me about the SACS Web site. SACS helped me greatly, so I volunteered to do their publicity. I have never been happier to volunteer for a group.

What do people often have to go through before being diagnosed with celiac disease?

It takes an average of 11 years for the correct diagnosis. It takes years of insisting to parents, teachers and doctors that it is not all "in your head." ... I have always had unresolved sinus and ear infections over and over, and skin rashes, all treated by the best meds doctors could prescribe. The symptoms came back after treatment or never really cleared up. I continued to have stomach aches, allergies and irritability. I was described as "a problem child."

How do gluten-free foods work in relief of the symptoms?

Everyone is different, but almost all have good results. In people with CD, the gluten in all forms of wheat, rye, barley and most oats damages the interior lining of the small intestine. It flattens the villi, which normally sort nutrients to the right places in your body. When the villi are flattened, it is called villous atrophy. Then your immune system goes wacky. There is no cure for CD, but the lifelong avoidance of eating gluten is the answer to a full, healthy and happy life for celiacs.

Why is it important to have a GF Food Faire?

Before we had a GF Food Faire, it was very difficult for people to find foods that are gluten-free, yet tasty. Meats, fruits and vegetables are naturally gluten-free, but gluten is hidden everywhere in processed foods. GF food manufacturers and vendors are developing tasty GF cookies, cakes, snacks, pizza crust, breads, breakfast cereals and pastas, etc., which are made from other grains besides wheat, rye, barley and oats. The vendors who came last year were grateful for the exposure of their GF products to those of us who can and must buy them. SACS' GF Food Faire demonstrates to the food producers the growing demand for GF foods.

You're offering antibody testing for Celiac Disease at the GF Food Faire.

This is our second year for antibody testing. The fact is, it's a genetic disease. ... Even if you have the disease, quite often, the antibody blood-screening comes back negative anyway. CD is hard to identify, and a positive antibody screening is a good start toward an actual diagnosis. If you want to be screened, you must be eating gluten, or else the test will not work. Right now, the gold standard in diagnosis is the bowel biopsy, but antibody testing is a good indication. Preference for the antibody tests will go to those who have a relative who has been diagnosed. Last year, we had 100 tests and had to turn away people. This year, Prometheus Labs has generously donated 200 test kits.

Are people surprised by what foods are out there when they come to the Food Faire?

They are surprised and relieved and incredibly pleased that, finally, there are actually tasty GF foods which can be enjoyed, not just tolerated—especially after a child has just been diagnosed. It's like Christmas all over again. Not only is there GF food by vendors at the GF Food Faire, but several restaurants will bring their GF menu items as samples or will be represented with GF gift certificates or GF coupons. We're out there educating more and more restaurants and staff. As a result, it isn't odd to see "gluten-free" in the window or on the menu.

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