Women in Food Allergy Research

Yesterday, March 8th, was International Women’s Day.  This day has been in existence since 1911 to celebrate the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women.  I absolutely love this day because it provides me with an opportunity to read about a plethora of inspiring women yesterday as I came across their accomplishments on various social media platforms.  It was so awesome to see how many things in this world have been created due to the hard work of women everywhere.  As I read through these stories, I began to wonder about the impact that women have in the food allergy research community.  Luckily, March is Women’s History Month so I still have an excuse to do some brief research on the contributions that women make in the field of allergy research.  Today, you will get to learn about three amazing women in the allergy community.

The first woman I want to feature is Sandra Gawchik, DO, who has been my allergist for 18 years.  She is the recipient of the 2017 “Women in Allergy” Award presented by the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.  This prestigious award is given to women who have “advanced the role of women in the field of allergy/immunology … or who has made a significant contribution to the specialty”.  She has been the president of the Pennsylvania Allergy and Asthma Association and the Philadelphia Allergy Society and is an active member of several other societies involving the advancement in medical practice for allergists.  She has conducted lots of research on asthma and seasonal allergy topics, such as sublingual immunotherapy to house dust mite allergy (1), latex allergy (2), growth and bone maturation of asthmatic children treated with inhaled corticosteroids (3), and many more topics.   I am so thankful that I have been able to experience her guidance and expertise as part of the successful management of my food allergies.   

Edda Fiebiger, PhD was the 2017 recipient of FARE’s New Investigator Award for her research in inhibiting the active enzymes during allergic reactions to improve outcomes during oral immunotherapy.  Along with being an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, Dr. Fiebiger is also a researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital.  Her research is focused on understanding the mechanisms behind food allergies in the immune system of the gastrointestinal tract (4).  Some of her recently published research has investigated Soluble FceRI as a biomarker for IgE-mediated diseases (5), the mRNA patterns in Eosinophilic Esophagitis patients (6), and the functions of dendritic cell bound IgE in allergic patients (7).  Dr. Fiebriger’s innovative research will give the allergic community a new and stronger understanding of the mechanisms behind allergies so that we can get closer to a cure.

The final woman I want to feature in this post is Stephanie Eisenbarth, MD, PhD.  Dr. Eisenbarth was a recipient of FARE’s Mid-Career Investigator Award for her research in inherited predisposition to food allergy.  Dr. Eisenbarth is very busy at Yale University as an Associate Professor of Immunology, Associate Chair of Research in Laboratory Medicine, and Assistant Director of Clinical Pathology Residency.  Her lab studies T cell driven pathology, Dock8’s role in allergic immune response, and the role of IgA in mitigating food allergy.  Her diverse research looks at many aspects of the immune response and why it occurs for many different conditions including allergies, asthma, and vaccines.

The three women I learned about today are just a small group of amazing and influential women in STEM who are going to make their mark on the world.  Their research will be important in improving the lives of the 15 million Americans with food allergies, and the food allergy community cannot wait for their discoveries.  I hope that you all had an amazing International Women’s Day and that you are empowered to pursue your unique passions, despite any push backs you face!

Valentine’s Fun

Snow is on the ground and love is in the air! And that can only mean one thing- it’s Valentine’s Day! This greeting card holiday has become so much about food, but at the root of it, Valentine’s Day is all about celebrating the important relationships in your life, including friends and family.

This year, my roommate Lindsay and I decided to make some easy top-8 allergy friendly valentines treats for ourselves, and some completely food-free gifts from the dollar store for the rest of the people on our floor.

Strawberry Hearts

  1. Cut strawberries in half.

2. Melt a cup of safe chocolate chips with a teaspoon of safe oil. I recommend Enjoy Life’s top-8 free chocolate chips and canola oil for an allergy friendly version.

3. Dip the strawberries in chocolate.

My roommate, Lindsay dipping the strawberries in chocolate.

4. Enjoy!

For the floor

We went to the Dollar Store near our college and bought a pack of Star Wars valentines to give to everyone on our floor. We also got small packs of seasonal stickers to hand to our friends.

Food-free fun is a great way to be inclusive and safe on any holiday, and I hope your Valentine’s Day is the best one yet!

Reacting to my Year

2018 was a huge year for me in terms of personal growth and new life experiences. I overcame several obstacles with my allergies this year: managing my allergies at college, while doing weekly baking activities at summer camp, on several day trips, and for two whole weeks in China. And above all of these experiences, I even had the opportunity to speak at the FARECon Teen Summit.

