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Allergy Today: Allergy NZ welcomes Lettie Iseli

We are delighted to welcome Lettie Iseli to Allergy New Zealand as our new Allergy Educator. In this story, Lettie shares her own personal experience of living with an allergy, and discusses her new work representing all New Zealanders living with allergies.

My name is Lettie Brenda Iseli and I am from the beautiful, tropical paradise island of Samoa.
I am very excited to join Allergy New Zealand. I will be working with the Auckland team, but also representing all New Zealanders living with allergies.Screen Shot 2022-05-06 at 11

Until 2013, I was completely free of allergies. One day, while working as a Gout Educator for Arthritis NZ, I was attending an Indian health event in Papatoetoe giving out health information during a very busy morning.

During lunch, I ate a rice and chicken dish called Chicken Pilau, which had a strong taste of spices. Luckily, my husband had joined me for the event, because after just two spoonfuls of the Chicken Pilau, I started to feel sweaty and dizzy. I turned to my husband to tell him I wasn’t feeling well and then I suddenly collapsed.

Next thing I knew, I woke up in Middlemore Hospital.

It was a shocking and a scary experience waking up at the hospital and not knowing what was happening to me. Two adrenalin injections started to kick in and all I could feel was my body shaking uncontrollably. I kept asking the nurse and the doctor what was going on because it was the first time I had ever gone through this type of health experience.

I was later told by my doctor that I had just suffered an anaphylactic shock and that it was quite a severe event that shut down my heart. He said it was from the food that I had eaten and it may have been a spice called cardamom that caused my severe allergic reaction.

I was shocked and would never have believed that anaphylaxis could happen to me. I kept asking the doctor why did I get it when I had eaten Indian food in the past and never got sick – why now? All he was able to advise was to watch what I eat in future and avoid foods containing cardamom. He also prescribed me an EpiPen® (which cost a lot), and referred me to the Allergy Specialist at Auckland City Hospital.

Six weeks after my first anaphylactic reaction, I was rushed into the emergency department again. It was more serious this time because it was so soon after my first attack. I was eating a beautiful doughnut at the local market and the next minute I collapsed.

The worst part of my second experience was that my husband gave my EpiPen® to a person nearby who said she was a nurse. We let her administer the EpiPen® but she just pushed the EpiPen® against my thigh and said that was all I needed to do. However, she hadn’t removed the blue cap first and placed her thumb on top of it while pressing it against my thigh! Luckily, my husband managed to do it while we waited for the ambulance.

The following year, I attended an event in Ōtāhuhu and was so blessed to meet up with Penny Jorgensen on the Allergy New Zealand stand. I asked Penny how to use my EpiPen® and she was very helpful. She gave me all the information I needed and taught me how to use the EpiPen®. I also signed up for the Allergy Today e-newsletter. The allergy information it features has really helped me understand more about allergies and how to prevent it from happening again.

After two severe anaphylactic attacks, I vowed that I would have to change my eating habits because I was so scared of going through the same experience again. I introduced some really important precautions to my life.

I have now eliminated spices from my pantry and cooking. I have to carefully read the labels of the food I buy to see if it contains any spices. When eating out, I ask the chefs if there are any spices used in their preparation and what type. I take my own food or let the caterer of any event that I attend know that I have a severe allergy to spices.

But most importantly, I carry my EpiPen® with me at all times.

I have taught my family, my work colleagues and everyone that I affiliate with at public events or conferences, how to use my EpiPen® in case I suffer another anaphylactic reaction.

Now, it’s my turn to help others like the people who have helped me.

I am now the Allergy Educator for Allergy New Zealand and will be actively helping existing health agencies in the greater Auckland area to become more allergy inclusive in their services. I am also looking forward to supporting the roll-out of our new School Allergy Guidelines across some of New Zealand’s largest school campuses when we launch them in a few weeks.

Allergy New Zealand is working hard to improve its education materials to make them more accessible for our Māori, Pasifika and Asian communities.

As I have learned since I started at Allergy NZ, data shows the highest rates of food allergies and of hospital admissions for food-triggered anaphylaxis in New Zealand are in Asian and Pasifika people. Māori and Pasifika peoples are significantly disadvantaged by allergic diseases and the associated risk of anaphylaxis.

I know I’m not alone and I look forward to helping others avoid what I experienced.

Allergy Today, May 2022