I am the Harvard University student who made the news in the summer of 2019 when I suffered an anaphylactic reaction on a flight home to Chicago after finishing my freshman year. On May 15, 2019, I purchased a salad in the Boston airport to take with me on my flight. It was supposed to be nut-free, but I later learned it was likely cross-contaminated.
Shortly after takeoff, I ate one piece of chicken in the salad and my throat began to tighten. I am severely allergic to nuts, and clearly, this was the start of a serious reaction. Over the next two surreal and terrifying hours, the Southwest Airlines’ flight attendants did not offer me epinephrine or offer to ask on the P.A. system for a medical professional. They just asked me to lock the restroom door for privacy.
So after injecting my own epinephrine auto-injector, I sat on the bathroom floor, slipping in and out of consciousness until we were approaching Chicago.
This shocking experience motivated me to become an advocate for the necessity of requiring auto-injectors in airplane medical kits. I started a Change.org petition, advocated for the issue in the media, and contacted several senators. I am currently working with Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth’s office on this effort, which has been featured on NBC Chicago, The Hill, Forbes, and the Boston Globe.
But what I haven’t spoken about before is the aftermath of the harrowing in-flight reaction. This traumatizing incident took place mere weeks before I was meant to travel to Spain for a 10-week study abroad program with the Summer Institute of Hispanic Studies (SIHS) and an internship with the Spanish Red Cross. I was going to travel to Europe – alone – where I was told food allergies aren’t as common and thus frequently misunderstood.
Off to Europe, With Anxiety
I met with my allergist, who gravely advised me to consider postponing my study abroad to another year. Her concern was not necessarily about any danger I would be in, but about the new anxiety I had developed around my tree nuts allergy following the Southwest incident.
But contrary to her recommendation, I stubbornly refused to let my new allergy anxiety stop me from living my dream of studying in Europe. My mom was concerned, but knew what the trip meant to me, and thought I had the power to overcome the anxiety. So with meticulous preparation and her encouragement, I made the choice to go.
This deliberate decision would prove transformative. My time in Europe forced me to confront this paralyzing anxiety and find ways to overcome it. With determination (and several extra auto-injectors in my backpack), in the summer of 2019, I chose to live my life.
The transformation was not immediate, however. I was flying to France first, then onto Spain. Once aboard my transatlantic flight to Paris, I was blinking back tears. My throat tightened with anxiety, and a sense of panic set in. I thought, “I am not ready. I can’t do this. I need to go back now.”
Looking back, I can see the irrationality in many of these thoughts. I was prepared: I had five auto-injectors, chef cards translated into French and Spanish, a list of the countries’ traditional foods that contained nuts, several pounds of my favorite nut-free granola bars, and a medical ID bracelet. But anxiety is not rational.
Food Fear in the City of Cafés
The first weekend in France was debilitating. I could not bring myself to eat at any restaurant or café, despite staff assurances about preparing safe meals. When I visited the Louvre Museum in Paris, I ordered a simple, vegetable soup from the restaurant. It was nut-safe (I asked three times), and I wanted to eat it. But other dishes on the menu did contain nuts, so the green soup just sat in front of me. I was incapable of eating it; I was paralyzed.
Instead, I shopped at the local grocery stores and exclusively ate what I purchased there. That weekend in Paris, I ate a ridiculous amount of pre-packaged bread, protein yogurt, carrots and fresh fruit. Each trip to the store was extremely long, as I typed every French ingredient name into my Google Translate app.
The initial weekend foreshadowed a summer abroad experience full of fear and restraint. This wasn’t the experience I had been dreaming of, and I knew it had to stop. I consciously started to deal with my allergy anxiety in several ways. Every time that I felt my throat tighten and my anxiety levels heighten, I pulled out my phone. I would start writing in my “Notes” app about how I was feeling, or put in my Earbuds and listen to calming music. I made sure to carry a granola bar and a fresh snack to ensure I always had something safe to eat.
Finding My Voice in Spain
After the Paris weekend, I took my next flight to Madrid. Once there, I felt in much safer hands. My SIHS program director has a severe allergy to oranges, and so both he and his wife ensured there was no possibility of cross-contamination or a trace of nuts in our food. Before each meal, I would talk to both my program director and the restaurant chef. Over time, our routine and my relentless reminders allowed me to relax at meal times.
Yet, the primary way in which I was able to overcome this fear of eating food while in Europe was to talk with other students in my group about my allergy. I explained to each of them what I was allergic to, how allergies work, and what they could do to help me stay safe. I was vocal when I started feeling anxious about where were going to eat, and became open about saying if I was feeling uneasy about a certain dish. It was a blessing that my group members actively sought to protect and support me with my food limitations.
One evening in Madrid, our group had finished touring for our cultural studies course, and the program director purchased everyone a gelato. It was not safe for me. When one of my friends saw that I hadn’t ordered, I explained the dangerous reality of cross-contamination. He offered to find a shop where I could get an ice cream too; and I was able to get a safe cone.
Although a small gesture, this act helped to reassure me that those around me did not judge me for my allergy. They wanted to keep me safe and included.
I always carried two epinephrine auto-injectors, antihistamine, a detailed anaphylaxis care plan, and my chef cards. Plus, I instructed all group members on how to use an epinephrine auto-injector.
Dialing Down the Fear Factor
Nevertheless, it took almost two weeks for the anxious, tight feeling in my throat to completely disappear. It was a slow acclimation to the pressures of living alone in Europe. But I made it there. I went to the gym at least four times a week, and I continued to call my friends and family to manage the remaining anxiety.
While in Spain, I got to visit the country’s diverse regions and cities: from Picos de Europa National Park and San Sebastián in the north, to Barcelona, southern Granada, and of course, Madrid. Despite my food allergy, I had an amazing culinary experience in Spain. I frequently had Tortilla de Española (Spanish omelet), Paella de Mariscos, Spanish ham with melon, Natillas (custard), Arroz con leche (rice pudding), and many other unique Spanish foods. I learned to trust the chefs and waitstaff in restaurants, who sufficiently assured me that there was no potential for cross-contamination.
Traveling or studying abroad in a foreign-speaking country can seem intimidating and dangerous, but it is attainable with the right precautions. My food allergies are a real, and sometimes frightening, part of my daily reality. But I didn’t let them stop me from living.
Now, if we can just get auto-injectors on all airplanes to add to essential travel precautions, many more of us will feel safer as we explore our own country and the world.
Find Alexa Jordan’s petition for auto-injectors aboard airlines here.
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Studying Abroad with Food Allergies: An Experience Not To Be Missed