Tag Archives: Communication

Exploring Colombia with Food Allergies

Travelling to a foreign country offers an exciting opportunity to immerse oneself in a new culture, to meet new people and to take on new adventures. Before one begins their trip, there is always research and planning that must be done.  This includes trying to foresee and account for any difficulties that may arise when navigating in a new destination. For anyone travelling with allergies, the added challenge is planning how to stay safe and avoid any food allergy reactions— while also not going hungry. My own experience planning for and travelling to the South American country of Colombia was no different.

To add some context to my planning and actual travels; my trip to Colombia was a two-and-a-half-week adventure trip that involved lodging in hostels tucked away in the Sierra Nevada mountains as well as trekking five days through the jungle to reach the famous site of “the Lost City”. I also spent time touring cultural hotspots including Cartagena and Medellin and finished off by exploring Colombia’s coffee plantation region. While my trip proved to be an amazing adventure that balanced hiking the great outdoors while also experiencing and learning about Colombia’s unique culture, I still had to go through certain precautions to ensure I stayed safe during my vacation!

Planning for My Trip

When preparing for a trip to any foreign location, I always extensively research the country. This includes researching the languages spoken, popular destinations and sights to see. Because of my allergies, I also always research what common food dishes are popular and what ingredients are commonly used in the country. Being allergic to wheat, eggs and peanuts, I was happy to discover when researching about Colombia that one of their popular food items is a type of corn bread called “arepas” that are naturally gluten/egg free and prepared in numerous ways. Having been to Peru last year and having fallen in love with ceviche (raw fish cooked in lime juice and spices), I was also excited to find out that Colombian styled ceviche is another very popular dish in the country. While this sort of research doesn’t eliminate the risk of encountering an allergen while travelling, I always find it helpful to be knowledgeable of a country’s food traditions before trying to navigate one of their menus.

When preparing for my five-day trek to the Lost City, I signed up with a trekking group and was able to contact the trekking company via email and ensured that they could accommodate my allergies with the food served on the trek. (I also sent two follow up emails before leaving for my trip just as an extra double check to ensure they didn’t overlook my food restrictions!)

Further preparations for my trip involved notifying the airline that I was flying with about my allergies. When travelling, I also always ensure that I have my “allergy travel cards.” These cards are the size of a business card and say in a specified language (in this case Spanish) what I am allergic to along with pictures of my allergens. I also have cards that state “I am having an allergic reaction and need to be taken to an English-speaking hospital. This is not a card I ever want to use, but crucial to have in case of emergencies! I’ve found different companies offer versions of these travel cards and can be ordered online. When planning, I also ensured that my auto-injectors were not expired and that multiple were packed.

Travelling in Colombia

When travelling in Colombia, I found that having my “allergy travel cards” was the most useful and effective way to communicate my allergies since I am not fluent in Spanish.  These cards were concise and provided a visual clue to servers about my food restrictions. It was almost amusing to see their first quizzical look on their face when I passed them my allergy card and then this look change to disbelief that I couldn’t eat all the foods listed on the card. Despite that, I found every restaurant to be quite accommodating and understanding. I also used my broken Spanish to try and order alternate food options with my usual “go-to” being some form of arepa.

For snacks on-the-go or while I was hiking, I had pre-packed granola bars that I brought from Canada or would buy bananas or avocados from local fruit stands— you would be amazed at how long an avocado stays ripe in a hiking pack!  While on my five-day trek to the Lost City, each night I stayed in hiking refuges, and having touched based with the trekking company beforehand, I had very few issues finding food that I could eat. That, combined with the size of portions that were given out, I never went hungry!

Overall, while I had to undergo some extra planning and exercise certain precautions while travelling to Colombia, I found I was still able to experience the best that this country had to offer in terms of destinations to see, activities to do and people to meet, all while staying safe and avoiding my allergens.

Feel free to comment below with your own experiences of travelling abroad and staying allergy safe as well post any questions you may have about preparing for your own travels in the future!

For more tips on travelling with food allergies, visit Food Allergy Canada’s travel section.

– Caitlyn P.

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Exploring What Not to Do During a Reaction

“Hey guys, can you help me figure something out?”

