When A Cupcake Can Kill
Katherine, 17, has severe food allergies—which means she's constantly navigating an obstacle course of deadly ingredients.
On an ordinary day last spring, I was sitting in my last-period history class—we had just turned in an essay, so everyone was chatting and catching up on other work. All of a sudden, the kid to my left randomly reached out and put a few Goldfish crackers on my desk, then started filming me with his phone.
“What are you doing?” I asked, totally confused. He and his friends laughed—then shared the video on Snapchat.
These classmates thought it would be funny to capture my reaction to the cheese dust in the crackers, a food that—like dairy, eggs, peanuts, and tree nuts—I’m severely allergic to.
Immediately, I started to panic, as my throat began itching and hives popped up on my arms. I went straight to the nurse to take Benadryl—which luckily helped to stop the reaction.
I never got an apology from my classmates, but I’m not surprised. I’m used to people not understanding the seriousness of my food allergies.
People’s food allergies can vary greatly. I can’t eat anything that may have even come in contact with an allergen (something I’m allergic to) without the risk of having an anaphylactic reaction. That means my airway could close up, making it impossible for me to breathe.
If that were to happen, I’d have to inject my thigh with an EpiPen, a one-dose shot of a life-saving medicine called epinephrine. It would stop the reaction just long enough to get me to an emergency room.
I’ve never had to use my EpiPen, but I’ve had some pretty close calls. Like the time last June, when a friend’s dad prepared a hamburger for me at a party. He was as careful as possible to avoid cross-contaminating my portion, but somehow I was still exposed to an allergen. I wound up feeling itchy and nauseated and had to lie down. I felt so embarrassed to unintentionally become the center of attention.
There have been so many times when the emotional part of having allergies is just as isolating as the physical part. In elementary school, I used to have to sit at an allergy-free table in the cafeteria. I always felt so lonely and self-conscious. And at birthday parties, I’d have to bring my own food. I always felt singled out for not being able to have the same pizza and cupcakes as everyone else.
People would tease me as being “allergic to everything” and ask, “What’s wrong with you?” So my allergies ended up making me really shy as a kid.
TURNING THINGS AROUND
My self-consciousness finally stopped getting in my way around sixth grade, when I attended a conference for teens with food allergies that was sponsored by FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education). I met so many kids like me, and we learned really useful tips. For example, on an airplane, I now bring snacks to offer to anyone around me after I tell them they can’t have foods that contain my allergens. Simple tactics like that go a long way toward smoothing out awkward situations.
The experience at the conference inspired me to start a website, called Teen Food Allergies & Anti-Bullying (Teen FAAB), which I use to educate other kids like me about everything from going to birthday parties to traveling. I also created a YouTube cooking show with my mom and sisters called “Cooking With Kat,” demonstrating how to make easy, allergy-friendly meals.
Helping other people has definitely made me more confident. Now, instead of feeling ashamed of what sets me apart, I’m determined to use it to make a difference.
3 THINGS KATHERINE WANTS YOU TO KNOW:
1. FOOD ALLERGIES ARE REAL.
There’s so much wrong information out there—even kids’ TV shows mock food allergies as being funny or fake. But food allergies are very real and can even be deadly.
2. BE SUPPORTIVE.
If someone has food allergies, discreetly ask them if it’s OK before you eat something. I have so many great friends who go out of their way to make sure I’m safe.
3. REACH OUT TO OTHERS.
I was hesitant to go to that meeting for teens with food allergies, but I’m happy I did. Meeting people who can relate to my experiences has given me a team of friends who get me.