No obstacle of 2018 will compare to my first anaphylactic reaction at college. For months I have thought about how I wanted to post about the incident, but I just didn’t have the courage. It didn’t feel right to talk about this mistake I made with my allergies on a space where I was dedicated to showing how fully you could live your life with being limited by your food allergies. But I realized that it is important to accept that in life, everything will not always be safe. There will come a day when you make a mistake as a person with food allergies. I hope that by sharing this story, others will understand what a moderate reaction looks like and why allergic people must take all the precautions that they do.

August 27th. It was 8:30 on the night before classes started, and I was eating a food that I didn’t read the label of when all the sudden I realized that it was crunchy. I checked the label and saw the word “walnut” in the ingredients list and was freaked out. I hadn’t had a reaction in 9 years and I could feel in my soul that although I only had one bite, I was in for a long night. I immediately went to student health even though I did not show many symptoms at the time. I had no visible skin symptoms but my throat and tongue felt like they were swelling up. They gave me benedryl and prednisone as an attempt to cure my mild reaction and sent me back to my dorm room. At this point it was around 10pm. I tried to go to sleep that night at around 11pm but things just didn’t feel right inside of me. At 1am, I decided to get out of bed because my skin felt like it was on fire and I wasn’t sleeping well. I used my phone flashlight to look at myself and discovered that my normal pale skin was replaced by bright red hives and welts. These symptoms plus the swelling of my throat and tingly lips from earlier caused me to take my roommate back with me to student health. There, they told me that they couldn’t help me and that if I wanted to self-inject my epinephrine, they would call the ambulance. I decided that that route would be the safest. I got to Christiana Hospital at around 2am and then waited in a hospital bed in the hallway for nearly three hours before they finally brought me to a room. As the epinephrine worked its magic, my skin became warm and speckled as the hives faded. They monitored my vitals and told me that I would be fine. By 4:45, I was finally moved to my own room. They kept me for another hour to ensure that I was safe for a total of 4 hours after receiving the epinephrine. I was discharged at 6am and walked into the lobby where I saw another UD student who had been discharged 30 minutes ago and was told that the UD police should have been there to pick us up . After waiting for 30 minutes for the UD Police escort back to campus, my roommate called an Uber for us to get back, since that would be more reliable. We got back on campus at 7am and I made it to my 8am class on time despite the wildest all-nighter I could have ever imagined. Throughout the rest of the day, the buzz from the epinephrine diminished and eventually my lack of sleep caught up with me. I made it through all of my classes and I fell asleep directly after my 8pm choir call-back that night, and I got more sleep than I would get for the rest of my busy semester.

Allergic reactions are one of the scariest things you can endure. Their impact changes you both physically and mentally. If you’ve ever taken a “True Colors” personality test, you’d know that “Gold” people like having control and being organized. As someone who fits this “Gold” personality, I had the worst time with the idea that I couldn’t control what was going on in my body. Sure I took care of myself as soon as I recognized my mistakes. But I didn’t know that my reaction would be bi-phasic and that I would get worse in two hours. Sure I self-injected my Auvi-Q, but as I laid there on the bed at student health waiting for the ambulance to arrive and my symptoms got worse and worse, my fear of impending doom took my emotions on a trip. I had done all that I could but it was not enough. It is incredibly taxing to be stuck hoping that your symptoms would end and not being able to control what was going to happen to you. The lack of control and predictability is something that I never thought about when I thought about having allergic reactions. I am so lucky that I was able to be stabilized by the epinephrine auto-injector and that I did not need to be hospitalized with IV fluids, but it was still a serious and scary way to start my semester. After I got back into my normal routine, eating became scarier than it had ever been. Getting myself to trust that other people would be able to keep me safe and give me allergen-free food was really stressful. What if they made a mistake? What if I made another mistake? I had to learn to look past these anxious worries and bring myself back to the mindset that I was going to be served safe food.

Looking into 2019, I hope that this year brings me more opportunities to grow. With my new year’s resolution of being more positive and intentional about everything I do, I hope to avoid as many risky situations for my allergies while still giving myself opportunities to challenge myself in other aspects of life. While I am home for Winter Break, I also hope to create more content for my YouTube channel and stay more active on my blog. Good luck to all of you for the upcoming year!

Food-less Christmas Fun

Christmas is a great time to get together with family and friends, but often Christmas parties and activities involve lots of food, baking, and other risky things for those of us with food allergies.  Luckily, non-food seasonal activities can be just as fun.  Here are 10 of my favorite winter activities that don’t involve food:

  1. Making snowflakes.  Nothing is more wintery than making snowflakes, and there are so many creative ways to do this, that the fun might never end.  This is my favorite kind of snowflake to make.
  2. Taking a Christmas lights tour.  Some people go crazy hanging up Christmas lights, and you get to appreciate all of their hard work for free.  Take a drive with your friends around the area and maybe you’ll find a house that has lights coordinated with music!
  3. Play in the snow.  If you are lucky enough to get snow during your Christmas break, cherish the moment, channel your inner child, and go crazy.  Any chance you have to sing “Do you Want to Build a Snowman?” while actually building a snowman is a great time.
  4. Decorate the Christmas Tree. I look forward to decorating the tree with my family each year.  Our tree is filled with such an amazing mix-match of ornaments that really tell the story of all the places we’ve gone and things we’ve enjoyed and reliving those memories is so heart-warming.
  5. Ice Skating. There’s just something special about going to an outdoor ice skating rink with your friends that makes it so especially Christmassy.  Even if the only rink you have access to is indoors, the experience will still be exciting.
  6. Go Christmas Caroling.  I LOVE singing, and nothing is better than walking through a neighborhood with a group of friends while you sing your favorite Christmas carols and spread Christmas cheer.
  7. Make craft kits. Back in elementary school you always made some cheap foam craft to give to your parents as a present. Now that you are older, these crafts are just as fun, and will look even nicer with your big-kid craft skills.  They make all kinds of kits, including food-free gingerbread! 
  8. Go to the Mall.  If you’ve ever wondered what absolute mayhem looks like, its the mall during the week before Christmas.  Whether you go on a hunt for the perfect gift, ugliest sweater, or even just sit on a bench and people watch, malls are the place to be in December.
  9. Watch Christmas movies.  Everyone has their favorite Christmas movie, so why not share yours with the people you enjoy? You’ll never know what new classic might be added to your yearly watch list (my favorite is Olive, the Other Reindeer)!
  10. Volunteer somewhere.  Christmas is a time of goodwill, sharing, and selflessness after all!  Volunteer at a local shelter, help sort donations at a soup kitchen, run an activity at a local retirement community, write letters to those stuck in the hospital, knit a hat for someone in need, the possibilities are endless!

Happy Holidays everyone!

FARECon 2018

Have you ever been in a room with about 500 epi pens? Well, when I went to FARECon this weekend, I spent the whole time in that very situation. FARECon is a conference for teens, family members, and nutritionists to learn about food allergies. I had gone to three of FARE’s Teen Summits before (2013-2015) and I had forgotten how amazing it is to talk to so many people with similar life experiences. As a TAG member, I had the honor of leading the teen ice breakers the first night, being on an “ask the teens panel” for parents, and giving a group presentation on being in college with food allergies. I was FAREly busy to say the least…

If you’ve never been to a FARECon Teen Summit, here’s the run down- about 700 people from all over the country come to a hotel including nutritionists, scientists, parents, and 275 teens with food allergies. It’s a wonderful conference with sessions to appeal to all of the audiences featuring sessions about clinical trials, research, advocacy, how to travel with allergies, and how to manage all kinds of other life things. There is a key note speaker on Friday, followed by some ice breakers for the teens (which I helped run!) and parents. The next day started bright and early with various sessions from 8am-5pm and then after a dinner break, there is a social for the teens. The social is one of the highlights of the conference because it’s just like any other DJ dance, except there’s no food and all the focus is on everyone having fun dancing and talking and using the photo booth. Then on Sunday, the sessions went from 8:30 until check out at 12:30, concluding with the announcement of this year’s FARE Vision Award winners and Young Innovator award winners. This year I learned a lot about why the food industry and legislation are so flawed when it comes to dealing with allergens and what I can do to help push forward some reforms that could save people’s lives. Along the way, there are tables outside the conference halls with allergen-free food samples to try or with companies that will help simplify your life with allergies (and who doesn’t like freebies?).This year was a particularly special conference for me because I had an opportunity to share my story. My first session was a group presentation along with Allison and Anna. We talked about our experiences with managing food allergies in college to a packed house of about 200 people (they had to turn people away at the door!). We had such a good energy together and the parents and teens who attended our session came up to us for the rest of the weekend asking for advice and complimenting us on our presentation! On Sunday, I was able to be a part of an “ask the teens” panel for parents to ask us our opinions on whatever they wanted. This was super informal (in fact, i didn’t even meet my fellow panel members until the day of) and really fun. It’s really interesting to get the parents perspectives on why they do certain things and it’s always good to help reassure helicopter parents that they can loosen the reigns on their kid.  The most amazing feeling that came from giving these talks however, was the validation you got from the crowds from their applause and their recognition of you long after you spoke.

Overall, I had such an amazing weekend at the FARE Conference and would 10/10 recommend attending one if you want to find a community of people who experience the same difficulties in life that you do. It’s always so comforting to know that you aren’t the only one out there. I want to give a special shout out to my friend Alexa for being such a great friend at the conference this year. I met her at the 2014 Teen Summit and we have nearly identical allergies and it was so great to see her again after three years! She gave a presentation about studying and working in the food industry and if you’d like to go check out her blog if you want to follow along in her adventures!