Students seek awareness for life-threatening allergies

March 24, 2016 — by Cassandra King and Austin Wang

Despite signs like this one, students with severe food allergies still find themselves exposed to allergens sometimes.

The case of junior Rosa Castren shows the dangers when students bring allergy-inducing foods like nuts and citrus into areas that are supposed to be safe.

Junior Rosa Castren felt panic surge through her.

A nearby student began to peel an orange in front of the drama room in an area marked “Citrus-free Zone.”  The pungent citrus floated to Castren’s nose, and her throat began to close up. Her vision blurred, her head grew light and each panting breath squeezed her lungs shut.

Even her inhaler was not enough to stop the sensation. Finally, she was forced to use her EpiPen, an autoinjector of adrenaline she injected into her thigh, and she was soon rushed to the emergency room to safely control her reaction. This happened only a month ago and was not the first time she had gone through an extreme reaction.

Castren is one of dozens of students on campus with food allergies. These students must take precautions to avoid allergic reactions, but as was the case with Castren, other students often lack awareness and endanger them when they bring allergy-inducing foods like nuts and citrus into areas that are supposed to be safe.

All her life, Castren has suffered from allergies to numerous foods: fruit, spices, oats, fish, nuts, pine and pollen — with the worst being citrus. The mere scent of peeled citrus sends her into anaphylactic shock, causing her to have difficulty breathing and to get dizzy and lightheaded. The condition is so bad that she must wear a pollen filtering mask while venturing outside citrus-free rooms.

Classrooms are labeled citrus-free or nut-free if there are students with those allergies in the class. While she has encountered severe allergic reactions several times in the past, Castren said each time the experience is “hard.”

“[Allergic reactions] always harm my heart, and I have to go to the hospital because my heart gets irregular, and it’s not safe,” she said.

Besides placing signs in classrooms, the administration has also made sure there are safe zones around the Quad, such as the one near the drama room.

Nevertheless, many students walk right by the bright yellow “NO CITRUS” and bright pink “NO NUTS” signs on over 20 doors around campus, oblivious to these warnings. Because some students think of allergies as mere itchy throats or puffy lips, they often carry on eating what they please, unaware that the foods they eat could significantly endanger others,  Castren said. But for students like Castren, negligence in obeying these signs can be the difference between life and death.

“Some people wouldn’t understand that there could be very serious consequences, like ending up in the hospital,” Castren said. “No one would [expose someone to allergens] on purpose, but many people don't know [about my allergies].”

Teachers can also make errors when it comes to food allergies.  Sophomore Isabella Strawn, who has a severe nut allergy, remembers having to leave a room during a final exam because her teacher passed out peanut cookies beforehand.

“I would definitely appreciate it if in classrooms, [they] made more of an effort to say no nuts, no peanuts, no citrus, no whatever the allergy is,” Strawn said. “I think that would be great and really helpful because we should really be focusing on allergies. [Then I wouldn’t have to think,] ‘Oh, if someone's eating peanuts, then what can I touch [and] what have they touched.’”

Regardless of what students and faculty do to avoid these allergic reactions, students with allergies usually find themselves having to walk into potentially dangerous situations every day.

“It’s really hard to control what everyone does,” Strawn said. “I understand it is our responsibility not [to] go near peanuts.”

Junior Michelle Jiang has no food allergies herself, but some of her friends do suffer from them.

“A lot of people tend to just not care about the signs because they’ve never seen anything happen to someone, so they don’t feel like it’s that big of a deal,” Jiang said.

Freshman Isabella Tang, who suffers from numerous nut allergies, has noticed that students are aware of allergies but simply forget about them momentarily.

“They don’t realize how severe [some allergies are],” Tang said. “A lot of people eat granola bars right next to me and they know I have an allergy, but it doesn't register.”

Around campus, many teachers strongly warn students against eating citrus or nuts near their classes.

Some of these teachers have had incidents in their classrooms and are more cognizant of what is consumed in their classrooms. Spanish teacher Arnaldo Rodriguex, for instance, has hung seven  “NO CITRUS” signs in his room.

“Is it 100 percent controllable? No, but I think we all do our best trying to remind students,” Rodriguex said.

Spanish teacher Bret Yielding said the school has made significant progress in raising awareness about food allergies.

“Five to 10 years ago, I never saw any signs like ‘Nut-free Zone’ or ‘Citrus-free Zone,’” Yielding said. “Now, you see them all over.”

Students like Castren only hope that students will learn to pay better attention to the signs and save them from EpiPen injections and ambulance rides to the hospital.

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