Gemma's Allergy Story- Navigating allergies as an Elite Athlete and Teacher
By Gemma F, April 2022
My reactions depend on the substance I've reacted to; sometimes, I just turn red, my face swells up, and I cough a lot. However, if I'm around things like hand sanitiser or eat something I am allergic to, I can quickly stop breathing.
Mum says I was about 3/4months old when solids were introduced, but she thinks I was reacting to breastmilk before that; I was covered in eczema as a baby. Mum said she took me to the doctor, and then she stopped giving me Cow's milk even though the doctor said she should keep giving it to me.
I don't really know any different because I was reacting from so young, but I missed out on a lot from anxiety caused by food allergies – being too scared to go to friends' houses/birthday parties/school camps.
Mum took me to the GP, but they said there was nothing wrong with me and to keep giving me Cow's milk "because it's good for her." Mum ignored them and switched to soy milk, and I got better.
Since then, we've been to every kind of medical practitioner, from GPs to immunologists to naturopaths, trying to figure out what I'm reacting to.
My allergies got worse as I grew up; they got really bad in my 20s. Originally I had to eat the food I was allergic to, but now I can't stand being near it if it's cooking – the smell of toast can set me off. With everyone using hand sanitiser everywhere, I now have at least two reactions a week.
Because I'm allergic to so many things, I have to be really honest and tell people straight away. Usually, I'll email or call places before I go to make sure they understand.
At work, my colleagues are emailed at the start of every year, and we have conversations with the students about what they can and can't have around me.
I avoid restaurants most of the time because I'm terrified, but if I do go, I call ahead and make sure it's safe; if I don't trust them, I won't eat.
During holidays, I email the place I am staying before I go, let them know of my allergies, and always book self-contained accommodation, so I don't have to eat out.
At my competitions, the organisers and officials are told before the event that I will be competing and to know what signs to look for.
My biggest support and Pal-lergy is my Mum! She's super awesome at finding recipes; as a kid, she would ask the other parents what type of birthday cake they'd be bringing to school then she would make me one exactly the same, so I never knew I had a different cake. She's always cooking me food to take to social events where there's shared plates, so I don't miss out. Not to mention picking me up from school/training when I have a reaction, driving me around when I feel sick, and coming to all the medical appointments with me. She also does my groceries and random chores I can not do at the moment.
The staff at my school are awesome! They can recognise me having a reaction (sometimes even before I've realised it). They all know how to help me and what signs to look for. They are the best. The kids at school are really good too; they know not to eat yoghurt or use the hand sanitiser when I'm in the classroom, and quite often, they hide it so no one uses it by mistake. They can recognise signs too and know to run to the closest adult with my 'First Aid Card' when I need help.
I've never not had allergies, but as I've grown up, I've learnt everyone always wants to know everything about reactions. People ask lots of questions, but they don't understand how serious it can be until they witness an allergic reaction or have had one themselves.
It can be very isolating as an adult; all the support groups seem to be for kids/parents, I haven't found any that are just for adults with allergies – as much as I want to support allergy awareness in kids, sometimes it'd be nice to talk to someone going through the same thing as me who's a similar age/situation.
Also, you need lots of support; until I had reactions to hand sanitiser, I was 'normalish' now I'm back to being a kid and having to go with someone (usually Mum) everywhere if in case I have a reaction. You can lose a bit of freedom.
Travelling requires a lot of preplanning; you have to either take all your safe food with you or know the places where you can buy safe food when you get there.
Living with allergies is tricky; you're always on edge looking for potential allergens; I'm not sure what relaxed feels like. I've learnt to trust your gut; just because an allergy doesn't show up on a skin prick test doesn't mean you're not allergic to it.
I think you miss out on heaps too, but sometimes you just have to be stubborn and do it anyway; even if you might have a reaction. I'm anaphylactic to hand sanitiser, so at the moment, life sucks. I can't go anywhere without having a reaction because people are using it, but I don't want to hide in my house and miss out on life, so I go anyway and deal with it later. So far, it's turned out ok (ECGs in emergency may say otherwise, but I got through it).
But the biggest thing is to tell people and make your medication readily available and obvious. I carry around a big orange medical kit that has anaphylaxis stamped across it, making it easier for staff in shops/restaurants and paramedics to find my medication.
Also, after you've had a reaction rest, don't try to work/do normal everyday things; you recover faster having a day off (this is easier said than done when you've used up all your sick leave, though).
Thank you Gemma for sharing your Allergy Story with the community🙏
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The information provided on Allergy Life Australia is to generally educate and inform you about living with allergies, intolerances and conditions, and is not intended as medical instruction or as a substitute for diagnosis, examination and advice by a qualified health care provider.