I can think of a better place to spend my summer break than the ER. But there I was, being treated for an anaphylactic reaction—my first sign of a food allergy, at age 19.
It was early July, and I was recovering from elbow surgery at home in Massachusetts. One night my family had shrimp, a food I’ve eaten countless times before. My throat started feeling tight, I was coughing, my body was covered in hives and my lips turned blue. I remember saying: “Mom, I don’t feel good.”
Fortunately, she is a school bus driver trained in spotting and treating allergic reactions. She sprang into action, called 911 and was about to inject me with my brother’s EpiPen when the ambulance arrived.
By the time the whole thing was over, a specialist had diagnosed me with food allergies to shellfish, haddock, garlic, onion, oats, poppy seed, mustard seed and sunflower.
Almost four months later, I’m still getting over the shock.
I felt scared and alone, and I was too afraid to sleep or eat after the anaphylaxis. I needed someone to talk to, but everyone I knew with allergies was born with them and didn’t understand what it was like to develop them as an adult. A Facebook search for “food allergy support group” turned up some options.
The best fit has been the FARE College Food Allergy Support Facebook Group. It’s open to people with any food allergy and the members are all students like me, facing the same situations I am. So they understand what I’m going through in a college setting. I check in on it a few times a week.
From there I went to the FARE (that’s Food Allergy Research & Education) website at foodallergy.org. The Newly Diagnosed section caught my attention right away and was good at explaining things. I liked that they have section with resources for college students, too.
Back to School
My dad was convinced I would be too scared to go back to college, about seven hours away in upstate New York. But my mom knew that I’m strong and was up to the challenge.
So when I returned to Clarkson University for my sophomore year a few weeks later, I knew things would be different. I just didn’t know how much.
My first stop was the accessibility services office. Because I’m on the meal plan, they introduced me to the head of dining services, and together they assured me everything would be OK. I have found that the buffet-style dining hall is actually safest, though I tend to eat in the Student Center since it is closest to my dorm. It’s definitely easier to grab a meal when the dining halls aren’t so busy—I can take my time and ask questions. But when they don’t post their menus or ingredients, I don’t know what’s in an item or if it’s safe. When in doubt, I skip the food.
You know what’s in, like, everything? Onion powder. Garlic and garlic powder. Dining is used to leaving out or noting ingredients like nuts, but my trigger foods pop up everywhere I look.
Right now I’m living in a dorm suite, with no access to a kitchen. I stock safe snacks, but it’s not enough to live on. Next year I’d like to get an apartment so I can control what I eat. No garlic or mustard allowed!
My Social Scene
No matter how responsible I am, my safety depends on everyone around me.
I love my school, where I’m part of the student orchestra and acapella groups. I told my friends about my food allergies as soon as it all happened. When it comes to dating, I tell dates what my allergies are, and they have been pretty perceptive and respectful about it. My allergist also warned me to watch the alcohol at parties, because I need to constantly pay attention to what I eat and drink. I also showed many of my closest friends how to use my EpiPen and my emergency plan, just in case.
But not everyone wants to eat at 5 p.m., when it’s easiest for me. And the most popular restaurant in town for students? It’s a place known for its seafood and shrimp dishes. So I usually eat beforehand, then go hang out while they eat. In fact, I’ve eaten at a restaurant only once since my diagnosis; I just don’t think I’m ready yet. It feels isolating, but I remind myself that I need to stay safe and take care of myself.
As great as my friends have been, people aren’t as sympathetic as I’d like them to be. There seem to be many more vegetarians and vegans on campus than people with food allergies—so this potentially life-threatening condition is not as well understood. (If I hear one more person say, “Oh yeah, I’m a picky eater too!” or “It’s the same as my lactose intolerance!”…) I’m thinking of starting an allergy awareness day on campus.
I also think we need to offer more mental health services to help people adjust to life with food allergies. For me it was traumatic and now I’m talking to a therapist, which is helping.
The school year is still so new, and I’m definitely still getting the hang of things. I know what foods to look out for, but cross-contact accidents and miscommunications still happen. I’ve had several minor allergic reactions that I treat with antihistamines—and one time I had to call EMS.
But my degree in aeronautical engineering won’t earn itself. I’m focused on my lifelong dream of one day working at NASA. So I’ve committed to making things work, one bite at a time.
FARE Resources for College and University Students: