I Almost Killed My Sister With A Bread Roll

Anaphylaxis isn’t fussy eating, it’s life or death.

I'll never forget the first time I saw it.

The red colour rolled across her face. The hives around her chin appeared gradually as her neck, her hands, her face swelled. She was talking, but slowly the flow of air to her lungs slowed.

Her clear, blue eyes were still with fear.

But somehow she remained calm. She told me to get the Epipen and then call an ambulance. She took care of the rest.

"Hi, my name's Siobhan," I said to the lady on the end of the line, "and my sister Erin is having an anaphylactic reaction."

Erin before diagnosis -- constantly read and swollen. Image: Siobhan Kenna

Soon we heard the sirens and saw the flashing lights. Thanks to the adrenaline Erin's condition was improving but they took her to hospital anyway.

That was the most serious reaction I've seen Erin have and I'll never forget it. The way her eyes looked. Terrified.  Masked only with her determination to survive.

Erin has no less than five anaphylactic allergies. She can't eat nuts, seafood, legumes, kiwi fruit or be administered a non-steroidal agent. It's because there are so many things that could kill her that makes the current Epipen shortage particularity worrying.

Recently Erin was told by a pharmacist that it's unlikely she will be able to get her hands on a life-saving Epipen when her current batch expires, and instead she should use two children's Epipens. This isn't because a child's Epipen has the same dose that an adult's does, but simply because there is no other option should she have a reaction.

It's for this reason that understanding the seriousness of anaphylaxis is so important. When Erin requests no chickpeas in her salad or no kiwi fruit in her smoothie when she eats out it's not because she prefers not to eat them but because if she does she could lose her life.

I've often thought in a world where vegan, vegetarian, gluten free, all organic, sustainably farmed and diary free (sometimes all at once) are readily available for those who want it, there’d be scope to understand those who don’t have the luxury of choosing what they can and cannot eat.

Erin takes an Epipen everywhere she goes. Image: Siobhan Kenna

It's for this reason that I still carry guilt for what I did nearly two years ago. It was Christmas morning and Erin and I were with our parents in Germany visiting family for the festive season. It was my day for the morning bread run, so I shuffled myself down to the bakery at Cologne central station and got a wide assortment of fresh rolls.

At breakfast Erin chose one of the heavily seeded rolls and she looked at me and asked, "does this have nuts in it?"

I rolled my eyes.

"It's a bread roll, they don't put nuts in rolls here, just seeds."

She trusted me, but she shouldn't have.

The first sign for her was the itchy tongue and the tightening throat. For us it was the reddening face and the swelling hands like it always is. She stopped eating fast enough to halt the reaction's progress but she was unwell for the rest of the day.

As a kid Erin has the allergy markers -- red face and blocked airways. Image: Siobhan Kenna

But she wasn't the only one who was sick. My stomach churned until I felt nauseous. That reaction was entirely my fault.

And what's worse -- I constantly harp on about people not taking the issue of anaphylaxis seriously.

I'm always saying how people need to understand that anaphylaxis is not a lifestyle choice, but a serious life-threatening issue. I'm outspoken about the Epipen shortage and what that would mean for people like Erin whose lives literally depend on that medication.

If there's a lesson to be learned, you can learn it from me and how I endangered my sister's life with a frustrated eye roll and without a second thought that what she was asking wasn't fussy, but legitimate.

I have witnessed the delicate balance Erin manages between allergies and food choices since we were kids, but even I need reminding sometimes about just how important understanding the gravity of the issue is.

I've seen Erin struggle my whole life with food choices. I'm the bigger kid, she's the little one. Image: Siobhan Kenna

Even I need reminding just how easily a life can be taken by the simple act of eating the wrong thing, or the correct medication being unavailable or people simply not understanding that the wrong food could kill.

Since the bread roll incident I've been more conscious to take her worries seriously and be mindful about the food products I buy.

We're lucky because Erin's friends and our wider family have always been on board and often prepare her allergy-free food when we attend events or parties, but what has stuck with me the most is how accidental a death by anaphylaxis could be.

It could be as simple as buying a bread roll for your sister, her eating it and that bread roll ending her life.