Living with asthma, anaphylaxis to peanuts and nuts as well as other allergies, my entire life, has had and continues to have a significant influence on my day to day activities, health, well-being, academic life and involvement in sport. For several years my asthma appeared to be more in control of my life than I was. At a young age, frequent hospital visits and daily usage of a compressor one to three times a day was not uncommon. In kindergarten, drastic as it may sound, I sat alone in the classroom every lunch hour with a mask on my face, breathing in the medications that would help me make it through the rest of the day. My family and friends were extremely supportive and I attended a very small public elementary school where we all knew everyone by name, thus I was not bullied or teased about my condition.
However, in high school, I did feel extremely isolated and alone. I was no longer surrounded by the smaller community of friends and teachers who all knew of my health issues and were very supportive. In high school, I did not have many friends and spent more time speaking with teachers or studying during lunch and breaks as a result. During this five year period, I was fortunate to have a twin brother who was in all the same classes and had my back. My self-confidence was roughly two on a scale of one to ten. In the school of 900 students, I did not know a single student who carried an Epipen or who had life-threatening allergies and asthma. Had I known even one other person, I am convinced I would look back at those years and smile because I would have had a happier experience. Though my family was extremely supportive, a different level of support was missing and that was the support from someone who was living in the same circumstances as I was. I turned to competitive sports as an outlet for my loneliness and to work on my confidence. Sports and training always made me feel I was capable of succeeding at something. Whenever I experienced extremely negative emotions or thoughts due to my health issues, I turned to sports and training as I always felt this was one thing that I could be in control of and release the built up anger or frustration. When training and competing competitively in cross-country skiing at the regional, provincial and national levels, my allergies were not at the forefront. I always took my ventolin inhaler prior to any physical activity and carried it with me just in case. This became a routine rather than an inconvenience. I always tried to think positively in that all I needed to do was to increase my lung capacity and then there would be less to worry about. The reason I am so committed when it comes to sports and training is because I do not need to worry about anything else except my performance.
During my last year of high school, I became extremely involved in student life. I organized fundraisers, clothes drives for the homeless; I acted as a peer mentor for the first year high school students in a mentoring program; I continued to compete in regional sports. At that particular time in my life, I realized that I did not need to be “defined” by my allergies or anaphylaxis and that I could be just as good if not better than my peers. That one year was the most pivotal one to this day as I changed from the one of the shyest students in the grade to the one of the most outgoing, connected, confident, hard-working and achieving ones. Being awarded the Millennium Scholarship was the ultimate indication that I had taken a stand against my allergies and was finally beginning to figure out who I was. In retrospect, I have my teachers, teammates and family to be thankful to for having helped me make it over such an enormous hurdle. I realized that allergies and asthma were simply obstacles to overcome and that they should not be more than a bump in the road.
I adopted the mentality that I could do anything I aspired to do and that I would not let my allergies and asthma get in the way. From that point on, I gratefully accepted every opportunity that came my way and strived to find more. I became a volunteer with the Allergy/Asthma Information Association (AAIA) in Montreal in 2006 with the intention of helping other teenagers deal with allergies and asthma by sharing my life experiences and achievements. I wrote several articles for their newsletters and, as I became more involved, I took part in different workshops and conferences as an AAIA volunteer. I attended the AAIA 2007 Family Conference in Ottawa and facilitated two workshops with Kyle Dine. One of these was with youth who had allergies and asthma and the other was targeted to parents who had questions for us on the influences and challenges their children faced so they could help them.
My eight month fellowship in Cape Cod was a terrific experience for numerous reasons, one of the most important ones was what I came to realize about true friends. Though I had three anaphylactic reactions to cats and cat dander which lead me straight to the emergency room, mentally I was able to make it through each one because I had friends behind me who cared about my well-being and happiness. Though only one of my friends had allergies and truly “understood”, I felt confident being away from family, that my friends had my back.
When I began classes at the University of Victoria in September 2008 my health was not up to par and as a result I was unable to attend classes on a regular basis for several semesters. Though I struggled, I had rowing and training for competitions to keep me from feeling completely isolated and depressed. The disconnect from the allergy and asthma community which I experienced while in Cape Cod had created a longing to be proactive and re-connect with the community with more determination than ever before. The realization that too much time had passed without writing articles and being involved was inevitable. This longing to re-connect became the driving force which fueled all the initiatives and experiences I have taken part in since I moved out to Victoria, BC. Through networking I was rather efficient in connecting with a public health nurse who speaks with all the students with allergies and asthma, on a yearly basis, at one of the middle schools in the area. I joined her in a group discussion both last year and this year, where students shared experiences and some frustrations and where the nurse went over the information about anaphylaxis and use of the epipen.
After a search for a local support group for allergies and asthma, I contacted Cheryl Cuddeford who is with Anaphylaxis Canada and proceeded to give a presentation at the group meeting in January 2010. My hope was to find out what parents’ main concerns were when it came to their children’s well-being and to share experiences that may be relevant. I then met with parents on an individual basis for coffee to get a better idea of how I could help support their children and the families themselves. With the support of the AAIA, I have started a support group for youth from ages 7 to 13 called the YAAS (Youth Anaphylaxis/Asthma Support) in Victoria, BC. Currently 4-10 youth show up to the weekly meetings where we share stories, play games, icebreakers, sports and have fun. I hope to help create that sense of community where the children know that they are not alone, that we are all looking out for each other and that having allergies and asthma should not keep us from taking part in things we enjoy. I am currently trying to organize a kayak outing as well as other outings, to help build the friendships and offer new opportunities that we can all try as a group.
My involvement as a mentor with both research programs conducted by the University of Alberta confirmed my belief that the support from peers who are in “the same boat”, is extremely valuable and different from what family or friends who do not live with allergies or asthma can offer. I have remained in contact with youth from the first online youth intervention and am trying to create a group that chats via skype. I know for a fact that it is extremely important to keep in contact and follow-up because the mentees have definite potential to take on mentor and leadership roles of their own within their communities. My mission is to create a self-sustaining, supportive, allergy and asthma aware community where even those without allergies and asthma provide a level of support.