I was not ready to travel with my food allergies
When I was 21 years old, I made my first international with food allergies. I was accepted on academic exchange at a prestigious university in Sweden. I was young, I was excited, and I had NO idea what I was getting myself into.
Back then, my planning for international travel involved stuffing some clothes into a suitcase and making sure my passport was valid. I had very little anxiety about traveling with my multiple food allergies (peanut, tree nuts, egg, fish, shellfish and mustard).
When I arrived in Sweden, my lack of planning caught up with me. My flight delay caused me to miss the "arrival team", and I ended up scrambling around at night by myself trying to find a place, any place, to sleep (that's another story). When it came to food, I found a grocery store and just purchased fresh food (meats and cheeses) and a box of Frosted Flakes.
The allergic reaction abroad
I had one reaction during my 6 month stay abroad, and it occurred at a communal pot luck dinner at my residence. Pesto sauce was never on my radar as my parents never brought it into our house. I really had no idea what it was. I asked someone and they said it's just a nice spread with herbs. A few minutes after spreading it on a tortilla, I found out it also contained pine nuts.
I was scared. I knew right away that my throat was affected by the allergic reaction. I was surrounded by acquaintances and needed someone to confide in - someone to help me as my head was starting to get loopy and wasn't thinking straight.
I told my girlfriend, who I was dating for a short time and had never really informed in detail about my severe food allergies. She helped calm me down and got me water. Did I use epinephrine? No. Should I have? Absolutely. 100%.
Mind games during an allergic reaction
The thing about allergic reactions is...as much as it affects you physically, the mental processes that occur can be quite profound. You can go from denial, fear, sense of doom, back to denial all in under a minute. You wonder if you should use Epi, you wonder if you should hold off for another minute. You think about "sounding the alarm bells" and calling an ambulance, which is even more intimidating in a foreign country (plus insurance considerations).
It took a few hours. But I was okay.
Was I even ready to travel abroad?
I look back now and think what could I have done differently? On a micro level, sure, I should have used epinephrine and called 112 (emergency # in Sweden). But when I think of the big picture, I was woefully unprepared to handle an anaphylactic emergency abroad. I lacked the knowledge to recognize a reaction, I lacked the confidence to advocate for myself in an emergency, and I lacked judgement...going against my gut (and everything my mother taught me) and trying to reason with myself under duress.
I also look back and am embarrassed that I didn't do more research about my destination, the local cuisine and common allergens. I slap my forehead now thinking that I willfully ate pesto without questioning it! I think about how I missed out on Swedish cuisine because I had no plan for dining out with the language barrier. I stuck to my comfort zone of eating safe meatball sandwiches again...and again. I was so 21.
When it comes to international travel with a food allergy, there is a difference between being prepared, and being ready.
Being prepared has to do with all of the "to do" list items that you need to consider in advance. Insurance, local cuisine research, emergency numbers, allergy translation cards.
Being ready for international travel is different. At age 21, I was not truly ready. I jumped into it without having a solid ground of self allergy management. I wasn't an allergy "all star" at home, let alone abroad. Perhaps I needed a wake up call, but I feel lucky that my trip to Sweden went successfully despite my free-wheeling fly by the seat of my pants approach.
When thinking about travelling abroad, I recommend to really think about how you're doing with allergies at home. What are (if any) your weak spots? International travel is AMAZING, and you can definitely do it. But sometimes I wish there was a badge system for managing food allergies, and when you prove that you're at... "blue badge" for instance, you have some validation that you're ready and have set yourself up for success to see the world, and stay safe.
What do you think? Do you think some type of badge system would help youth and teens be ready for travel?
How do we (or should we?) benchmark where we're at in terms of allergy management and safety?