An unexpected Hospital visit

The last thing I expected to find myself doing on a Saturday night was sitting in the emergency room of the Children’s Hospital in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The thing is, I’m not even from St. John’s. I’m here for a month long summer program at Memorial University, where my day is planned to the minute and this was definitely not scheduled! So what happened?

It was Indian food night (my favourite!) I LOVE spicy food but I’m always very careful when ordering it to avoid menu items with nuts, since I’m allergic. I also make a point of letting the staff know about the severity of my allergies. This time however, it wasn’t me doing the ordering. The food had been catered, and I checked with the program staff to ensure nothing contained nuts, which they assured me was indeed the case.

There were no labels on any of the foods so I had no idea what I actually ate, apart from lots of Naan bread. Something didn’t agree with me and I felt it immediately. My throat felt thick and weird, but I just attributed that to the effect of the spices in the food. I tried to calm myself down because I was assured there weren’t any nuts in the food and I trusted the word of the program staff.

When I got back to my room a little while later, I didn’t feel any better. In fact, I felt worse: nauseous and bloated. After telling one of the program assistants how I was feeling, I took an anti-histamine and decided to lie down. After about an hour, I began to feel itchy and realized I was developing hives. At this point, I still had not given myself my auto-injector because the reaction wasn’t one I was prepared for. I have always been told to be aware of an itchy tongue and swelling of the lips, but I didn’t have either of these symptoms, which threw me off. Eventually, one of my friends came to check on me and told the program assistants that I did not look good. They quickly took me to the hospital across the street where it turns out I was, in fact, having an allergic reaction. To what? Who knows! The doctors in the emergency room gave me an IV of anti-histamine, a steroid, and a medication to calm the nausea. I felt better almost immediately and watched as my hives slowly disappeared. The doctor said that in retrospect, I should have given myself my auto-injector because by the time I would have felt like I was actually having an allergic reaction, it may have been too late for me to do it myself.

I learned a lot from this experience, even though I thought I knew everything there was for a teen to know about her allergies. The truth is, every reaction is different, and some take hours to progress – like mine that night. On top of that, they don’t always have the same symptoms. I’ve always had an itchy tongue when having an allergic reaction, but not that night. What I know now is that it is absolutely vital to ALWAYS carry your auto-injector with you, and to ALWAYS wear your MedicAlert bracelet. More importantly, ALWAYS go to the hospital if you don’t feel right, especially after eating a suspicious food. And don’t worry – I felt no pain from my treatment at the hospital, only relief, so there is no need to be scared of what will happen to you there. The medical professionals will save your life, which is a feeling that is incomparable!

As for Indian food, I’ll probably stay away from it for a while, but I don’t want this incident to stop me from living a full life. It just reminds me to always be alert for my allergens, and to listen to my body when it’s telling me something isn’t right. I still enjoy Indian food, but now I know that it is a possible trigger for me and I must be extra careful when ordering it.

I hope that by sharing my experience it will remind you to always take your allergies seriously and get to the hospital when necessary. I stayed calm through the entire experience and tried to think rationally – this can really help when you’re unsure about whether you’re having a reaction or not. Never let anyone tell you that you’re just being panicky either – if YOU think you’re having an allergic reaction, then you need to get to the hospital, no matter what anyone else thinks.

Stay safe everyone!

Hannah L.

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Taking Control of Your Own Allergies

As a teenager or a young adult, taking control of your allergies can be tough. You have to do all the things your parents did for you when you were younger. This ranges from calling a restaurant in advance to booking your own doctor appointments. Inevitably, this involves a lot of talking to people, sometimes arguing with them, inconveniencing them, and standing up for yourself.

