When in Rome…

…do as the Romans do. That’s what everyone says! But what happens when you have food allergies, and physically can’t do as the Romans do? Or really, as Italians in general? Eating is their favorite pastime, and boy do they love their food!

In just a few days, I’ll have been in Rome for an entire month. Believe me when I tell you, Roma è bellisima! Rome is beautiful! I’ll be in this beautiful city for another three months, and it is quite honestly an architecture major’s dream. In contrast though, it seems like a set up for a nightmare for anyone with food allergies. Yet, here I am. I never wanted my food allergies to get in the way of furthering my education, so I packed up my bags and hopped on a plane for a semester studying architecture in Rome. But I did not do so without extensive planning.

After listing my food allergies under “Other Concerns” in my application and receiving my acceptance in May, I was contacted immediately by Catholic University’s Center for Global Education. They told me that while they have housed students with food allergies on our Rome campus before, it has never been someone with as many allergies as me and they wanted to come up with a plan to keep me safe. Over the course of 65 emails in one thread, three in-person meetings, and a skype call with the student directors in Rome, we came up with what seemed like a foolproof plan.

While the other students on campus receive breakfast Monday – Friday and dinner Monday – Thursday, I have a personal chef who comes in Monday – Thursday and while the kitchen is empty in the morning, she prepares my lunch and dinner. She puts it in Tupperware and places it in the fridge that only she and I have a key to. On Thursday, she prepares extra meals for me that I can eat Friday through Sunday. Then, in the middle of February, the Australian Catholic University students move off campus and a faculty apartment is available. So now, in just one week, I’ll be moving into that apartment that is just down the hall from my current dorm where I’ll be able to cook my own meals for the rest of the semester. With this plan in place, I felt safe getting on a plane and living in Rome. (But I also did pack nearly an entire suitcase full of safe snacks to bring with me!)

But of course, not everything can go as well as we plan. On my first day in Rome, I met with my personal chef Cristina and the Assistant Student Director. Together the three of us went grocery shopping, with the Assistant Student Director serving as translator between Cristina and I as we discussed what was safe and what I liked. Because Cristina would not start cooking for me until Monday, and I arrived on a Friday, we bought food for the weekend that didn’t require a kitchen to prepare; slices of turkey, bread, and salad. It wasn’t much, but we all read the ingredients and everything seemed safe. That was all that mattered to me! The next day, within the first two bites of my turkey and bread that I decided to have for lunch, my first “Italian” meal, my tongue was instantly itchy. I took Benadryl right away and prayed that it wouldn’t get any worse. Naturally, within the hour the terrible feeling moved to my stomach. Even though my tongue was no longer itchy, I was scared and frustrated that this was happening. I stood up in the middle of our orientation session and walked to the back of the room. The Assistant Student Director saw me do this and followed me to the back. She saw the tears in my eyes and walked me to the Director’s office where I could sit and evaluate what the next steps needed to be. Fortunately, I soon realized the pain in my stomach was going away, and the only thing I needed now was some rest.

After sleeping for a few hours, I woke up feeling much better physically, but I was sad and frustrated. Was all of the planning for nothing? Would it be smarter if I just went home? While all of my friends went exploring and got acclimated to our new campus, I wallowed in doubt. I was so tempted to call my parents and ask them to buy me a plane ticket home.

I really wanted to. I was so close to asking for that ticket. But for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to.

The next day I went out into the city for the first time. Suddenly looming in front of me was the Pantheon. The Pantheon. The Pantheon which is almost 2000 years old. The Pantheon which has the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. The Pantheon which I have been learning about since my first day of architecture school. The Pantheon. As an architecture major, it was jaw dropping. I instantly remembered why I’m here; I’m here to learn about architecture in it’s birthplace, in a way I cannot learn back in the United States. Once inside, I was drawn to a statue of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus, and I knew that in the same way Mary watched over Jesus, Mary was going to watch over me during my time here. I just had to have faith.

Now that it’s nearly been a month, I have seen so much more than just the Pantheon, and I’m so glad I’ve stayed. It has not always been easy, but it has gotten better. If I let my food allergies pressure me into giving up, if I let my anxiety and fear of the unknown cripple me, I would have missed out on the experience of a lifetime. I may not be doing exactly as the Romans do, but let me tell you – my allergy friendly pizza is absolutely delicious, and I think the Romans are okay with that.