Four of my friends were sitting at the kitchen table and looked up from the card game to give me quizzical glances before returning their attention to the cards in their hands. Between the drinks, cigars, and fun we were having it was hard to get their attention.

“OK, let me be more clear” I said as I lifted up my t-shirt. This of course got their attention as they wondered what the heck I was going on about. “Do these look like hives on my chest?”

I’d been deliberating this very question over the past 45 minutes or so. I had a huge rash and was concerned as I’d experienced a couple anaphylactic reactions in the past.

The questioning looks from the group became concerned and sober in a flash. Suddenly everyone was deliberating like a group of experts trying to unravel a political controversy.

“Well, your skin is red but I think hives would be more raised.”

“It’s definitely hives, what else could it be?”

“It can’t be hives, we weren’t even eating!”

After a few minutes, and a clear progression of a red rash across my chest, we decided it would be prudent to act, just in case. This moment is where I think we all collectively made our biggest mistake. This is a moment I’d like to draw your attention to, because I’ve been here more than once, and I’ve messed it up more than once as well. In this moment we decided that I was probably having an allergic reaction, but we failed to act in any meaningful way.

In a panic we quickly tried to figure out who was able to drive to a hospital. This was a short conversation:

“Well, I’m drunk and I’m having the reaction, I can’t drive”

“I’m drunk too”

“Me too”

“Dammit”

And that was that. Here we decided to take a different tactic and call a nurse hotline, the kind you call to figure out if you should go to a doctor when you have a cough. The nurse seemed shocked and frustrated that I was even speaking with her.

“Take your auto-injector and get in a bloody ambulance! What the heck are you waiting for?” She even patched me through to the emergency 9-1-1 line.

By now we’d wasted close to 15 minutes on top of the 45 minutes I wasted keeping the hives to myself. This is critical time when a life-threatening reaction is upon you. This is the moment when we got the train back on track so to speak.

While one of the guys spoke to the ambulance dispatcher I took a dose from my auto-injector. My legs began to shake dramatically but it was a fair trade as my symptoms began to stabilize a little as well. This is what I should have done an hour before when I first noticed the hives. It’s also what I should have done when my friends correctly identified my hives.

We were staying at a cottage in the Muskoka area in Ontario, so the ambulance took nearly an hour to arrive. Even then the paramedics told us that they would normally have been much longer but random chance had them driving from a different district at exactly the right moment to pull onto a highway and come to us. For those keeping track this means about 2 hours passed between the appearance of my symptoms and the arrival of medical intervention.

In the end I made it to the hospital and lived to tell the story. But to be sure it is luck that allowed this, not my response.

Like many others before me, I wasted so much time deciding whether I was in danger that I, in fact, put myself in much greater danger. An important detail that I have so far left out is that this was my bachelor party! Imagine what my wife said to me when I relayed this story! You can bet it was quite the tongue lashing I received.

The moral of this story is simple: Don’t waste time.

By the time we called an ambulance I’d known about my reaction for over an hour. First, I tried to keep it to myself so that I didn’t ruin the party. Then we collectively tried to convince ourselves that everything would be just fine as it was. Finally, we made the right decision, but only after a tele-scolding from a nurse.

Like me, if you experience an allergic reaction, you are likely to experience denial. But unlike me you now have an opportunity to learn from my mistake before it happens to you. It may feel wrong at the time but the best thing you can do to save a party is come clean and deal with the reaction and ask others for help. It may feel like a bummer but imagine how your friends will feel if you wait until the reaction is much worse.

You can be smarter than I was. Prepare now for that ultimate decision, that way if it happens to you then you can act swiftly. Know the symptoms of a reaction and decide right now how you will act if you notice them.

Trust me, the party is more fun with you alive and well!

– Jason B.

Guest Blog: Treat Allergies Seriously, Even in the Movies

The community of food allergy advocates has erupted in outrage over a scene in the movie “Peter Rabbit”, released in February, 2018. In the scene, a rabbit escapes from a man who is severely allergic to blackberries by throwing his allergen at him, resulting in an anaphylactic reaction. Many viewers were concerned that kids would copy this behaviour, whether as bullies or in jest, with life-threatening consequences for those with severe food allergies. There were also questions as to why the scene had even made the cut, given its upsetting content.

