By Gary Fitzgerald
When Amanda Debus walks across the Miss America stage on Sept. 11 in Atlantic City, she hopes to inspire the millions of Americans living with food allergies and asthma. The reigning Miss Delaware has made allergy awareness part of her platform.
It’s an important issue for Amanda – and a personal one.
She knows firsthand what it’s like to live with allergies and asthma. As a young child, Amanda was allergic to dairy products; she remains allergic to fish, pineapple, tomatoes and chocolate. When Amanda was 8, she was diagnosed with exercise-induced asthma.
“I’m looking forward to being on the Miss America stage and bringing light to an issue that is often swept under the rug,” she says. “A lot of times people don’t realize some of us are living with food allergies. It’s definitely something that needs to be talked about. I already know I’m raising awareness just being on that stage.”
You can vote Amanda for “America’s Choice” at www.missamerica.org/vote. The winner will automatically be entered into the Top 15 of the Miss America pageant.
When Anaphylaxis Strikes…
Six years ago, Amanda experienced an anaphylactic reaction during a backyard barbecue at her home after she ate a fruit salad that contained pineapple. At the time, she was unaware she had a pineapple allergy. In fact, she’d eaten it many times and never had an allergic reaction until that day.
“My throat felt scratchy, I had trouble breathing, and my tongue started to swell,” Amanda says. “Fortunately there was an ER nurse at the barbecue and she recognized it was anaphylaxis. We immediately went to the ER for treatment.”
After her diagnosis, Amanda worked to become more involved with food allergy advocacy, especially in schools. She worked with the Delaware governor’s office to help pass a law allowing schools to stock emergency epinephrine auto-injectors and train staff how to use them.
“My allergic reaction to pineapple was accidental, and I’m sure kids in schools experience accidental reactions to foods they have no idea they are allergic to,” she says. “So having stock epinephrine is important. Schools need to be prepared to treat kids with food allergies.”
Amanda is focusing on expanding stock epinephrine to public places in Delaware, such as restaurants, daycare centers and Boys and Girls Clubs. “I think it’s a great idea to have it on hand just like any other medicine or medical device,” she says.
Raising Awareness In Schools – And Beyond
As Miss Delaware, Amanda recently visited a school to share her story of living with food allergies. She was encouraged to see how engaged students were and how much they wanted to help their classmates with food allergies.
“What I learned is that if you can frame the conversation in a way that shows schoolchildren how food allergies affect them or those around them, they will listen, learn and be willing to step up to help their friends,” she says.
A University of Delaware senior majoring in health and physical education, Amanda hopes more schools adopt lesson plans that teach students to be accepting of those with both food allergies and asthma.
“It would be great to start in the kindergarten to fifth-grade range because that’s when students are starting to recognize differences and make judgments good and bad – especially on things you can’t control like carrying an epinephrine auto-injector or using an asthma inhaler in gym class,” she says. “If you start teaching that it’s okay to be different at an early age, students will be more accepting in middle school and high school.
“I want to stand up for kids who feel different and tell them, ‘There’s no reason to feel bad because you have to carry something that can potentially save your life.’ I try to break down the stereotypes and barriers some kids are facing in school because I know what they are going through.”
‘Be Your Own Advocate’
How does Amanda manage her food allergies and asthma. “I carry my epinephrine auto-injector with me and I work on being my own advocate,” she says. “That’s what I tell others – ‘just be your own advocate.’”
Amanda double-checks food labels to make sure a product does not contain any of her allergens. At restaurants, she talks with the wait staff and chef to confirm ingredients of food on the menu. “Oftentimes people think you just don’t like a food, but it’s really you’re allergic to it,” she says. “You have to tell the waiter you’re very serious and eating an allergic could harm you.”
For her asthma, Amanda takes an inhaled corticosteroid daily and uses a quick-relief inhaler before exercise and when symptoms occur. She stays in shape by focusing on cardio. “I’ve found using an elliptical or a step machine is easier on my breathing,” Amanda says. “And recently I’ve developed a love of rowing.”
Being an advocate extends to parents and caregivers, too.
“You have to speak up,” she says. “Make sure your child is safe at school by discussing your child’s food allergy and treatment plan with teachers, the school nurse, the cafeteria manager and staff.”