Off to College – with Food Allergies
One of the difficulties of adapting to life in university with allergies is the degree of change. For Nadia Daniel, 19, it was downright overwhelming. Daniel was dealing with her dairy allergy and first year – and life in a new country.
In the fall of 2005, she moved to Peterborough, Ont., from her home in Aruba to attend Trent University. “In the beginning it was terrible,” says the biochemistry student, who’s now in second year. “You have to check everything you eat – and people just think you’re spoiled.”
In first year, Daniel suffered two major reactions. The second occurred in a chemistry lecture hall filled with 200 people. Feeling that she couldn’t inject herself in class, Daniel went outside and found an emergency booth. “I pressed the button and told them I needed to go to the hospital. They told me to call a taxi.” The emergency team finally agreed to come, but insisted on checking her heart rate before calling 911.
Daniel learned from this experience that she simply had to stop eating foods she hadn’t prepared herself. But this meant she would also have to cope with uncomfortable moments: “I was at the volleyball annual dinner and could only eat freaking toast. You hear people ask, ‘Is she anorexic or on a diet?’
To better cope with the transition, experts suggest that the most important tool for students with allergies is to be completely transparent about their health issues with the institution they choose to attend. Before classes start, students should contact the university and get as much information as possible.
Find out about meal plans and whether they are mandatory in residence, suggests Monika Gibson, Ontario coordinator of the Allergy/Asthma Information Association. Meet with the food services staff and ask questions: Are they trained to handle an emergency situation? Can they prepare your food in advance? The AAIA recommends finding out about the emergency protocol on campus and arranging a single room in a newer residence (which is more likely to have tile or wood flooring rather than dust-mite-filled carpeting). If moving, students should get a reference to a local allergist.
“Having an allergy is nothing to be embarrassed about,” Gibson says. “Number One, students have to take ownership of their conditions. Professors, roommates, classmates can’t help somebody if they don’t know what they’re dealing with, especially in a dormitory situation.”
As managers of their own allergies outside of the family home, it becomes the student’s job to remember to carry an epinephrine auto-injector and wear MedicAlert® jewelry, and to learn to make asking about ingredients just one of the daily routines of university life.
While doing her undergraduate degree at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., Erin MacNeil* came to understand the necessity of speaking up in social situations. At risk of anaphylaxis to nuts, egg, soy and with additional allergies to wheat, potatoes and banana, the Arts major found it very difficult to eat at her professors’ homes when students were invited over for a special dinner.
At one such meal, MacNeil ate food she wasn’t sure was safe. She did not have a reaction, but vowed not to do it again. Today, in graduate school, she has become skilled at refusing meals. “As an undergrad, I felt I was being demanding or bossy,” says the 30-year-old. “But I’ve become much better.