Friday 24 November 2017

Shock to the system

Lisa Marie Kelly is seriously allergic to certain foods, and she's faced death more than once, says Joy Orpen. Now, the Trinity science student wants to help people like her find healthy, convenient solutions to their problems.

Photo by david conachy
Photo by david conachy

It should come as no surprise that Lisa Marie Kelly is studying to become an immunologist. After all, she has spent her 23 years battling an incredibly dangerous health issue, so any information she can glean about the workings of the human body is of interest to her.

Lisa Marie, a Dublin girl, suffers from anaphylaxis; in other words, she has bad allergic reactions to certain substances. Her condition is so severe, that she has faced death on several occasions. The first time she went into anaphylactic shock, she was only a few hours old.

"Mum was always into natural food," she explains. "So when she was having me, she gave instructions that I was not to be fed any milk formulas. Unfortunately, a nurse gave me a bottle, and six hours after my birth, my organs started shutting down. I was rushed to ICU. However, when my mother began breastfeeding me, I started to stabilise."

At that point, no one knew what had caused the baby's life-threatening problem, but as solids were gradually introduced, the picture became clearer. "When my diet expanded, I sometimes broke out in full-body rashes," explains Lisa Marie. "I might also have swelling of the lips and face, and possibly chesty wheezing as well."

Eventually, it was ascertained that she was allergic to beef, all dairy products, eggs, nuts, shellfish, yeast and penicillin. Consequently, her main source of nourishment came from rice, potatoes, chicken, fruit and vegetables.

She says that while she accepted her dietary limitations from an early age, children's parties were a real problem. "I knew I couldn't eat any of the fun things the other kids were having," she remembers. "The parents of my friends were very understanding and would try to offer me things I could eat, or my parents would bring along something appropriate. My teachers at school did their best too. Just the same, it was hard not being able to enjoy sweets, or jelly and ice cream - those sorts of treats."

And as far as Halloween was concerned, "trick-or-treat" became "get and give" - having gone door-to-door with her little friends, Lisa Marie would then go home and immediately hand over her bag of goodies to her parents.

"I knew that the consequences of eating the wrong things were just so serious," explains Lisa Marie. "I have vivid memories of what it felt like to have itchy, swollen lips and a chesty wheeze, because someone used an unwashed knife [that had been used to cut cheese], to peel an apple for me. Even something as basic as a relative kissing me on the cheek could set me off, if that person had been drinking milky tea."

When the allergic reaction is particularly severe, Lisa Marie will go into anaphylactic shock. This will start with an itchy mouth. Internal swelling will cause "terrible pain" and nausea. She may experience vomiting and diarrhoea. Her blood pressure will fall, possibly causing her to become unconscious. "There's nothing you can do but take an adrenalin injection and wait for the ambulance," says Lisa Marie.

Between 2008 and 2012, she suffered six episodes of anaphylactic shock, and in each case, it happened when she ate out in restaurants. Though she makes it clear to the staff that she can have a bad reaction to certain foods, on occasion, she says, they fail to communicate properly with those in the kitchen. And the consequences of that may cause her to end up in hospital.

Over the years, Lisa Marie's body has become more tolerant and currently dairy products and beef are the only two food groups that could land her in hospital. She can drink alcohol as long as she stays away from concoctions that have cream or other dairy products in them. But she says that no matter how much she drinks, she wouldn't be tempted to indulge in the wrong foods. "Even under the influence, I'd never eat something I'm allergic to," she says vehemently. "I just wouldn't. Apart from putting my own life in danger, what happens to me affects other people too."

Fortunately, Lisa Marie has discovered that there are certain restaurants where the customers' dietary requirements are taken seriously. "I eat a lot of Asian food because, on the whole, they don't use dairy," she says. "I love Chinese and Thai food and sushi. Fortunately, there are some good restaurants that use different utensils for every dish, and they make sure their staff are well-informed about food allergies."

Lisa Marie says that, at home, they have learned to adapt recipes to suit the dietary requirements of her mother, brother and sister, who all have certain intolerances and allergies - but none of them are as problematic as Lisa Marie's. They substitute dairy products with almond milk, soya butter and soya cream. "You can pretty much find a dairy-free replacement for everything these days," says Lisa Marie. "Even in the supermarkets."

She is particularly delighted that legislation was recently passed, insisting that all food packaging and menus list any of 14 different specific allergens that are likely to crop up in any foodstuff. This now applies to all packaged or unpackaged, cooked or uncooked, food being sold in restaurants, cafes, outdoor food stalls, bakeries and supermarkets."I'm still going to have to double check, because beef is not one of the 14 items on the list," says Lisa Marie. "But it will be more comfortable for people like my siblings, who have a dairy intolerance."

Currently, Lisa Marie is in her fourth year of studying immunology at Trinity College Dublin. She says she loved science at school, and is always curious to learn more about how allergens work. "I now have a much better understanding of what happens to your body," she says, while adding that she is hoping to do a PhD in the near future.

In the meantime, Lisa Marie will be pursuing another passion of hers, and that is talking publicly about the obstacles that people with allergies face. "I'm setting up sites on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram," she reveals. "I want to spread awareness about anaphylaxis and show people how to substitute things in their diet. And I want to inform them about the restaurants that are safe to visit. This is not about naming and shaming. It's about highlighting what's good out there for people with allergies. Anaphylaxis is a life-threatening condition; because of allergies, people die."

For more information, email Lisa Marie Kelly, theallergyangelofficial@gmail.com or find her on Twitter and Instagram @TheAllergyAngel

See anaphylaxisireland.ie

Helpline: (0818) 300-238

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