So today I wanna talk to you about something very sensitive to me and one of the things I struggle to overcome every day…
I’ve never talked about this publicly. So here goes… I have extreme, life threatening allergies to tree nuts. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been allergic to nuts, but to be honest, it was always a mild allergy. I was also never allergic to hazelnuts, so I would eat Nutella ALL THE TIME! Then one day, about 4 years ago, I ate a pastry with Nutella in it, and all of a sudden I started getting short of breath. I wasn’t sure what was happening, so my mom gave me Benadryl and drove me to our local full service urgent care. Only, by the time we got there, I had swelled up like a pufferfish, couldn’t see, and couldn’t breathe. We had no idea what to do, because we had never experienced or even really knew about anaphylaxis.
We got inside as quickly as possible, crying, shaking and so completely terrified. Unfortunately, what we didn’t know was that a “full service” urgent care is not at all equipped for a situation like this. They stabbed me with an epipen, WHICH WAS BROKEN – and then lazily got around to finding another. I passed out, and the next thing I knew, an ambulance (that my mom had called – thank god) had arrived and a team of heroes was helping me. I had to have 2 epipens and a steroid shot just to wake me up. Then my heart rate was soaring over 170 and the paramedics were worried that I could have a heart attack!!!! I’m lucky to be alive.
It was the scariest day of my life.
After that, I then went to the allergist and got full allergy testing to see what exactly I was allergic to, and it turns out that my hazelnut allergy did in fact turn on out of the blue. I’m obviously not a doctor, so I can’t tell you the exact medical terms, but what they explained to me was that when you’re allergic to one tree nut, it’s extremely likely that you will develop allergies to ALL tree nuts!! Crazy!! I was prescribed epipens, and now carry them with me everywhere I go, as well as Benadryl (which turns out may have been the tipping point that saved my life 4 years ago).
It’s extremely difficult living with a severe allergy, and I’ve been turned away at countless restaurants saying that they couldn’t accommodate me. I have difficulties on airplanes when they serve nuts, I worry when I shake someone’s hand, and I can almost never trust anything I eat unless I’ve made it. I’ve had a lot of close calls and a few mild allergies since, but luckily most were alleviated (somewhat) by Benadryl. It’s especially hard traveling to other countries where you don’t speak the language – and I LOVE traveling and eating the local food!!
For example, one time I was in China on tour, and I was so proud of myself because I had a printout written in Mandarin saying what I was allergic to. I learned how to say it as well, so I asked to speak with the chef to tell him. He nodded and said he understood and ran off to make my food. I got up to get something at the buffet and I turned around to see the chef running towards me, holding a plate full of every single nut I had written on my printout!!! Horrified, I ran away saying, “NO! NO! NO!” He was so sweet and didn’t understand, so he pursued me through the restaurant – chasing me with a plate full of nuts! (My literal nightmare)
This last Friday, I had a cookie that I was assured by the chef didn’t have nuts – but guess what? It contained walnuts. What may seem like a minor mistake, could’ve been my life. I took a single (tiny) bite and my tongue instantly started tingling. I spit it out as fast as I humanly could and ran for my allergy kit. Within 10 seconds my lips, tongue and throat had swelled like I had WAY too much Botox or something. (Actually one of the EMT’s asked my mom if my lips looked normal and she replied, “No, she didn’t get Botox” and he laughed saying, “You never know in this day and age”) We called 911 and I was in the hospital until about 4am. Just because I was discharged doesn’t mean that I’m completely better though. There’s a recovery process that takes place after having anaphylaxis because your body is put into a state of shock (that’s why it’s commonly referred to as anaphylactic shock) that could take up to a week.
I wanted to tell you all about this, because after this Friday, I’ve decided I want to help raise awareness for people living with life threatening allergies. I meet so many people who simply don’t understand the severity of an allergy. I’ve gotten comments like, “Oh, it only has a little bit of pecans on top, so you should be fine.” Or, “Oh, our kitchen has a lot of cross contamination so I don’t know…” (which – eww?!?!) “Once you take an epipen aren’t you cured?” Or even friends of mine bringing me sweets (which I love so don’t stop) and forgetting about my allergies.
