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.