One of the hardest parts of taking control is communicating with other people. These people can be your friends, a restaurant waiter, or a flight stewardess, and they all need to be informed of your allergies. If you’re shy or introverted, this can be especially difficult. It’s scary to wonder if that person will judge you, roll their eyes, laugh at you, etc. It’s really best to get used to this anxiety while you’re young, because you’ll have to deal with people’s reactions for the rest of your life. I tried a bunch of different communication strategies before finding one that worked for me. Scaring people by telling them they could kill you tends to freak them out, but down-playing the severity of your allergies can lead to situations which put you in danger.

Asking for accommodations can be scary as well. It sucks to have to ask a group of people to rearrange their plans so you can go to a restaurant with them, but if they’re really your friends they probably want you to join them and be safe. Personally, I find talking to waiters to be the hardest. Most waiters are accommodating, but sometimes if they’re really busy they might brush you off or dismiss you. If you don’t feel like they’re taking you seriously, ask for another waiter. There’s nothing more important than your safety. You’re the only one who is responsible for your health, so if you feel like the waiters are wishy-washy, ask to speak to a manager or the chef.

One of the more uncomfortable conversations you’ll have to have will be with your girlfriend/boyfriend. Since you’ll be spending a lot of time with this person and probably kissing them, it’s important that they know all about your allergies and how to handle them. They might have to watch what they eat if they’ll be seeing you that day, or brush their teeth and waiting an extended period of time before coming over. The unfortunate truth is that some people are not willing to do this. These are not the people you want to date, no matter how cute they are. Stand up for yourself, and if they don’t care about your health, move on.

Finally, be okay with messing up sometimes. You might forget your auto-injector at home one day and have to run back and get it, or forget to renew a prescription and have to run to the pharmacy at midnight. These things happen, and they’re part of the process of growing up and taking control. The important thing is to learn from these mistakes so you don’t make them again.

A Life-Saving Gut Feeling

My name is Mathew and I am allergic to all nuts. I recently experienced a close call where a gut feeling played a major role in stopping me from consuming pine nuts in an Asian cuisine restaurant.

A few weeks ago I went for lunch to what most Canadian’s would consider to be an authentic Asian restaurant with my parents and a friend of mine from overseas. The restaurant was lavished in gold colour decor, the service was quick and friendly, although somewhat rushed, the food was very fresh and, unfortunately for me, English was the second language of every staff member with whom I spoke.

The facts that I was trying out a new type of food, that English was the second language of all of the staff who I spoke with, and that the staff were in a rush made this situation notably risky since I am allergic to nuts.Roastporkpastries

Fortunately, I have been in this situation in the past and my friend was fluent in the language of the staff so I instructed him to inform the staff of my concerns. I watched the conversation and the staff’s non-vocal cues to try and identify the staff’s understanding of the situation. I read the English on the menu to try and make sensible selections. Unfortunately, this was not enough. We ordered a pork filled pastry but I had a random gut feeling to carefully cut it open and ask my mom, an expert in identifying allergens, to look at the filling. The pastry was, although not clear to the untrained eye, filled with pine nuts and eating it would have caused me to have an allergic reaction. Below I summarize the main issues I encountered with this incident and some safety measures for similar cases in the future.

Issues

  • English was the second language of the staff which means that there was a risk that the staff would have trouble understanding my concerns.
  • The staff were rushed which means that there was a risk that the staff would not take note of my concerns in an attempt to make the service quicker.
  • I am not accustomed to eating this particular culture’s food and I am therefore not familiar with what ingredients and preparation methods are typically utilized.
  • The staff were not accustomed to dealing with food allergies.

Although I was careful, I skipped a couple of safety measures that I could have taken, and will take in the future. These include:

  • Asking to speak with a staff member who is fluent in English
  • Be as serious as possible when telling the staff that this is a life-threatening allergy
  • Avoid anything that includes filling and focus on ordering simpler foods such as grilled meats and steamed vegetables. This will also include a more thorough explanation of cross-contamination safety precautions to ensure the simpler foods remain simple and safe.

