The Allergy Interview – Gemma Morris

SHE hit the headlines this month after it was revealed she suffered a massive anaphylactic shock while on a skiing holiday in Austria. Now nut allergic Sky News presenter Gemma Morris, 27, tells yesnobananas about her childhood milk and banana ‘cure’, dodgy cosmetics and how to handle eating out…

“There was no pivotal moment when I found out I had a nut allergy. I’ve had bad reactions to nuts from as far back as my memory serves me. As a small child, I used to tell my mother I was experiencing my “nut feeling”. She knew that meant my mouth was becoming itchy and irritated, and I was starting to feel a lot of discomfort.

The usual remedy was to give me bland, soft foods to take the taste away and distract from the feeling. I would have to stuff my mouth with bits of banana or drink a big glass of soya milk (not cow’s milk, it used to give me eczema apparently – an intolerance I have grown out of nowadays).

My mum told our GP about the “nut feeling” episodes. He was apparently pretty unconcerned, and simply told her not to give me nuts!?

I’m not allergic to all nuts. I’m fine with almonds (I love them, eat loads of them) and skin prick testing has twice revealed I’m fine with peanuts too. But I’ve never had the courage to eat a peanut to find out if it’s true!

I didn’t carry an Epipen until I was about 15. The school had no idea about my nut allergy. It was a large school and it felt easier just to keep my Epipens on me and take care of myself.

Many years earlier, at junior school, I remember having an allergic reaction to a chocolate that a friend had smuggled into our cloakroom at playtime. I ended up in the school office, sitting on the sofa where they made all the sick kids sit, just ‘waiting it out’ until the reaction eased off. It was horrible.

People just didn’t know what was happening to me. I didn’t even understand it myself. This was the very early 1990s; I can only assume allergies were less well known in those days.

My friends are very supportive. They’re used to me checking with waiting staff in every restaurant we go to.

When I was younger, there wasn’t much ‘support’ friends could offer me, really. I had my Epipens, my antihistamines, I just took care of myself when out.

I did get anxious about some nights out during those teenage years when alcohol begins to play a role. It sounds a tad over-the-top, but I used to fear that if my friends were drunk, would they still be able to ring an ambulance if I keeled over? Would they be sober enough to notice me choking on the floor trying to grab my Epipen? You can imagine the near-death scenarios I used to play out in my head before a night out! I hasten to add none of it ever actually happened.

I’ve had loads of other reactions while eating out. Among the worst and most memorable were eating a supposedly nut free salad in a café in Malta which turned out to be dressed in pesto! I had a terrible time during the following 48 hours. And eating a basic pasta dish at a restaurant in Wimbledon which I reacted to immediately. The restaurant swore blind there were no nuts in it, but I was keeling over and had to be driven home ASAP.

The nut allergy came up on the first date with my boyfriend because we were in a restaurant and I needed to check my chosen meal was nut-free. Unless I am about to eat something unfamiliar there’s no need to declare my allergy.

I eat out all the time. I just check with the waiting staff whenever I order. I find mentioning the words “severe and fatal allergy” tends to get the kitchen staff to take it seriously.

Actually, I found a great tapas restaurant at the weekend near where I live in Richmond where the waiter told me they do not use nuts in ANY of their cooking – Don Fernando. It was great to have such peace of mind when eating my dinner!

My failsafe food to order is some sort of chicken or fish salad – with dressing on the side (in case it’s a nutty pesto dressing).

When it comes to prepackaged food I’d just recommend checking the ingredients list – always.

With the ‘may contain traces of nuts’ thing it depends what the food is. If it’s something like a pot of hummus then, yes, I do eat it. If it’s a seeded bread, then no – I usually wouldn’t eat it.

To a newly diagnosed nut allergic, I would say: relax, just be careful and always carry antihistamines and an Epipen.

To a parent of a nut allergic child, I would say an even bigger RELAX – your fretting will teach your child to panic about his or her allergy. Growing up is scary enough as it is.

When you are with your child and they begin to have a reaction, please stay very, very calm and gently take the necessary measures. Teach them not to be embarrassed about their dietary needs and to have confidence in spitting something out if it doesn’t feel right!

What I’d like to see is better, bigger, clearer indications on all products containing nut derivatives. Not just food, but cosmetics too. I realised this morning that a new foundation I was about to use contained walnut extract. I wouldn’t have known had I not been reading a leaflet about it.

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