As an adult, I’m grateful I don’t have to worry about a school bully capitalizing on my food allergy. However, I was sad to see how many people thought portraying an allergy and anaphylaxis like this wasn’t a big deal, or who thought viewers were being oversensitive. This reflects the struggles I’ve experienced when explaining the nature of my allergy to other adults. I always try to stress how serious it is, especially when asking for accommodation that affects those around me. Unfortunately, some interpret these requests as asking for special treatment or attention. Even worse, some ignore them altogether.

The bottom line is that allergens are a serious physical threat to those with food allergies. They should never be used as weapons or to threaten others, no matter how casually, even in a movie. Furthermore, no one who has allergies is using them for attention or special treatment. We require accommodation that may inconvenience others sometimes, but this accommodation is ultimately necessary for our safety.

Personally, I find the scene in Peter Rabbit to be in poor taste (no pun intended). However, it sparked great public discussion about food allergies and anaphylaxis that may have reached more people than the actual movie itself. Hopefully in the end this discussion will benefit people living with allergies.

  • Agnes S.

A Reservation for Confidence – Getting over the Feeling of Guilt with Food Allergies

I once partook in a workplace analysis about myself. It was a team building exercise that determined our profile and how we would react to certain situations. The overall outcome: I tend to handle stressful situations in a calm, steady and secure way with minimal stress. I can problem solve with the best of them and handle things in a rapid, rational way almost analytically. Looking back on that, I owe these skills (and a lot more) to growing up with severe food allergies. Living with such a serious thing every day makes you methodical about everything. From handwashing, packing, to even dating, you quickly learn how to handle yourself in any situation and how to respond to an allergic reaction. Basically, I owe a lot of my confidence and critical thinking to my food allergies, but this kind of confidence isn’t just bequeathed on you after your initial allergy test or when you get your first auto-injector. It’s something you constantly work towards, break a sweat for and may even cry many tears over. It’s a constant internal struggle between your inner extrovert and introvert.  So how do you work through an internal struggle you’ve carried around with you for your whole life? How can you speak confidently about something when it fills your brain with words but when you try speaking it all comes out at the same time causing you to get tongue tied? Well, it’s not easy and it takes time. Maybe even a lifetime, but speaking confidently about your food allergies doesn’t have to be all or nothing. We can take small steps by choosing situations we want to be more vocal in so we can become more confident and less embarrassed.

One area where I began to speak more confidently about my food allergies came from a place of annoyance and embarrassment. It’s a situation we’ve all been in: choosing a place to eat. I hate the pressure of always choosing the restaurant or having to prepare a list of safe places on the spot when I have no idea what/where to go. It’s hard to please everyone, with my limited options and anxiety about trying new places without proper preparation time, it doesn’t make the situation easy. It always seems that the choice of restaurant falls on me and when I can’t go somewhere people get frustrated and in turn I get frustrated with myself. Situations like this are frustrating, embarrassing and complicated. Trying to get people organized and choosing one dining option should never fall on a single person’s shoulders. It took a while, but I finally built up the confidence to speak up about the situation. I spoke about how uncomfortable it made me, and how the pressure made me feel guilty about my food allergies. Finally getting over my embarrassment and speaking confidently about my food allergies gave me the opportunity to explore new options and teach my friends and family about safe dining etiquette. It was this small step that lead to more personal confidence and a healthier attitude towards my allergies.

Situations like these taught me to be patient and speak confidently about my allergies. As I took a step back and thought of the situation from someone else’s perspective I began to understand that their true intention was to keep me safe. Knowing this allowed me to speak more freely and without limitations.  Being confident doesn’t come all at once, it’s something that takes time and effort. The important thing to remember is to never be embarrassed or ashamed of your allergies. Confidence begins with a positive self-image. Working on skills like problem solving, critical thinking and handling stress in a healthy way is a great way to start the path to confidence.

 

-Arianne K.

