Dangerous allergies can be dealt with
SUMMIT COUNTY – Jennifer Koch was about to board a plane home from Japan when airline officials stopped her.They said she couldn’t get on because the airline hadn’t been notified of her peanut allergy ahead of time, she remembered. They said she would be stuck for three months while they isolated a plane to kill the peanut allergen.In the end, after hours of trying to resolve the situation and contacting the American Embassy she was able to get home a few hours later. But it was in that moment that Jennifer, 15, of Keystone, decided she needed to do something so no one else would have to suffer through a similar experience.
So, for the past two years, she has worked to raise awareness about food allergies. She went to Washington, D.C. and got a senator from Illinois to co-sponsor food-allergy legislation. She serves as a member of a teen advisory board for The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. And she worked in a church, making it a peanut-free facility to help a little girl who shares her allergy.For her work, this Summit High School sophomore was recognized as a distinguished finalist in the 2007 Prudential Spirit of Community Awards in Colorado and qualified for the President’s Volunteer Service Award.Peanut allergy affects about 1.5 million people in the United States, according to Mayo Clinic. And these allergies account for 80 percent of fatal or near-fatal allergic reactions each year.Doctors diagnosed Jennifer with peanut allergy when she was 18 months old after her lips swelled from eating a peanut butter cookie.”As a kid I didn’t want to talk about it,” Jennifer said. “It was one of my little secrets. … It was like I was told every day I was doing something wrong for something I can’t control.”
She felt like she was being punished, she said. Jennifer, who moved to Summit County from Bloomington, Ill., at the beginning of this school year, often switched schools because of her food allergy. At times, she was stuck in a corner table with students who weren’t allowed to sit with others, she said. Also, she couldn’t participate in some activities or sports.In the past five years, peanut allergy in children has doubled, according to The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network. Also, for unknown reasons, the estimated number of Americans with food allergy has increased from 6 million to about 12 million.”For a non-contagious health issue, it’s spreading like an epidemic,” Jennifer said.Currently, the bill that she talked Illinois Representative Tim Johnson into co-sponsoring, is in the Senate. It would give a set of regulations and guidelines to help children with food allergies, Jennifer said.
While there is no cure, the guidelines will help children participate in camps and activities and feel more like “normal kids,” Jennifer said.If any form of the peanut allergen touches Jennifer, she will break out in hives. One time, while playing volleyball, one of her friends had eaten something that may have had peanuts in it. Because the ball touched her, Jennifer’s arms broke out.She stays on top of what foods she can and can’t eat with the help of The Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network that often sends out e-mails with updates. Also, Jennifer’s friends have become very conscious of reading labels and making sure they don’t get the allergen near her. However, parents and many others just don’t understand, she said.If Jennifer ate peanuts, she could have an anaphylactic reaction where her lips and throat would swell and it could kill her.”It’s not something you can just take a pill for and not worry about anymore,” she said. “It’s something that affects your everyday life. … It is your life.”