Recently I had the pleasure of chatting with a young lady who has had to deal with several food allergies for most of her life. As my family knows first hand, this challenge is hard enough for adults and parents, so I wanted to get a young person’s perspective and share it with you. I would like to introduce you all to Erika Vanderende and read what she has to say on the subject for food allergies.
1) Hi Erika, can you tell me a little about yourself please? When were you first diagnosed with food allergies and what are they? How do you carry your auto-injector?
Hello! My name is Erika, I am 18 years old, and I currently work in an elementary school as a teacher’s assistant. I was diagnosed anaphylactic to peanuts, shellfish, and tree nuts at the age of 9 months. During my elementary school days, I carried my EpiPens in a waist pouch, but I now carry them in my purse. Although you only need 1 for a reaction, I carry 3-4.
2) As a young lady growing up, were you ever bullied because of your food allergies? Can you share what that was like? How did you deal with these difficult situations?
When I was younger, the other kids were quite immature and didn’t realize how serious allergies are. On a few occasions, people would joke about having peanuts in their pocket and silly stuff like that. I remember one occasion on my bus when a boy told me he was going to bring a peanut butter sandwich to school the next day. I got scared and told my mom as soon as I got home. The boy had a meeting with his parents and the principal, and he wrote me an apology letter. Thinking back on it, he probably didn’t mean to cause any harm, but to someone with an allergy like mine, a peanut butter sandwich could mean the difference between life and death! To anyone, especially a young girl, that is a very scary reality!
3) As a teenager/young adult, can you share with us how bullying differs from when you were a child? Do you still get bullied or face negative attention due to your food allergies?
In my young adult life, I think the hardest thing for me is the amount of hassle I get from people for being too “picky” or eating “boring” food. I went vegan about a year ago for a number of reasons, but it has made my allergies 10x easier to manage! It frustrates me to no end when people give me a hard time about it.
4) Erika, have you ever had to inject yourself with your auto-injector or be injected by someone? How old were you? How did you handle it?
I have only had two reactions in my life, although they both occurred within a year of each other. The first time, it was a granola bar, and I was almost 18. *I didn’t read the label* I didn’t inject, and my mom drove us to the local fire hall. My stomach hurt so much, I was screaming. As soon as we pulled into the parking lot, I threw up. I was given steroids and the EpiPen at the hospital. The second reaction was to a vegan pizza from (at the time) my favourite restaurant. They told me it was peanut/nut free. I was by myself sitting in the park and I knew two small bites in what was happening. I wasn’t feeling too terrible, so I bee-lined it to my car and started driving to the hospital. I didn’t really know where the hospital was and I was starting to feel worse, so I pulled into a parking lot and called 911. The operator talked me through the injection process, and I actually gave myself the injection for the first time! I was proud of myself that I was able to remain so calm and take control of my own safety! I was taken to the hospital and given steroids.
Having an allergic reaction is the worst feeling I’ve ever experienced.
5) What big life changes do you have coming up Erika? Do you have any plans in place to deal with your allergies any differently than you have been for the past few years?
Being almost 19, I have a lot of changes ahead of me. Post-secondary education, living by myself, having a full time job, and a more active social life (hopefully, haha)!
No doubt I am super excited to see what the future has in store for me! I believe I do a pretty good job of taking care of myself already, I just need to have friends who love and accept me and respect my health. I will always stand my ground and do what is best for me. I don’t take nonsense from anyone, this is my life and my health!
6) There are many taboo subjects when it comes to teens and food allergies, for example kissing a date or trying things like alcohol. Erika, do you have any insight into these topics?
There are certainly a lot of potentially awkward situations for someone with a serious allergy! When I was little, I always imagined my first kiss… *cue romantic music* “But wait, did you eat any peanuts, nuts, or shellfish today?” Talk about killing the moment!!
In my experience with kissing, I’ve never brought it up to any of my partners, which could be a little bit careless of me, but I never knew how to approach the issue. I still find it uncomfortable, but I make sure everyone I meet knows of my allergy and how severe it is and the people I choose to be around are very accepting of that.
As for alcohol, my advice is to know your own body and trust your instincts. I’m sure that to a bystander, certain early symptoms of an allergic reaction could be mistaken for over-drinking, such as the extreme stomach pain and vomiting I was talking about earlier.
You have to take your health into your hands and be responsible. Making sure you communicate with the people you are with, and having friends you can trust is very important. I think this is important for anyone who wishes to drink regardless of allergies. I do enjoy my wine, but I don’t drink to excess and I always make sure I’m with people I trust.
7) Erika, how do you like to spread food awareness about food allergies?
I love spreading awareness about allergies! Unfortunately, there are still many people who are uneducated on the topic, and that is why we need to talk about it! I love telling my story, and people I meet usually have lots of questions for me. In the future I hope to reach out in my work community, perhaps teaching kids how to identify an allergic reaction and use an EpiPen.
Thank you to Erika for sharing her story with us. Dealing with an disease or condition can be hard for young people, so when one of those young people is willing to share with us, it is extra special. If you would like to touch base with Erika directly you can find her on Instagram as @snowystars.
If you saw someone having an allergic reaction, would you be able to give them their EpiPen auto-injector?