Learning to Love Cooking

Back home, everyone in my family shares the responsibility of making dinner; we take turns, depending on who gets home when, and who has the most availability. My brother loves to make anything with ground turkey – which could mean hamburgers, sloppy joe’s, burritos, tacos, cheese-free “nachos,” etc. My mom’s favorite meals to cook for us involve her famous pork chops or chicken, my sister Katie will always chip in when she’s visiting home from grad school, and my Dad can handle anything on the grill (but that’s about all he can handle). My sister Claire has recently become the one in our family who pushes our boundaries a little bit and encourages us to try new food, like stir fry. As for my specialty? I would consider it pasta with turkey meatballs and broccoli, where the turkey meatballs come right from the freezer and I stick them in the oven for 15 minutes. The broccoli is either steamed or sautéed in olive oil and garlic. Maybe, if I’m feeling ~fancy~ I make some garlic bread. And by garlic bread, I mean I put a mixture of margarine, herbs, and garlic on whatever bread we have in the house, which could very well mean hot dog buns. (Ya gotta do what ya gotta do people!)

Now, I’m not hating on this meal at all, it tastes good and it’s simple to make. But I’ve never really tried to expand my horizons when it comes to making food beyond meals like this one. In fact, most of the time I revert to meals even easier than this pasta dish. There have been multiple instances where I’ve used my food allergies as an excuse, even just to myself, for deciding to settle on eating chicken nuggets or plain pasta dishes for another dinner. But the reality is that I was being lazy, and I didn’t want to make an effort to cook something exciting or new.

I’m halfway done with my four months abroad in Italy, and this last month in my apartment on campus has been the first time in my life where I am 100% responsible for all of my meals. I have a very small kitchen, with only two burners and a microwave. I have to be very selective with what I buy from the grocery store because there have been instances where the label says it is allergen-free, even when it’s not. All of this combined means I definitely have more restrictions in my diet than usual while I’m here, but I have never been more inspired to cook new things. That laziness in the kitchen is suddenly something that I am craving to break out of.

Just the other day, I made pasta sauce! (Well, it wasn’t entirely from scratch.) I sautéed onions in olive oil with garlic, chili pepper flakes, salt, pepper, and some herbs, to which I then added store-bought tomato sauce. This might seem like no big deal to some people, but the entire time I was preparing it, I was so excited! Th independency I now have for every meal makes me feel like I’m that much more of an adult. I’m excited when I start to meal prep for the week and I end up searching for new recipes online that I can try with the safe ingredients I have. Sometimes I use explicitly “allergen-free” recipes, other times I find ways to adapt a general recipe to be safe.

While I still make my “specialty” pasta – I’ll never give that up – I have begun to found ways to change it up! Since turkey is not easily available in Rome, I use chicken or bacon bits instead; I occasionally substitute green beans for the broccoli; I’ll go back and forth between putting olive oil and garlic on the pasta or a tomato sauce of some kind. I’m learning to be more flexible with all of my dishes, and learning how to put a new twist on the same staple foods I can eat here.

All in all, Italy is teaching me how to love cooking, something I never expected to add to my list of things I learn while studying abroad, but I’m so grateful that I am.



This morning as I went into my school cafeteria for breakfast, I noticed one of the employees unloading a tray of sausage into the serving pan with the spoon that was meant to serve the potatoes. I immediately sought out the manager to inform her. She had a new tray of potatoes brought up and had the spoon freshly washed. It was a close call on cross-contamination.

The little mishaps like these are the ones that really scare me. I was lucky that I was an eyewitness to this incident – but what about the dozens of incidents I don’t witness that have the potential to cause an allergic reaction? I try not to live in fear, but I am forced to live in a constant state of caution. I’m still praying and hoping for a time when I don’t have to anymore; I’m just waiting on a cure.


Allergy Alli Goes to CALI

Hello Everyone! I am very excited to announce that I have been selected to participate in a College Student Panel at the 2017 Food Allergy Research and Education’s Teen Summit this November.

I have been writing on Allergy Alli for five years, and now I have the opportunity to share my college-specific experiences through FARE – a national organization focused on improving the lives of people living with allergies. I am so honored by this opportunity, and anxious to do my part to help. However, this year’s summit is located in Newport Beach, California, meaning that if I want to attend, then I have to fly across the country from Washington, D.C. Although FARE covers the registration fee for the conference, they do not cover my travel and hotel expenses. While I have already coordinated to share a hotel room with one of the other panelists, the costs for flights from Washington, D.C. to California are high. I’m an architecture major at Catholic University, which means that currently I am also trying to pay for my tuition, textbooks for my classes, and all the materials necessary for my architecture studios.

