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Why I advocate for food allergy awareness in college

This week a college student died from an allergic reaction from eating a cookie. Epinephrine got to him too late, and the ending of the story is tragic.

What struck me when I read the article was how he was kind of careless about the cookies. He basically wanted to eat the cookies his friend was eating, so he threw caution to the wind and figured they’d be fine.

Truth be told, I’ve been in the same boat as him. In my freshman year of college. And I had no EpiPen at the time. Reactions had always been mild. Runny nose. Dizzy. Ending up really congested. I remember the day that changed, and I was not expecting it in the least.

It was just an ordinary week day. I was in the lunch line in the cafeteria. I had grown tired of asking to read ingredient labels. Tired of only being able to eat 1/2 of the food provided (keep in mind, this was at a school that wasn’t great at handling any kind of dietary restriction at all). But I read the ingredient label on the buns. It included dairy.

“But just a tiny bit” I figured as it was at the very end of the ingredient label.

Tired of watching friends eat the whole meal and not being able to eat a “normal” looking meal, I told the student serving, “ok, I’ll take the bun.” I ate lunch. It was good. But something just didn’t seem right.

I got back to my room, sat down on my bed to do homework and then just started to feel really weird. And then I got dizzy. “Ugh!” I thought, “I guess I’m paying for it…” But I had no clue what lay ahead in the next 30-60 minutes. I treked down the 60+ steps down to a friends dorm to do homework with her, only to find out she wasn’t there. So, I trugged back up, holding on to my book and the railing so I wouldn’t fall over. Got back to my room, didn’t bother to shut the door, lay on my bed, and just wanted to sleep. My throat started feeling funny, but I had no clue what was going on or what that meant. Another friend walked by to the laundry room and saw something looked wrong in my room and stopped by to check. I have absolutely no clue how much time passed, it felt like forever, but it was probably not that long.

I wanted to throw up (and I nearly did several times). I was coughing (but couldn’t clear my throat). I tried to swallow my saliva but instead found myself choking. I was bewildered. I didn’t know what to do. I was wheezing some too. And I didn’t know I had asthma at the time either. I didn’t even know that I should have taken benadryl! My RA came in and was clueless too. I had this nagging feeling in the back of my head that said “you need to go to the ER. NOW. Tell your RA she needs to call 911.” But I couldn’t get the words out. I was at the same time rationalizing that I didn’t think it was “that bad” to go to the ER. And my RA made me feel like that was a bad idea. In retrospect, I should have just blurted out between coughing spells, “call 911, I’m choking.”

Exactly how it all unfolded, I don’t remember. I somehow was ok. I really believe it was a miracle that I’m still alive today.

That evening, the friend I had tried to hunt down earlier in the day came up to find me. I told her what had happened and how someone told me I needed to take benadryl but didn’t have any. She looked at me and went “Why didn’t you tell me???! I have some!” And she hiked down to her dorm, and back up to get me some. She explained that she’s allergic to shrimp, so she always has benadryl on hand, and a few weeks before she had her throat swell up in the cafeteria because her food had been cooked too close to the shrimp. I’ll never forget what she told me: “I had to chew the benadryl to get my throat to stop swelling.” I sat there in shock. Later I realized that she needed an EpiPen. As did I.

So, this is why my desire is to see colleges across the country learn about food allergies and how to keep students safe. This is also why I want to find a way to reach students who are going into college with food allergies and help them be prepared to stay safe and how to respond in an emergency. Because, though it’s not always talked about, its true and scary.

But food allergies can kill. Not only that, they DO kill. So, be ready and keep alert. And remember: If in doubt, leave it out.


So, like I’ve said before: “Don’t wait till it’s too late: anaphylaxis doesn’t discriminate.”


1 Comment

  1. This is a really important blog post. I will have teenage son read this. At that age I would have done exactly the same thing. He is cautious, but I agree, we get all tired. It is that exact moment of exhaustion when trouble begins.

    You might have saved a life or two with this post!

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