Hannah Long, News Editor • firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo by Hannah Long
It’s one of the things we take most for granted. We encounter it every day. It’s common-place. It’s predictable. It’s food. But for a person with extreme allergies, eating is never casual, and it’s often dangerous.
Christina Mitchell had severe allergies from the day she was born, but she didn’t realize it until second grade. Five feet tall, dressed trendily but soberly, Mitchell looks and acts much older than her 18 years. As I speak to her, she absentmindedly twists back and forth in a swivel chair. She’s wearing a gold necklace engraved with the word, “Wanderlust.” It’s a bit of an under-statement. She’s just applied for an internship at NASA. “I have a lifelong love of space . . . I want to boldly go where no one has gone before. And by that, I mean Mars.” The physical difficulties don’t deter her. “I love a good challenge,” she said. And if her allergies have been anything, they’ve been a challenge. “I didn’t know it wasn’t normal to have a tummy ache all the time – or a headache all the time,” she told her parents when they first discovered her allergies. After cutting foods from her diet, she was amazed by the change in her health.
Now in college, Mitchell’s allergies have not abated. Worse, they keep changing. Some disappear while others grow worse. New ones develop if she eats too much of a single food. “Allergy testing for me is an annual event,” she explained. “Every year my allergies are different.” Last year, she was allergic to gluten, tomatoes, potatoes, oats, and egg yolks. Now, she can eat tomatoes and oats, but she’s gained severe beef and peanut allergies as well as a milder allergy to rice. Her allergies switch out, usually, every one to three years.
Mitchell’s situation is so unusual that several pediatricians accused her of lying about her symptoms before an allergist delivered an accurate diagnosis when she was 7 years old. Even now, Mitch- ell says, her doctors consistently call her “a puzzling case.” She spends a lot of the school year sick thanks to her weakened immune system. While Mitchell’s case is extreme, she’s far from alone. A 2008 report from NCHS found “From 1997 to 2007, the prevalence of reported food allergy increased 18% among children under age 18 years.” Life-threatening reactions are also, if not more common, at least more commonly reported. According to a recent study from FAIR Health, “Private insurance claim lines with diagnoses of anaphylactic food reactions rose 377 percent from 2007 to 2016.”
Mitchell’s diagnosis in second grade meant that her life would never be the same. First, there were the immediate changes to her diet. She cut out gluten and went on a strict “caveman” or “paleo” diet, paring down the foods she could eat and gradually reintroducing them to pinpoint her allergies. The list of allergy-friendly restaurants was slim. Mitchell said, “We couldn’t go any- where unless they had a gluten-free menu” and “since I was 7, my mom and I have never picked up something [in the store] without read- ing the ingredients label.”
Allergies also affected her social life, as chemi- cal allergies prevented her from attending school. She couldn’t spend much time in the school building without having a reaction. Ultimately, she spent almost every year of high school homebound. She said, “The only social life that I had was my weekly riding lessons . . . which hindered my social development.” Mitchell described her schooling as primarily “self-taught.” When she was 15 years old, Mitchell started taking her first courses at college. Before that, she spent a year being homeschooled. “I’m still playing catch-up socially,” she explained. Because of her allergies, Mitchell has to come up with her own meal plan every week. If she doesn’t, she could end up eating too much of one thing and develop an allergy. She said, “My mom and I, even when I was little, would sit down on the weekends and plan out meals for the week. We have to make sure to rotate the foods.”
She’s meticulous about organization. She keeps an eye on her college website for when classes will be posted, so she can go ahead and organize her schedule months in advance. She plans and cooks her own meals every evening. “I just cook everything from scratch,” she said. “You can’t get box anything when you have as many allergies as I have – it’s always from scratch.” The struggle to find safe food is a problem for other students as well.
On the other hand, Mitchell can see a positive side of her situation. She says she struggled with accepting her allergies at first, but doesn’t worry about it anymore. Besides, she says, “I still crave regular foods . . . [but] I’m way healthier than most other people my age. I keep a really close eye on my diet. I eat a lot of healthy, organic foods and there’s a lot to be said for that.”