This is me: Cookies without milk

Nicole Fano

Photo by Madeline Hardy/Chronicle

Katie Kirby reads a lot. Constantly, in fact. She’s learned exactly how to identify key words within a text, and it only takes her 30 seconds or less to find them. She learned to read this way when she was 9 years old growing up in Lynbrook, N.Y., and she does most of her reading in the grocery store.

“I read ingredient labels all the time,” Kirby said in a slow, soft-spoken tone.

Now 20 years old, Kirby rummages around the right side of her pantry in Eastview. It is a designated area for her roommate’s food. The fair-haired and fair-skinned graduate student pulls out a box of Special K, and her hazel eyes glance directly at the list of ingredients under the nutrition facts. She studies the words and forms a familiar expression as if she’s already read a label such as this one too many times before. Although she doesn’t actually say the words, her facial expression says, ‘I told you so.’

“I never eat anything with a ‘D’ on it,” Kirby said cautiously.

The ‘D’ stands for dairy. While those with lactose intolerance avoid milk products for digestive purposes, the consequences are much more severe for Kirby if she touches or consumes anything containing milk.

Kirby sports a red plaid shirt from Abercrombie & Fitch and a pair of Sperry Top-Siders. She’s wearing tiny red earrings that match her shirt perfectly. It’s a sign of her acute attention to detail, which has become a crucial part of Kirby’s daily life.

Kirby was born with a severe anaphylactic allergy to milk and beef products. Signs of a food allergy were evident as a baby, when she constantly regurgitated any milk she drank. Kirby and her family have consulted with an allergist since she was an infant, and she began seeing a food allergy specialist in New York City in the sixth grade.

When Kirby consumes milk or beef, she experiences an anaphylactic shock: her throat closes, she has trouble breathing and her skin quickly develops a visible rash. When she touches these food allergens, she experiences a topical rash wherever the product made skin contact.

Kirby was a teenager the last time she was tested for allergies. Specialists measured her allergy level by the number of antibodies in her blood, which affect a portion of the body’s immune system. The average adult has 1 to 80 antibodies in their system. Kirby’s blood contained more than 700.

While it is common for some people to grow out of a food allergy, this health statistic makes it unlikely that Kirby will ever be allergy free.

In her bedroom, Kirby tears apart her personal things looking for one of her EpiPens to show as an example. She searches through her drawers, closet and bins under the bed, but the EpiPen’s location is still a mystery.

“If I was having a reaction and I didn’t know where my EpiPen was, well that’s really cool,” Kirby said with a sarcastic laugh.

The inspirational phrase that hangs on her bedroom wall has absolutely nothing to do with her allergy. Instead, it is a deep purple plaque that reads “Keep Calm and Go Shopping.” The pink and purple floral bedspread and collections of makeup and perfume are evidence that this health condition doesn’t impede Kirby’s life as much as one might think.

“I think people should know it’s definitely a serious thing, but in no way is it preventing me from being a normal person,” Kirby said confidently. “I might just have to be a little more cautious in eating situations.”

While Kirby ensures she lives a normal life just like everyone else, she admits that childhood was a more difficult stage.

On Christmas Eve in 2001, Kirby and her family traveled into New York City to admire the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center. Her mother, Donna Kirby, found a dairy free restaurant, Josie’s, so the whole family could eat in the same restaurant.

Kirby was both excited and relieved that she would be able to eat at restaurant without worrying that her food could possibly contain dairy. But her excitement quickly disappeared as her body underwent an all-too-familiar allergic reaction which landed her in the emergency room.

“Ever since then I’ve been scarred,” Kirby said with a head shake. “It was one of the worst reactions I ever had.”

Kirby and her family attribute the reaction to the “dairy free” cheesecake they ate for dessert. To compensate for Kirby’s reaction, Josie’s owner Louis Lanza sent her an autographed copy of his cookbook. According to its official website, Josie’s is no longer advertised as a dairy free establishment.

As a child, Kirby received alerts regarding food label changes from the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Network.

According to Chris Weiss, an FAAN restaurant legislation expert, an estimated four percent of the adult U.S. population lives with a food allergy. A 10 year study on fatal allergic reactions that concluded in 2006 found that 46 percent of fatalities involved dining out at restaurants.

“For anybody with a food allergy, the challenge of eating out really is finding a restaurant that has staff members who know about food allergies, who understand the serious nature of food allergies, and have some sort of system in place that allows them to prepare safe meals for these people,” Weiss said.

Kirby hasn’t dined at a restaurant in an estimated seven to eight years, and she never eats in any of Quinnipiac’s dining locations. Kirby’s rule of thumb is: She won’t eat anything unless she can see it made in front of her.

“Food is a common social thing, and I’m more than willing to go. I’m just not going to eat,” Kirby said bluntly.

Kirby cooks her own meals in the dairy and beef free comfort of her dorm room kitchen. She has her own separate food stash consisting of peanut butter, oatmeal and whole wheat Nature’s Promise bread. She also uses a set of cooking utensils separate from her roommates.

While she favors foods such as grilled chicken and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Kirby labels her diet as “pretty bland.”

Donna Kirby admits that her daughter’s biggest challenge is trusting others.

“She’s afraid. She’s afraid of the consequences,” Donna Kirby said. “She doesn’t take any chances.”

Katie Kirby knows that her allergy will bring future challenges to her career. She will graduate from Quinnipiac with her master’s in business administration this May, and she hopes to enter the corporate world and eventually work for a Fortune 500 company.

“[The business world] wines and dines you, and I just don’t like doing it because it’s too risky,” Kirby said.

In terms of her personal life, Kirby has developed a positive and humorous outlook on the future.

“I probably will not eat at my own wedding and I’m OK with that because I’m not going to go to the emergency room in my wedding gown,” Kirby said with a smile.

Donna Kirby has always been proud of her daughter’s ability to cope with a severe food allergy.

“She handles [her allergy] wonderfully, she’s accepted that that’s who she is,” Donna Kirby said.

“I never want people to feel sorry for me,” Katie Kirby said. “I just want people to understand and be educated about it, because I truly believe that you’ll run into someone with a food allergy at some point in your life.”