My Wake-up Call

Since developing my food allergies at thirteen I have had to use an auto-injector several times, but there is one reaction that sticks out in my memory the most. I was in grade eleven at the time and was going out for lunch with friends during a typical school day. Sometimes with food allergies, you don’t want to be different than your peers and want to feel like you can do everything that they can.

chinese foodMy friends wanted to go out for Chinese food and I completely went ahead with the plans without even thinking about possible allergens or the precautions I needed to take. It was completely irresponsible and one of my biggest mistakes. For the most part, I was responsible with my food allergies, but I never realized how serious they actually were. I devoured my delicious Chinese food with my girlfriends not even knowing what was about to happen. By the time we arrived back at the school I began to feel the familiar feelings of anaphylaxis that I knew too well. Before I knew it my teacher was administering my auto-injector, followed by a second dose as symptoms worsened. As the ambulance raced down the highway they gave me a third dose and I knew things were bad.

As I lay on the stretcher regret and guilt came over me. I had put my life at risk all for one meal with friends because I didn’t want to be different and worry about my allergies. Thankfully, once I arrived at the emergency room my symptoms slowly subsided. It was really a close call where I learned many valuable lessons.

I really don’t mean to scare people with this story, but the fact is, it scared me and want others to know that situations like this are preventable. Anaphylaxis is very serious, but with a little bit of effort and initiative you can do everything that your peers can, safely and effectively. This reaction was my wake up call. Since then I have checked labels, informed restaurant staff, planned ahead, and been responsible for my health and safety. Less than a month after this reaction, I became involved with Anaphylaxis Canada’s Youth Advisory Panel (YAP) and have learned a lot about allergies and myself since then. Being able to share my experiences and help others has been an amazing experience. To conclude, use this story as a wakeup call, don’t wait for a life-threatening situation to occur to realize the severity. Stand up, be responsible and be safe!

Double Checking with Wait Staff

Originally when I was planning to write this blog, I thought that I would write some tips on how to keep safe with allergies when going out. However, since then I have gone out and had my own close call. Luckily, it didn’t end in a reaction, but it could have very well happened.

I was coming home from a skiing trip and we were staying in a hotel in Ottawa for the night. We were all very hungry and had no food to eat, so we decided to go out. We asked the front desk about restaurants in the area, and like always, being the only one with food allergies in my family, I got to choose the restaurant. I decided to go to a restaurant chain that I had eaten at before, although I had never been to this current location.

When we got to the restaurant the first thing I did was tell the waitress about my allergies, and that they were life-threatening. She didn’t seem to do much but nod her head. To be safe, as I am allergic to mustard, I usually go with pizza or pasta, but I always check just in case. This time I ordered plain pasta with rosé sauce. I asked her if she could check with the kitchen to make sure the food was safe and she said that she was sure it was okay. I didn’t feel comfortable with that since waiters and waitresses wouldn’t always know every ingredient in every dish in the restaurant. I also ordered a side dish for my meal and the waitress did the same thing so I really didn’t feel safe.

Waitress

After my salad came with a dressing that I couldn’t eat on the side (which ended up spilling!), my parents told me I should ask to speak to the manager. I said that I didn’t want to make a fuss, but my parents told me that if I didn’t ask and had a reaction, I would be making more of a fuss. You should never be worried to ask to speak to the manager, you are not making a fuss. Remember it is your life on the line. After the manager came over he went into the kitchen, got me a new salad, and checked to make sure all my dishes were okay. Luckily, they were all safe and my meal was good.

After we finished our meal the waitress asked us if we wanted dessert. Since I’m allergic to peanuts, I usually don’t get dessert. I said I don’t think I’m going to have any, and she responded by saying that none of the desserts have peanuts or nuts in it. I told her that I would look at the menu if she could come back. Sure enough, when I opened the dessert menu, the first item was peanut butter layered chocolate cake. The desserts definitely didn’t have any peanuts in them. LOL. 😉

I was lucky that I didn’t end up having a reaction. The key is to always make sure you feel safe, even if you have an inexperienced waiter. You shouldn’t, however, let your allergies stop you from going out!