You’re probably wondering, “Why can’t you just avoid nuts? It can’t be that hard!”. But let me tell you – IT IS INSANELY HARD. People put nuts in everything, from flour (almond flour) to curries, massage oils to cosmetic products, shampoos to pretty much all baked goods (I can’t even walk into a bakery!!). And don’t even get me started about cross contamination or things “made on shared equipment”. Let me tell you – it is a difficult task for someone with nut allergies. If you can imagine, everyday I have to check every single ingredient on everything I eat or touch, constantly monitor my surroundings, and it can be daunting.
It has gotten to the point where I am literally afraid to eat out. When I’m at a restaurant, I talk to the server, busboy, and chef – asking each person the same questions – “are you sure???” (Yes, I’m that annoying person who asks 5x) and would you believe nuts have still slipped through at least 8 times. I actually now have my mom inspect and taste almost everything I eat, but that’s not reliable in the case of cross contamination. My allergies are so severe that even if I’m in the same room with nuts I can get a reaction. And the worst part? Every time I’m exposed, my allergies get more severe and sensitive.
Wanna know the science behind an allergy??? So, in layman’s terms – when someone is allergic to something, the body incorrectly identifies that allergen as a bad foreign substance and attacks it. The immune system kicks into overdrive and does everything in its power to “kill” that foreign body (just like how we fight off colds and flus, and the billions of bacteria we come into contact with.) Your histamines are working non stop and cause swelling to “protect your body” (sometimes resulting in hives or even causing you to look like a pufferfish – like what happens to me). The swelling can affect your entire body, including restricting your airways. It is extremely serious, and can be fatal. You may not realize it, but there are over 500 deaths every year from anaphylactic shock in the United States alone. And every three minutes, someone ends up in an ER due to food allergies. Not only do people with food allergies have to worry for their life, but many kids (and adults) are being bullied about it too, causing us to feel outcast and even more traumatized.
The medications to help alleviate an allergic reaction or anaphylactic shock can be a range of different things. For me, the 3 things that help are:
Benadryl; an antihistamine, so it helps to calm your immune system’s response.
Epipen’s; filled with epinephrine, that acts as a time saver (not a life saver) in order for you to have time to get medical attention.
And, Specific steroids (given in the hospital); which dampen your immune system for a longer amount of time so that the allergen can pass through your system.
Another issue I run into is when people use the term “allergy” for something they simply don’t like, which desensitizes people preparing food into not taking someone with a real allergy seriously. I have a good friend with Celiac Disease, and she CANNOT eat anything with Gluten. Some restaurants however, can’t tell the difference between an intolerance and someone “trying the latest fad”, so they don’t believe in the severity and allow cross contamination.
I believe that there shouldn’t be discrimination when ordering at a restaurant. It’s sad and embarrassing to be turned away saying that they can’t accommodate your disability. I completely understand the reasoning if you believe you can’t avoid cross contamination – and I’d actually prefer to be informed so that I don’t risk my life. HOWEVER – don’t you think that it’s wrong that some (most actually) restaurants discriminate against people with allergies and won’t even TRY to accommodate you??? Just saying…
I’m currently training my dog Oliver to be an allergy alert dog. He’s finished his actual alert training, and has amazingly already alerted me twice about an allergic reaction. Right now though, I’m working on scent training with him so he can alert me BEFORE I come into contact with nuts! He’s so smart – it’s incredible. I’m doing the training with sample scents, but I’m having someone else do the actual nut scent training with him. He is trained to constantly tune into my breathing (which for me, wheezing/ heavy breathing is the first thing that starts happening in an allergy). It’s helpful in the case where I’m in a room with nuts and I don’t even realize it, or if I’ve come into contact with them and have just started getting symptoms. In some cases, this means that I can leave the room before having a more severe response, take medication early, or even get to a hospital in time.
After my anaphylaxis on Friday, I had a show the following night. So I got out of the hospital, only getting about 5 hours sleep, and headed to the concert. It was difficult to sing because my throat was still inflamed, however, I pushed through because the show must go on. 🙂 Today, I’m still not 100% and I just got home from the concert. Now it’s time to fully recover and take some time off. Just a final thought… Allergies are a disability – and most definitely not a choice. I was wired this way, and I think that everyone should be informed about the severity of allergies. I strive to see a world where we accept, and not judge, people for whatever disability you may have been given in this life.