5 Questions With...Allergic Girl
New York Magazine recently alerted the Daily Traveler to Sloane Miller, a.k.a. Allergic Girl, a woman on a mission to help people with severe allergies enjoy all aspects of life . . . including travel. After falling in love with her eating-allergy blog, Please Don't Pass the Nuts, the DT got a chance to ask some questions.
CNT: So, I'm allergic to peanuts, and I'm going to Thailand. What do I do?
Miller: Oy, do you have to go? Okay, okay, you do, I hear it's wonderful. My tips: Do your homework before you leave. Bring a chef card in Thai and any other indigenous languages you may need. Selectwisely.com has translated cards. Talk to the Thai consulate; they should be a font of information on cuisine and travel. Go to your local Thai restaurant; ask them what dishes should be safe for you whilst there. Go to the library and pick up some books on Thai cuisine; familiarize yourself with the names of traditional dishes that could be problematic so you can identify them. Concierges at top Western hotels in Thailand should be able to guide you, and they will speak English (the restaurants in those hotels will probably be safer, as well). Take your prescriptions; take extras. Make sure you have the names of Western doctors in Thailand. Get traveler's insurance. And, oh yeah, have a great time!
CNT: How did you become an expert on this subject?
Miller: I have food allergies; I love to eat; I love to learn about food and cultures through food; I love to dine out and I'm a social worker by training--a born advocate, connector, and communicator. So it was a natural to combine food, allergies, advocacy, and communication into an expertise. Over a lifetime of creating coping mechanisms and skills for navigating a world with allergies, I wanted to share that knowledge. I do that through my Allergic Girl blog, through consulting with food-service organizations, and through my Worry-Free Dinner series of events. I love helping people overcome their fears and lead full lives.
CNT: Have you heard of or had any travel nightmares associated with allergies?
Miller: Yes and yes. The worst stories are the somewhat apocryphal ones: "I know of a friend of a friend who is deathly allergic to peanuts/tree nuts, had an allergic reaction on a plane, and died." (Sigh.) Those stories resound in my head every time I travel. They give me nightmares, really. But I do everything I can to ensure my safety, recognizing that death on a plane by food allergy attack is a statistical rarity. I make sure to bring all my medications (Benadryl, multiple EpiPens, cortisone pills, cortisone inhalers) and alert the flight crew to my allergies when appropriate. ("I'm allergic to dogs. May I move my seat so that woman carrying her dog to Palm Beach isn't near me?") My friend the travel writer Bob Fisher is highly allergic and travels the world for work. He has had severe allergic reactions in the air; he took his Benadryl (in liquid form, like Hitch) and was able to get to the hospital when they landed and was fine. He continues to travel and eat and fly all the time. He is my hero.
CNT: What's the most common food allergy?
Miller: The top eight most common food allergens as identified by the FDA are: peanuts, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, dairy, wheat, soy, and eggs. Sesame is the ninth in Canada. However, a person can become allergic to anything, at any time.
The scary ones are those that can lead to anaphylactic shock. That is rare but it does happen and people do die. The official number is about 150 to 330 people per year. That number, though, is grossly underreported, as anaphylaxis is not often properly coded by coroners and thus missed in the death counts. The only treatment for anaphylaxis right now is epinephrine, which is given at the first sign of trouble. Here is a list of possible symptoms that may occur alone or in any combination.
CNT: Where do you plan to travel next? Are you allergy-nervous about the trip?
Miller: My summer plans include Bridgehampton, Long Island; Stowe, Vermont; and Los Angeles. I know, pauvre moi. However, the Hamptons are where I discovered many of my allergies as a child (pollen, tree nuts, horses, dogs). My father is deathly allergic to bees, and back in the 1970s, in the Hamptons, he carried the early version of a self-injectable: a vial of adrenaline, a syringe, and a prayer. So for me, traveling to the Hamptons comes with a modicum of anxious feelings of "what if?"
Vermont, too, has its share of perils, mainly in its bug population. (I can have severe allergic reactions to bug bites.) I went to graduate school there for my masters of fine arts in writing, and one summer I was bitten by a no-see-um. In the middle of the night, I was woken up by my arm--red, swollen, and stiff. Rushed to the ER, I was told I had an allergic reaction, duh, to the bite and the beginning of cellulitis. I was given antibiotics, Benadryl, and an Epi-chaser.
Los Angeles should be fun. I'm going to speak at the Western Foodservice & Hospitality Expo about food allergies. And now that the smog emissions are lower, it's much easier for this Allergic Girl to hang in L.A. Now I just need to find a yummy allergen-friendly place to eat. Ideas are more than welcome!
So, yes, I have some anxiety about traveling, but--and this is important--I don't want to not go. Leaving one's comfort zone, having an adventure, or taking some time off is important to recharge and renew, to grow and to expand. Especially those of us with a chronic illness (like asthma) or potential severe reactions to food, we can't live life in a bubble; it's just no fun. With the increased global awareness about allergies, it's becoming easier to travel away from our safe zones. Just remember: Take baby steps, listen to your body, take your medications, do your homework, and have fun!