 

Magic words to get anyone to take your allergies seriously

In relation to my peanut and tree nut allergy

I am a 27-year-old adult with life threatening allergies and I carry my epinephrine auto-injector everywhere I go. When I’m out with friends or family at restaurants it is very important that I communicate the severity of my allergies to servers and to the chef(s) or management. It is more and more common that restaurants and pubs ask about food allergies before patrons need to mention them, which is accommodating and proactive. Still, it is vital to impress upon the wait staff the severity of the allergies, so the chef can comment on whether or not various meals or parts of the kitchen are allergen friendly. As well, it is not only when I am out on the town when I find the need to mention the seriousness of my allergies; it can also be when I am at a friend’s house for dinner, or even at my own house with my family.

It was not easy learning how to broach the subject of my allergies. I recall visiting a friend who had put out a vegetable platter to which I had to politely refuse. She asked why, and I explained my allergy. Following up, she asked what happens when I eat raw fruits and vegetables, to which I said “I die”. The whole room fell silent, and I realized that everyone either thought I was being over dramatic or that my allergy was so severe that I couldn’t even be in the same area code as an allergen. I then explained that my body may go into what is called “anaphylactic shock”, and helped them understand the severity of my allergy better. This was when I learned that there is a fine line between over-dramatizing allergies and downplaying them. At a restaurant or a friend’s house it is important not to scare people with the thought of a life-threatening allergy, but it could even be less effective to undercut their severity.

I have learned that there are two or three phrases, which I commonly use now, that portray the quality of my allergies without creating a panicked environment: “life-threatening”, “anaphylactic”, and “serious” allergies.

Surprisingly, another method that has worked effectively to communicate the danger of my allergies is simply having my auto-injector visible on the table. It is nearly a habit of mine that when I sit down at a desk or at a restaurant table, I empty my pockets of my wallet, cell phone, keys, and auto-injector. I do this for comfort and to avoid losing one of these valuable items in the crack of a seat or onto the floor. One time at a restaurant a server noticed this ritual, and immediately asked me what I was allergic to. They seemed concerned to obtain accurate information too. This method worked unusually well, but personally I don’t like being the centre of attention, so I have stopped doing this as often.

In relation to my other allergies

I have found different experiences with my common allergies compared to my uncommon allergies. I have a severe form of what’s called “Oral Allergy Syndrome”, where my body confuses fruits and vegetables with tree pollen. Many people have an allergy to one or two fruits or vegetables and when they eat these, they experience a mild throat irritation or scratching. I have a severe form of oral allergy syndrome and when my mouth and throat are exposed to any raw fruit and any raw vegetables, there is profound swelling which can lead to airway compromise. Peanut, tree nut, gluten, and milk allergies are fairly well publicized in the media, and I find restaurants usually understand that these are serious. Raw fruits and vegetables on the other hand are less commonly life-threatening allergies, so it always comes as a surprise to my server. I usually avoid fruit and vegetables in a restaurant because servers invariably mention, “How cooked do they have to be.” Since this is so often subjectively interpreted, I don’t risk it. It is not always known whether or not they understand the severity of these more uncommon allergies. I’m sure this is not limited to my allergies, but other adults with other less common allergies as well. It is important to approach these allergens as you would any common allergens when communicating them to others and understand that there may be some surprise and discussion about these allergens.

Overall, a useful method to ensure the severity of an allergen is communicated effectively, I remember to use a calm demeanor, language such as “serious” or “life-threatening”, and avoid dramatizing or underplaying an allergy.

– Fraser K.

Open Sesame: Why I Decided to Tell my Employer About my Food Allergy

It started with a bagel; a sesame bagel someone around me was eating at a brunch. I’ve always had an intolerance to sesame seeds, nothing to fret about as it had remained an intolerance my entire allergy life so I never worried too much about it, considering I had bigger, more serious allergies. I wasn’t afraid or concerned around them as long as I wasn’t ingesting them. That was until a bagel at a brunch spot in Ottawa ruined that idea. A little back-story: A year ago I was living in Kingston, Ontario during the week and Ottawa, Ontario on weekends. My Sundays usually consisted of brunch then hitting the 401 for a two-hour drive. I travelled back and forth so often I spent a lot of time alone in my car with my thoughts and a good audiobook. On this one specific drive in late May, I started to feel sick and uncomfortable, but I passed off the feeling as tiredness and anxiety about driving back to Kingston. I figured my eyes were red from over focusing and the hives were caused by stress. I pushed aside any seed of thought about a reaction… but then it happened again.  It was a little more serious; my breathing was heavy and my hives were unmistakable. Those little seeds of doubt started to bloom into full-blown panic. Fast forward a few weeks later my allergist confirmed that my intolerance had upgraded to a full-blown allergy.

