Of Friendship & Food Allergies: An Interview

When you or a family member is diagnosed with Food Allergies, it can be tough. It’s hard to figure out what to eat, you could feel alienated; it changes your whole life and your perspective on life. However, being a part of the Food Allergy Community is great. You make friends for life, you meet people that understand what you or your family member is going through, people care about you and your life because these people know and understand that it is no joke, these people understand that a little bit of an allergen can be fatal.

About a year ago, I reconnected with a childhood friend, Tania, and this reconnection happened because of Food Allergies. We have a friend in common that kept in touch with both of us, and this friend thought it would be a great idea that we both reconnect because Tania has food allergies and understands what my family goes through in our daily lives. You can never receive too much empathy, right? Thank you, Malena! Well, a few days ago I told Tania I wanted to know a little bit more about her allergies. Penny was diagnosed with food allergies when she was only a year old, so it was fairly easy for her to adjust to a new diet, and she will never miss some of her allergens because she has never even tried them, but Tania was diagnosed when she was a teenager, and things are different when you are older. I thought her story was interesting, and here I am sharing with you some of the questions I asked her and her response.

Let me give you a little bit of context. Tania is a 30-year-old hard-working mother of two, who currently lives in Puerto Rico.

Me: How old were you when you had your first allergic reaction, and, what did you react to?

Tania: “Ever since I was a little girl, I remember having eczema and unexplained hives, but no reactions to food. I remember that after being outside, playing in the sun, my skin would turn red and hives would appear- especially in my neck, armpits, elbows, and knees. My first allergic reaction: I was at the orthodontist, I was about 11-12 years old, and I reacted to the latex gloves that the doctor was wearing. They had to give me antihistamines, but everything turned out all right. The first reaction to food was about a year after that. I was at a fast food restaurant and I took a bite of my honey biscuit and immediately anaphylaxis set in. My throat was itchy, my face was itchy, and I was having trouble breathing. My dad had to rush me to the hospital, and this was my first experience with epinephrine. After getting a shot of epinephrine, and all the other medications they had given me, I was still showing symptoms of an allergic reaction, so I had to stay at the hospital for 3 days.

The culprit was honey. I know I had eaten honey before, when my grandma would make us tea, or when I ate honey biscuits, but had never reacted this way.

After several tests, I found out I was allergic to honey, soy, and latex (which I already knew). From that day on, we avoided honey and soy in our house. Curiously, the doctor didn’t prescribe an epinephrine auto-injector.”

Me: I know these are not the only allergies that you have. How did you find out about the other ones?

Tania: “I was about 17 years old, and it was new years. You know that there’s a tradition in which you eat 12 grapes after midnight for good luck? Well, I was in grape number eight when anaphylaxis started to set in. Again, my neck, head, and face started itching, and I started having trouble breathing. My mom gave me antihistamines and drove me to the nearest hospital.Now, after getting some more testing, I turned out to also be allergic grapes, prunes, and white chocolate. Again, no epinephrine auto-injector prescribed to me at this point.
My next reaction happened about six months after the grape reaction. I was sick; I had an infection and was at the hospital. They were going to give me antibiotics through an IV. The nurse started the antibiotic, and I started feeling an intense burning sensation through my veins. Soon enough, my whole body was covered in hives. The nurse ran to get the doctor, and in a matter of seconds, the nurse had taken the IV out of my arm. Due to the reaction to the antibiotic and the infection, I was hospitalized for four days. At this point, a shift occurred inside of me. I understood that I had severe allergies that could happen anytime, anywhere, and that these allergies could take my life. So, I made an appointment with my allergist and asked for an epinephrine auto-injector.

Later on, I also reacted to a vaccine, which turned out to be an egg allergy. After this, I had an anaphylactic reaction while doing an English internship at the University of Vanderbilt in Tennessee. I ate something that I didn’t know had honey, so my roommate- who, by the way, didn’t know I had food allergies- had to basically drag me to the Student Health Services, where I self-administered the EpiPen.

Two years ago, one of my children was eating popcorn and it had peanuts. He gave me a kiss on the cheek and handed me some popcorn. As soon as I put the popcorn in my mouth I noticed my cheeks and mouth swelling. Yes, I am also allergic to peanuts.

Last but not least, every time I eat gluten, I get hives throughout all of my body. It was then that I discovered that I’m also allergic to gluten.”

Me: How do you feel that food allergies affect your lifestyle?

Tania: “In the beginning, it felt like I was restricted when it came to food. I also lost weight, and I felt isolated. I guess that because I felt isolated, and as a teenager, I didn’t want to feel different, I didn’t take my allergies too seriously in the beginning. I would take risks eating these foods (which is a very bad idea), and thought that antihistamines were going to take care of it. I guess I was lucky that I didn’t have an anaphylactic reaction that took my life when I was young. But with age comes maturity, and after I had that reaction to the antibiotics at the hospital, I saw how fragile life could be, and I started taking my allergies seriously.

Socially, I try to stay away from the allergens and it isn’t that bad, but I have been in situations where I’ve had to leave gatherings because there is one of my allergens, and I start reacting to it by “airborne contamination”.

Emotionally, it’s hard because I have kids, and I don’t want anything to happen to me. I want to be able to see them grow up.”

Me: How do people react when you tell them that you have food allergies?

Tania: “Some people take it seriously, but most people are in disbelief. They comment things like: ‘What? You’re allergic to grapes and honey? I’ve never heard of anyone with those allergies!’ I feel like there is a lot of ignorance because of misinformation.”

Me: How do you create awareness?

Tania: “When I go to places, and I feel like I have to tell people, I let them know. I try to educate them on the subject. I also try not to scare people with my allergies, because sometimes they feel like it’s a weight on their shoulders and feel responsible and scare to eat close to me. I try to help spread the word, and help Food Allergy charities whenever I can.”

Me: Finally, how do you feel about having Food Allergies? 

Tania: “At the end of the day, it is my body and I have to work with it in order to continue my life and in order to be part of my children’s life. I have allergies, but allergies will never bring down my spirit and my life!”

 

I have to say that having Tania as one of my friends has been a blessing. She, not only understands what we go through but also offers us her continuous support. Even though we are thousands of miles apart, it feels like we are in a parallel walk through this journey.

Let’s create awareness, and for this, we have to remember that: “To achieve change, we must speak up. Every voice is Important.”
-Barbra Streisand

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