This is where all of you come in. I am reaching out to all of you for assistance to get to California so I can share my story with teens that will be traveling there from all over the United States.  The costs for this trip will include airfare both ways, a hotel room for two nights, as well as travel expenses between the airport and hotel (where the conference is located). I have created a Go Fund Me Campaign, and any and all help that you can provide would be greatly appreciated! If you cannot make a donation, then please share my campaign and help me reach my goal!

Here is the link:

Thank you to all my readers for sticking with me these last five years, or even jumping on the bandwagon somewhere along the way. Hopefully I will be able to share with you all my experiences at the FARE Teen Summit in November!

P.S. – If you’d like to read more about the FARE Teen Summit (or even attend) check out the website at www.foodallergy.org/teensummit!

Working for Dining Services

Just two days ago, I returned to campus a week ahead of the the other students in order to help the Dining Services team prepare the Student Restaurant and other dining locations on campus for the new year. Although I only started working for the Dining Services in the last two months of my freshmen year, I’ve loved the opportunities it has provided me with to help make a difference for those on campus with dietary restrictions.

“Marketing Intern” is my official title, but my responsibilities consist of equal parts marketing AND analyzing the food allergy risks within the dining areas on campus.

In my first two days on the job last semester, my boss asked me to critically analyze the Student Restaurant by observing each serving station and evaluating any and all food allergy concerns. At the end of my three hour shift, I returned to my boss with a neatly typed, 3 page-narrow margin document that listed concerns, how the restaurant currently addressed them if they did, and possible solutions if they didn’t. The next day he and I sat down at the new Starbucks on our campus with one of the other Marketing Interns to review what I found and discuss the enactment of the possible solutions. As we stood up to leave, one of my friends that I hadn’t noticed prior to the meeting called out my name, said she overheard our meeting, and asked if I was helping with the food allergy situation in the Student Restaurant. When I said yes – she thanked me!


A Snapchat image captured a discussion with my boss and fellow intern as we determined solutions to food allergy concerns within the “Pryz,” aka the Student Restaurant.

Unbeknownst to me, she also has food allergies and was excited to hear that the same concerns she had are finally being addressed. She even captured a Snapchat and shared it on her story! Only two days into the job, I could already tell I had the potential to make a real difference in my new position.

Now that I’m back on campus for my sophomore year, I’m back to work! Some of the things I’ve been up to include evaluating the allergy concerns for the new restaurant and bar on campus that is opening in just a few weeks, as well as designing, preparing, and posting signage in the dining areas, both food allergy related and general notices. My role as Marketing Intern within Dining Services is flexible, so I’m planning to be ready for anything and everything. I’m excited for a second year here at The Catholic University of America and cannot wait to see where this year leads me!

“The Happy Wheezer”

When I was an infant, my doctor nick-named me “The Happy Wheezer.” This name was invented when I was in the office for a checkup. According to my mom, I was happy and responded to the loving touches of the adults around me with smiles and giggles. But when the doctor placed the stethoscope on my chest, it became apparent that I was having severe asthma. My facial expression should have been far from smiley; my airways were unbelievably tight, and I could barely breathe. My asthma was severely affecting me, but my attitude did not reflect the pain I must have been in.

What at the time was just a situation-appropriate nickname, I have turned into a self-diagnosis. I am a chronic sufferer of the Happy Wheezer Syndrome. Having food allergies means that you often have to go without. Although this sacrifice is difficult and usually unavoidable, the attitude that you choose to reflect to others is your choice. Nearly every social event involves food, and at college that means deciding to either take the time out of your busy schedule to prepare food, or simply being willing to go without. With homework to complete, shifts at work, plans with friends, or even simply the innate desire to finally sleep after late nights studying, I frequently chose to forgo a proper meal. This means I might have eaten a partial meal at late hours after the events, or maybe I did not eat at all. Often, no one knew this except me, and if they did I reminded them that it was no big deal. I kept a smile on my face, and the Happy Wheezer Syndrome continued to prevent my friends from worrying about me.

After finals ended, my friends and I gathered at a nearby friend’s home for an end of the year dinner celebration. One of the first things I said to her mom upon arrival was a lie.

“Don’t worry about me, I already ate dinner tonight. But thank you for your offer to help me!”

The lie escaped easily from my lips after years of practice, and I delivered it with a smile. I did not have time to eat before we left, but I know that it’s not safe for me to eat food that someone else prepared. The assurance that I already ate instantly eases any obligation a host might feel to feed me, which is exactly what I want. It’s the quickest way to remove any awkwardness from the situation. And thus, the Happy Wheezer Syndrome struck again, and no one knew any better.

