How a rare allergy can complicate the Northwestern experience.

Photo by Carly Menker

Growing up in St. Louis, Alexis White knew she had allergies — she just never had to worry about them. For the entirety of her childhood, the affliction was manageable, with reactions few and far between. But when her first winter quarter on Northwestern's campus rolled around, the onslaught of new stimuli sent her immune system into overdrive.

“For the first two weeks of winter quarter, I just had no idea what was happening to me ... Every day after every class, I’d come back to the dorm and just pass out,” White says.

Covered in itchy hives and plagued with troubled breathing, White realized her allergy was far worse than she originally thought. During the spring break of her first year, she had an allergic reaction to shellfish that sent her to an urgent care facility and then to the ER. There, she learned she has Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, a disease that causes hyperresponsive mast cells to believe they’re allergic to almost everything. The long list of side effects includes anaphylaxis, which means White’s condition isn’t just scary — it could kill her.

“For about a month, I couldn’t eat any food without having a reaction,” White says. “I lost fifteen pounds and slept pretty much all day.”

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, more than 50 million Americans experience allergies every year and more than 9 million adults have food allergies. But for White, and others with severe symptoms, allergies are more than a nuisance.

Now a Medill second-year, White has the support of professors, who ask students to keep their down jackets outside of the classrooms. Sometimes, though, students refuse to oblige, even after being asked by both White and the professor on multiple occasions.

“I don’t think people really believe it,” White says. “I feel like there are many people that don’t like me because they might think I’m pushy or being overdramatic or mean or asking too much … But it’s not overdramatic because I could die.”

After a trip to Searle her second quarter at NU, campus doctors told White that she needed to take her allergy “more seriously.” Without much help on campus, she had to go to the emergency room once this fall. Unfortunately, Mast Cell Activation Syndrome is very rare — even the ER doctors didn’t know how to treat her condition.

While White’s condition is uncommon, other students suffer from more recognizable but deadly allergies. Catherine Buchaniec, a first-year journalism and political science major, had been in constant contact with professionals in NU Dining Services since last summer due to her severe allergies to sesame seeds, sesame oil, tree nuts, chickpeas and flax seed. If she were to consume any of these food items, Buchaniec says, she would go into anaphylactic shock in a matter of minutes. Initially uncertain that Northwestern would be able to accommodate her dietary needs, Buchaniec stayed vigilant about which ingredients were used in her meals. She and her dietitian stayed in contact with Northwestern’s food services throughout the summer and into the school year. But as the year began, it became much harder for Buchaniec to enjoy eating. The dining halls on campus do not accommodate for ingredients like sesame oil or chickpeas. Instead, NU Dining Services is only nut-free. Food services offered to have prepared meals for Buchaniec to pick up, but she says that it would have been incredibly time-consuming, and she simply didn’t have the time. Buchaniec is taking four classes, has an internship, a work-study job and a writing position at The Daily Northwestern.

Buchaniec used to rely on the labeling system at dining halls, which shows all of the ingredients from which meals are prepared. After the dining halls went peanut and tree nut-free after switching their food services over to Compass Group last fall, Buchaniec was surprised to find a label for “Cashew Beef” at Sargent Dining Hall. Although this was a mistake in the labelling system and not the ingredients themselves and was later fixed, Buchaniec’s trust in the dining halls was completely destroyed.

“They originally wanted to just to decrease [the meal plan], to do like a 50/50 thing…But I was like, that’s still 50% of meals that has the potential to kill me,” said Buchaniec.

B u c h a n i e c ’s negative experience contrasts greatly with what Josh Krivan encountered at Northwestern. Krivan, a senior, is severely allergic to dairy, eggs, wheat, soy, fish, shellfish, peanuts, tree nuts, barley, sesame, legumes, beans and peas.

“It’s such an ingrained part of my identity at this point that I don’t really think about it a lot…Externally, people see me as the food allergy kid, because it is a very extraordinary thing about me, statistically, but again, it’s so second nature,” Krivan said.

While he was on the university meal plan, Krivan had to adjust to not being able to supervise the meal preparation process. But he combatted this fear by staying in contact with NU Dining Services and figuring out which dining halls would be best for him. Looking back, he says he mostly went to Allison when he lived on campus.

“I found them to be very satisfactory. There aren’t a crazy amount of options for someone like me, but I don’t think that reflects poorly on Northwestern dining.”

Now living off campus, Krivan prepares meals similar to the ones he ate on campus. But while Krivan has his cooking routine settled, Buchaniec still faces tribulations while cooking entirely for herself.

Buchaniec lives in Lincoln Hall, where her pots, pans and ingredients are often stolen and the communal kitchens left a mess, meaning she must thoroughly clean the kitchen whenever she wants to cook.

“I’ve been wiping down the counters and wiping down the stove and being very cautious, but I can’t wipe down a counter twice a day. It’s not ideal,” said Buchaniec.

She has attempted to get off of the housing plan as well so as not to deal with the Lincoln kitchen nightmare. Unfortunately for Buchaniec, NU Housing Services has emphasized the importance of living in a dorm as a way of getting more integrated in the Northwestern community, hence the two-year live-in requirement. But according to her, socializing is not a problem. Rather, her focus is on her safety.

“I think the reasoning is flawed there because it doesn’t apply to everyone...The dining halls were never really a community building forum for me,” Buchaniec said. “I’d rather take the time out of my day to go prepare food for myself than rely on a system that I don’t completely trust and whose food I didn’t really particularly enjoy.”

College is hard enough as it is, especially with high-strung academics and pressure to participate in numerous extracurricular activities. The atmosphere at Northwestern is constantly encouraging students to push their limits, especially when ‘and’ can never seem to get out of our DNA. According to White, uncommon allergies are something people don’t tend to think, but it can happen to anyone without warning. The anxiety and attention invested in not only surviving, but comfortably living, with allergies is exhausting White says. Meanwhile, extreme allergies are the norm for Alexis, Caty, Josh and many more students.

White knows that, because of her allergies, she has to miss out on parts of the college experience, but that certainly doesn’t make it any easier. “When it’s cold, I can’t do that much. I can’t go out to go see things. I can’t go to Norris to study. I can’t even take public transportation to go into Chicago for the weekend,” White says. “It would be such a danger that it just wouldn’t be practical.”

Correction: The printed version of this story mentioned that Alexis White grew up with a shellfish allergy. This is incorrect; she did not discover her shellfish allergy until college. The NBN editorial team regrets this error.