Living with Food Allergies: A First-Hand Account

Jun 18

Recently, Marc told me that there was a new co-op student at his workplace who has life-threatening food allergies. I began to wonder alot about this young man and started asking Marc a lot of questions about him: Does he carry epinephrine? Does he eat at restaurants? How has he managed to stay safe all these years? Marc suggested that I ask him these questions myself. So I did.

His name is Gabe Hoogers. He’s nearly 19 years of age and is studying Contemporary Philosophy and Politics at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At about 2 years of age, it was discovered that he has an anaphylactic allergy to peanuts as well as minor allergies to other foods such as soy, shellfish, and other nuts. I was very pleased when he agreed to be interviewed, and I was most impressed by his insightful and articulate answers to my questions:

Me: Is there anyone else in your family with food allergies?
Gabe: No one else in my family has food allergies, although my Dad is severely allergic to penicillin.

Me: Did you have an allergic reaction to food that prompted the testing?
Gabe: Yes — I ate a muffin with peanuts in it and had an anaphylactic reaction to it. My mom tells me that I became very quiet, so she suspected something was up. She came into my room and found me covered in hives — off to the hospital we went.

Me: Do you remember the reaction?
Gabe: Fortunately, no.

Me: Do you think your food allergies were well accommodated at school?
Gabe: When I started school, severe food allergies were still quite uncommon, so my Mom did a lot of work ensuring that both my teachers and classmates were well aware of my situation. As I moved through elementary school, though, the school board became more conscious about food allergies, and so my Mom’s publicity job became easier. Eventually, my elementary school was actually declared a peanut-free zone.

Me: Did your food allergies prevent you from doing anything that you would have wanted to do?
Gabe: Besides being unable to satisfy the occasional temptation to eat a snack that may or may not have contained peanuts, my allergy hasn’t impeded upon my life to a great extent.

Me: Have you always carried an auto-injector with you?
Gabe: I have. In grade school, I used to carry it around in a fanny pack; but as I grew older, and more socially conscious (i.e. thought the fanny pack hampered my coolness), I started putting in in my pocket or my backpack (assuming I was carrying my backpack with me at all times).

Me: Have you ever needed to use it?
Gabe: Thankfully, I have never needed to use it.

Me: What is your approach to eating in restaurants?
Gabe: Firstly, I avoid restaurants that I know cook with peanuts, such as many South-East Asian restaurants. When at a restaurant I’ve never been to before, I’ll kindly ask a server if the kitchen uses peanuts in their food and to verify with a chef. I find it’s also good habit to verify every time I order a dish that I haven’t had before, unless the restaurant is completely trustworthy and always peanut-free.

Me: Do you find restaurant staff to be relatively well informed about food allergies, or do you feel that eating out is a risky endeavour?
Gabe: The tone of the server’s voice is always important to me when eating out. There have been times that a server has told me that they don’t use peanuts in their restaurant, but appears unconfident or hesitant, in which case I won’t eat there. If a server is well informed and I can hear that in their voice, I always feel more self-assured. More and more, though, I find that restaurant staff are generally well informed about allergies.

Me: Are you excited about the potential for a treatment for food allergies, which experts anticipate should be available within five to 10 years, or are you skeptical?
Gabe: I think it’s great that work to find a treatment for severe allergies is progressing. Although we don’t know if the possibility for a cure of allergies can become an actuality, I think that this provides hope that lives of future and present allergy sufferers can be protected and made easier.

Me: Would you want your food allergies to be treated, or do you feel that you’re fine with them and would rather not be treated?
Gabe: I would be treated. Even though I will probably always stay away from peanut products, it would be nice to not have to worry every time I eat. Plus, I’d like to travel rigorously as I get older, including to places that are less safe for peanut allergy sufferers, such as South-East Asia.

Me: Do you have any advice to pass along to young people with food allergies that might help them as they grow to be adults (advice related to their allergies)?
Gabe: Don’t be embarrassed about your allergy, embrace it. Some of the toughest times to deal with your allergy are when you’re with friends, out at restaurants and at their houses. Don’t be afraid to make sure that the food you’re eating with them is safe, even though it requires you to put yourself out there and can be a little embarrassing — it would be much more embarrassing to be carried off to the hospital in front of them, covered in hives. Also, obviously try to make sure you have your Epipen with you always; it’s not that hard to do. Finally, and this advice is only for the pros: restaurants can sometimes be a little bit too conscious of allergies and will not “guarantee” their food is safe; but a lot of the time they’re just trying to cover themselves to save any lawsuit (it’s really quite selfish). If you quiz them, often you may find that they don’t, in fact, cook with the food that you’re allergic to whatsoever, in which case the restaurant is probably safe to eat at. However, it’s always better to be safe than sorry, so if you ever have doubts about eating a particular food, don’t.

Thank you Gabe!