Following this diagnosis, I really needed to take stock of the one place where I was around food the most: my workplace. I was suddenly very aware of my work surroundings and where my new allergen may lurk; the old toaster in our office with crumbs in the bottom, knifes in the drawer were questionable as well as specs on the communal tables. The lunchroom suddenly became an area of anxiety and insecurity.

When I first mentioned my new allergy to my co-workers, I received a bit of a negative response about this “weird” allergy. This made me hesitant to talk to them about creating a safe space for me to eat in. I then internalized my allergies, trying to brush them off as not serious or a big deal even though they were causing my anxiety to go through the roof. I felt like I was back in grade school, surrounded by kids who didn’t understand my allergies or care because they wanted to be able to eat whatever they want. I began to eat at my desk or left completely to eat outside the office.  I knew something had to be done.

I started with a frank and honest discussion with my bosses about the severity of my new allergy. I expressed my worries, concerns and fears about the uncertainty surrounding the situation. I got an allergy alert plan outlining: Identifying a reaction, steps to take, where my auto-injector is, and what my allergens are. I put it up in a central spot to alert others to the seriousness of my food allergies. These actions may seem easy but it proved difficult for me personally; I hate talking about myself, making inconveniences for anyone or putting a spotlight on me at all. It makes me feel uncomfortable and awkward but those of us who have food allergies need to push those stage-fright feelings aside and make sure we’re heard.

It may be difficult to tell someone in an authority position about your food allergies. Even worse, it’s always challenging to explain allergies to someone who doesn’t get it or hasn’t been around it before. It’s easy to close off, shrink back and avoid the situation, or lash out and get angry. Both of which put you in a dangerous position, leaving everyone unsatisfied. Don’t let ignorance or misjudgment deter you from keeping yourself safe or speaking up. Telling your employer about your food allergies can keep you safe and create a friendly and informed workplace. Having a plan and being prepared for anything is the best possible way to tackle any situation. Most problems start with one tiny seed, and if we ignore them they can grow into a full-blown complication. We can’t ignore our intuition, or push aside out feelings, we have to be strategic and confident and find new and creative solutions whether it be allergy related, work related, or both.

-Arianne K.

University/College Top 3 Tips Series: Going out with New Friends

One of the best parts of going to school is that you will have the opportunity to make lots of new friends. However, with any situation of making new friends, breaking the ice about your allergies can be difficult. Below are my top 3 tips to how to best manage going out with new friends while being safe with your allergies.

  1. Tell them in advance

It is always a lot easier for both yourself and your friends to talk about your food allergies in advance of going out. It can be a fun fact you bring up about yourself when meeting people for the first time. I always find it easiest to introduce when I’m going out to eat with people. Usually if they ask what I want I’ll say, “Anything without nuts because I’m allergic to them!” I try to keep it casual and not make a big deal about it because I don’t want to make anybody afraid to eat with me.

  1. Come up with activities that don’t involve food

It’s always a good plan to have some ideas of activities to do with your friends when you go out that doesn’t involve food. Look up different things to do in the new city or town. For most people, the city will probably be quite new to them so exploring the place you will be living for the next little while is always a fun idea!

  1. Find some places that are safe for you to eat

A lot of the time when going out, people will default to food-related activities. Make sure you have restaurant options that you know are safe for you to eat at. That way when you say that you have an allergy you can offer a list of choices for your new friends to choose from. This helps makes accommodating your allergy easier for others and ensures you will be comfortable when eating out as well.

Making new friends can be difficult – especially when you have a food allergy. It is always best to tell them when you first meet them so everybody is well aware and can ensure that your allergies are accommodated for when you go out! It is also a good idea to let people know where your auto-injector is and how to use it in case of an emergency! If you have any other tips when going out with new friends, I’d love to hear about it in a comment below!

– Lindsay S.