The Happy Wheezer Syndrome can be an active choice to maintain a positive attitude. You can complain about not being able to eat, or you can go about like you’re not hungry (even if you’re starving). The social events that involve food (aka all of them) are not about the food for me, but instead are about the the experiences that come with them. Meals are a way to deepen friendships, and I simply decide to place value on the friendships rather than the food. It’s an active choice for most, however, I’ve never thought of it as a choice, but as an instinct. It’s worked for me so far!



What are you supposed to do the days and weeks following an allergic reaction?

Are you supposed to cry yourself to sleep because you feel like a powerless victim?

Are you supposed to avoid your campus dining area, the home of the dangerous cross contaminants that hospitalized you?

Are you supposed to have panic attacks that leave you hyperventilating and in tears at the very thought of stepping into that dining area again?

Are you supposed to run to the grocery store to pick up makeshift meals to feed you until your worries ease up?

Are you supposed to be unable to move, tears pooling in your eyes, as people filter unknowingly around you when you’re finally back in the dining area for the first time?

Whether I was supposed to or not, I did all of this. I had never been more scared or lost in my first year of college. There was no guidebook for the way I was feeling. No one could tell me what I was supposed to do. I had other allergic reactions before, but none that hospitalized me, none that left me with this debilitating fear. I felt like there was nothing I could do. I couldn’t avoid the dining area that caused my allergic reaction forever; it wasn’t like I could go home to a safely cooked meal like I had in the past after a reaction. If I wanted to eat, I had to go back to the place that hospitalized me.

The days following my allergic reaction, my parents took action like I’d never seen before. I know they probably felt nearly as helpless as me since they were 250 miles away. Emails were sent, phone calls were made – they wanted guarantees that something like this would never happen again. But of course, as those of us with food allergies know, a guarantee is virtually impossible. My parents persisted anyway and made sure everyone knew about what happened.

If people on the Dining Services team didn’t know who I was before, following my allergic reaction they definitely did. The President of the University (who also happened to be one of my professors that semester) asked me how I was doing before class one day. When I finally returned to the student restaurant, those that frequently prepared my food for me throughout the year approached me, even pulled me aside, and apologized for the mistake of their colleague. The managers of the student restaurant and the Resident District Manager of Dining Services invited me to meet with them to do a walk through of the student restaurant so they could understand my day to day process in the dining areas. They wanted to help me by developing changes that could make the dining services at my school safer for those with food allergies. Although everyone truly cared for my well-being from the start, this was their wake-up call.

A few days following this walk through – when I was sitting outside of Starbucks with a friend – the Resident District Manager approached me again. He asked me how I was, as nearly every employee had, but then he said something that helped me more than he could know.

“You know Allison – you have a lot of insight that our team could use. We should really consider hiring you.”

Within the month I had an interview, and I had a newfound sense of hope. By the end of March, I officially became a part of the Dining Services Team. With this new position, I realized I had been granted the ability to be a voice for everyone on my campus with food allergies. I was suddenly a part of the infrastructure that only a few weeks prior I had been terrified of. I was regaining control at a place I had previously felt almost powerless. I was no longer dwelling, but taking action, and that was the best thing I could have done for myself. Knowing the names and faces – knowing the process and participating in the background details – made all the difference for me. Maybe it’s because I know I can trust myself advocating for myself more than I can trust others attempting to advocate for me that made me felt more secure, or maybe it was the changes I was beginning to implement, but I started to feel safe again in the student restaurant.

Now, four months later, I’ve completely recovered – and I’m ready more than ever to return in the fall and continue in my position. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll never have to be afraid at school again.

It Happened.

It finally happened.

I’ve been away at college now for over 5 months. I’ve gotten into a routine at my student restaurant. I may not have much variety, but it has always been safe. Grilled Chicken, french fries, and salad. Turkey burger, french fries, and salad. Grilled chicken, gluten free pasta, and salad. Occasionally a BLT sandwich. My food is always prepared on a separate pan. It isn’t a riveting diet, but I’m fed. For me, eating a meal has never been about the food, but about the social experience, and I’ve created so many positive friendships during meals at CUA. But it finally happened. I should have predicted that it would happen eventually, but I always try to hope for the best.

February 4, 2017. 1:15pm. Turkey burger, french fries, and salad. Location: Student Restaurant.

February 4, 2017. 1:45pm. Itchy tongue. Location: Walking down the street to the school swim meet.

February 4, 2017. 1:55pm. Determined that I’m having an allergic reaction. Itchy tongue, single hive on my chest. A sense of panic comes over me, but outwardly I stay calm. Location: School swim meet.

February 4, 2017. 2:00pm. Itchy tongue, slightly itchy throat, minimal hives, ears are hot, and I’m having trouble hearing. Location: I have left the swim meet and am now walking down the sidewalk. My friend comes with me to retrieve my Benadryl, which should have been in my backpack with my Epi-pen and inhaler, but must have fallen out.

