Q & A: How should you prepare a student with severe food allergies for university/college?

Queen’s University Andrea Mariano, 18, from Thornhill, Ont. Ms. Mariano, a first-year student in the died at Kingston General Hospital on Sept. 18. Facebook

The death of first-year Queen’s University student Andrea Mariano has led to many questions about severe food allergies and food service on campus. Mariano’s family said she died after an anaphylactic reaction to peanuts. She had just grabbed a smoothie on campus, according to her cousin.

Global News asked Laurie Harada, executive director of Food Allergy Canada for some advice for parents and students.  Harada’s son Julian suffers from multiple severe food allergies.

Q:  How old was your son when he was first diagnosed with a food allergy? And what was he allergic to?

Julian was diagnosed with an allergy to peanut by an allergist when he was 3 ½ yrs old, just months before he started junior kindergarten.

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Q: Has he been diagnosed with any other severe food allergies since then?

Tests later confirmed he has allergies to tree nuts, shrimp, chick peas, split peas, and soy.

Q:  How did you prepare him for university and managing his own allergies?

As a parent, my hubby and I both felt it was important to teach Julian from an early age to manage on his own with our guidance as he matured. It’s so cliché but it is true: Time flies and before you know it, your baby is entering high school, then ready to leave the nest for university. We felt that the best way to protect Julian was to teach him how to self-protect and to raise awareness and teach others who knew him.

For our family, preparation started from when he was diagnosed. We taught him to carry his own auto-injector when we felt he was ready, got him to read food labels when he was capable, and to tell us if he thought something was safe. We also encouraged him to ask questions himself, using his own words, about food preparation – whether at someone’s home or at a restaurant. As he got older, we expected him to do a lot more for himself, as we knew we could not be with him everywhere. High school was a bit of a training ground for him – a new experience where most students and teachers did not know him. Julian had to check food at the cafeteria when he opted to purchase something. Before the year started, we set up a meeting with the food service manager and had Julian ask questions – and of course, I added my own.

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Before first-year university, we also taught Julian to make basic meals and adapting some with safe substitutes. He decided to opt for a single dorm room, rather than sharing in first year, which allowed him to have more control with the food in his room. My husband connected with the university food service staff who advised him that they would be pleased to meet with our son individually, and go over their policies. We reminded him to ask each time he was ordering food and to ask about possible cross-contamination, e.g. French fries might be cooked in same vats as fried shrimp, deli meats often contain soy.

Q:  What was the experience like for you, sending your son more than 3000 kilometres away to attend university?

The University of British Columbia (UBC) was Julian’s first choice for academic and lifestyle reasons, and for opportunities to meet young people from around the globe. He wanted to get out of Toronto and he loves the outdoors and with Whistler in his backyard, it had allure.

Many people thought we were crazy to allow him to go out west, so far away from home. While nervous (more me than my husband), we felt that we had taught Julian as much as we could – he was confident and could manage his allergies and live independently.

At the end of the day, if something happened (an allergic reaction), we knew, and Julian knew, that he would have to be able to deal with it. This would not matter whether Julian was in Toronto (our home town) or at UBC. I kept reinforcing with Julian how important it was to tell his friends about his allergies and show them how to use his auto-injector in case he needed help. And, of course, short of nagging, I reminded him that he had to have his auto-injector with him at all times, and to not eat if it was not with him. Accidents can happen despite best efforts.

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Q: Your advice for parents of university/college students with severe food allergies, especially first-year students living in residence?

The post-secondary experience is very different and parents can help their children to navigate this new world – with “help” being the operative word. While our inclination as parents is to do everything for our kids, we need to step back and get them to do things for themselves, and be there as a guide. For example, get them to read through the university brochures and visit their websites, including the section on food service and meal plans. Ask them: What questions would you ask food service staff?

Find out when the universities have their Open House Days – or book a tour. Let your student take the lead and encourage them to take notes from each tour. Encourage your teen to ask questions by themselves, with you at-the-ready to ask for more information if necessary.

Many people focus on the food service aspect of living in residence. But, don’t forget to ask about emergency procedures: What happens if a student has an allergic reaction?  Are designated staff trained to deal with anaphylaxis, i.e. giving an epinephrine auto-injector? What happens after epinephrine is given? (They should be transported to hospital.)

When I visited several universities last year with my daughter, I noticed they all had post-mounted communication systems around the campus, where anybody in need of help could press a button that would automatically notify campus security staff. They should ask about this type of emergency system, i.e. how it works and what happens when it’s activated.

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Food Allergy Canada has a unique program for youth with resources created by and for teens and young adults. You may wish to share these with your high school/college/university student. We’ve found that young people tend to learn best from their own peers and their messages and stories resonate. Practical tips such as not sharing bottles or other things (alcohol, cigarettes), telling your date about your allergies before the first kiss, watching for allergens where you might not look for them, and telling others about your allergies.

  • Tips for University Students
  • Our allergy app for teens can be found by searching on “WhyRiskIt” in your smartphone’s app store
  • We also have a blog for young adults – Adults With Allergies

Q: Many parents are asking us: What can I do now?

If your child is at university or college, you could also contact the university or college yourself to ask about their food service operations. Ask about residence dining halls, restaurants and other food service outlets on campus that are independently run, such as cafes, juice bars, delis, etc.  Are all required to ensure that their staff is trained in food allergen management? Food Allergy Canada strongly believes that food service businesses need to ensure that their staff – both “back of the house” (preparing food) and “front of the house” (serving food) should be trained. You could also inquire about their emergency protocol – what will they do in case of an emergency.

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Final Thoughts from Laurie Harada – A word about the recent tragedy at Queen’s

Our hearts go out to the Mariano family who lost their daughter, Andrea. We know that many of you are thinking of her family and friends, as we all are at Food Allergy Canada.

And I know that many of you are also worried about your child if they have food allergies – whether they are in the final year of high school or at university. Chances are they’ve heard the news already. While details are not public about what happened exactly, you can remind your teens what they can do to self-protect.

It’s the basic stuff: Read ingredient labels, ask about food at dining halls, cafes, and restaurants and never make assumptions that something is safe.

Encourage your teen to find a way to tell new friends about their food allergies, show them their auto-injector (better still, teach new friend with a training device available through EpiPen and AllerJect.) Also teach new friends and old friends about what to watch for in case of an allergic reaction. If your student is living in residence, get them to tell the floor don, or the person in charge about their allergies. Providing an Anaphylaxis Emergency Plan and also wearing MedicAlert identification is helpful information for others.

Encourage your child to self-inject (or have someone do this for them, if they cannot) – as early epinephrine is so important if they are having a reaction. We’ve always told Julian that it’s better to “err on the side of caution,” if he’s not sure whether he’s having a reaction (but it feels like one). While it’s natural to run to the nearest washroom if you’re feeling sick, remind your child to stay with someone, and not to go off alone. Campus security and response teams are often involved in emergencies. They should find out now how the system works.

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Food Allergy Canada invites you keep the conversation going.

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