February 4, 2017. 2:10pm. Itchy tongue, slightly itchy throat, minimal hives, ears are hot, muffled hearing, sudden congestion, wheezing. I take my inhaler. Location: Sidewalk. My friend runs ahead to meet another friend who got Benadryl from my dorm room.

February 4, 2017. 2:15pm. Itchy tongue, slightly itchy throat, hives, ears are hot, muffled hearing, sudden congestion, no longer wheezing, tears have arrived. Location: Sitting on the corner of the street as I take the Benadryl.

February 4, 2017. 2:17pm. My mom is on the phone with my friend because I couldn’t talk to her through my tears. Simultaneously, my friend calls the campus health center, but they’re closed because it’s Saturday. We decide to call campus police who in turn call for an ambulance. Location: En route to my dorm room.

February 4, 2017. 2:30pm. My mom is back on the phone, jumping between me and two of my friends. My symptoms are still relatively minimal. I’m conscious and have no trouble breathing. I now have full-on hives on the back of my neck. I’m terrified at the possibility of having to use my Epi-pen for the first time. Location: Dorm room with a campus police officer as we wait for the ambulance.

February 4, 2017. 2:40pm. Ambulance has arrived. Location: Lobby of my dorm building. EMS team takes my vitals. My heart rate and blood pressure are way above normal, my hives are now running down my back and arms, and I’m starting to get the chills. I watch in awe as my friend recites all of my food allergies perfectly so EMS can write them down. I am calm, but scared. My past allergic reactions have always just resulted in me throwing up. I’ve never experienced anything like this.

February 4, 2017. 2:45pm. EMS determine that I am more than likely having an allergic reaction but I am not in critical condition. They call for a different ambulance that has the ability to take me to the hospital of my choice. They tell me that they haven’t seen a reaction like this in a long time. Location: Lobby of my dorm building. Someone has brought me a chair. I watch as people walk by my building, curious as to why there is an ambulance outside and what is happening. They turn and see me through the glass doors. Some are friends that look on in concern, but respectfully walk past, scared to interrupt the crowd of people around me.

February 4, 2017. 3:00pm. Most of my symptoms seem to be decreasing with the Benadryl starting to kick in, though I’m still a little itchy and still can’t hear well. Location: I am in transport to the hospital. This new EMS team notices that my cheeks seem to be slightly swollen and flushed.

February 4, 2017. 3:05pm. I just got off the phone with my mom, who has now offered to drive 4 hours to come to me. I tell her no; by the time she arrives my reaction will be long over. But I can hear in her voice that she’s still scared. This was definitely one of her biggest fears about sending me to college. Location: We have arrived at the hospital. I’m glad it’s so close to my campus.

At the hospital as I sit in the waiting room, a wave of exhaustion rolls over me. I don’t feel like I have any obvious symptoms left, except difficulty hearing. At around 4:00pm a nurse checks my vitals. My heart rate and blood pressure are back to normal. They tell me while I wait for a doctor that if I think my symptoms are starting to reappear in the common “Second Wave” to go to the front desk immediately. Fortunately, that never happens. Around 4:30pm I am given a room. When I finally see a doctor around 5:30pm, he examines the remnants of my no-longer-itchy hives, determines that my throat is not swollen, and that the only issue with my ears is a build up of ear wax that probably occurred from swelling. He tells me that it was definitely an allergic reaction but that I took all the right steps. I am given a few prescriptions and told that I’m safe to return to campus, but if any symptoms start to reappear at all, at any point, I should return to them immediately. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen either.

Now I know all of you who have experience with food allergies might be asking, “Why didn’t you use your Epi-pen?” I can tell you why: I was scared. I’ve never had to use it before. But more importantly than that, I was quickly under the surveillance of a campus police officer trained to handle these situations, and soon after that, EMS arrived. They told me that if my symptoms did not recede by the time I arrived at the hospital, the doctors there might have to inject me. But my symptoms did go away. I was surrounded by trained adults that I trusted, and I never felt that I reached the point where an Epi-pen was necessary. However, I can predict that if I didn’t get that Benadryl in my system so quickly, there’s a very good chance that I would have had to use it. But I fully believe that everyone followed the right protocol yesterday. The most important thing is that I am safe and feel better.

February 4, 2017. I had my first allergic reaction at college. I spent the rest of my night in bed as people came in and out of my room to check up on me. I feel blessed that I have such amazing friends that not only helped me when I needed it most but took care of the situation calmly.