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Joey’s Allergen Diary Part 1: Discovering Allergies and Changing the Landscape

Meet our newest contributor, Joey DiGangi, sharing his experiences with allergies and how he has used them to create something positive.

Last month we bid a sad goodbye to Allergen Diaries columnist Victoria McEwan, but happily for us the time has come to introduce you to her successor - Joey DiGangi. Joey, who has allergies to peanuts and tree nuts, plays a big role in the allergy community globally and off the back of his experiences with allergies, created his own company to help others like him.

So let’s meet him…

“My name is Joey DiGangi, and I am severely allergic to peanuts and tree nuts. I live in Pennsylvania, USA, and am 25 years old.

To say that food allergies have shaped my life in a major way would be an understatement. My food allergy life began at 9 months old, when I was diagnosed following a severe reaction to peanut butter ice cream. Since then my family and I have been lifelong learners - constantly adapting to new situations while forming and reforming strategies to avoid another severe allergic reaction.

Food allergies play a pivotal role, both good and bad, in my life. I’ll be sharing my food allergy experiences with Erudus over the next several months. You’ll hear about the challenges I’ve faced growing up, attending college, and entering the workforce. I’ll also share how these challenges opened my eyes to the struggles faced by our community and inspired me to start AssureTech, my app, as an undergraduate student at Juniata College. My early entrepreneurial success led to a job opportunity in Taiwan, where I learned about the difficulties with traveling internationally with food allergies."

In this installment Joey explains how a work placement abroad inspired him to create an app to help those with allergies stay safe in foregin countries...

The start of an (allergy) journey

"I’d never considered studying abroad whilst at college, and my only international experience in my first 22 years was a 3-day trip to Canada, where everyone spoke English and I recognized every menu item at restaurants. Asia, in particular, had always felt off limits because of the prevalence of peanuts and tree nuts in the cuisine. Between that and the language barrier, I never expected to travel that far from my comfortable Pennsylvania home.

By this point in life, I had already started my first company with the goal of helping people remember their auto-injectors. My research and early work developing a technology company earned me an unexpected job offer, but it came with a prerequisite. The company wanted me to work 9 months in their Tainan, Taiwan headquarters to acclimate to the company before helping with the expansion effort. My instant reaction upon hearing that requirement was, ‘What will I eat?’

My professor did everything he could to help me prepare, both mentally and physically, by ensuring me that Taiwan is a very welcoming country to foreigners, did not use my allergens in the traditional dishes as much as other countries (such as Thailand), and that he would let the managers in Taiwan know about my condition ahead of time so they could also prepare. Although far from confident in my ability to start my new post-graduate life in a foreign country, I recognized the opportunity and accepted the job."

Navigating Allergies Independently

"I left for my new home with a handwritten card from a family friend who was from Taiwan. It explained in traditional Chinese characters, ‘Please do not give me peanuts or tree nuts… I have a food allergy.’ This got me a few confused looks, but generally helped me find something on the menu I could eat. My coworkers also played an instrumental part in helping me navigate Tainan, recommending restaurants and introducing me and my allergy to the staff while communicating in Chinese.

By the 3-month mark, I had established a decent routine. I also found a handful of reliable restaurants where I felt comfortable. As anyone with a food allergy will tell you, we’re a loyal community when we feel safe eating somewhere. I had a regular routine and would stop at the same breakfast stand after the gym before going to work.

One morning however, my usual item - a simple egg sandwich - was out of stock. I asked the owner to prepare something for me instead and showed him my card. I knew something was wrong from the first bite. The translations I carried failed to communicate the complexity of cross-contamination and some small amount of peanut and/or tree nut slipped into my alternative breakfast. My mouth started to feel “funny” right away and my stomach and chest aches soon after. Within less than 35 minutes, my face was bright red and swollen with hives. I was experiencing anaphylaxis."

Knowing what to do when an allergic reaction occurs

"My coworkers, who already knew about my allergy and had an emergency plan, helped me down to the lobby and into a car. I was driven to a nearby hospital where they explained what was happening to me. I needed only to sit back and let my amazing colleagues handle the rest. A few took the afternoon off to stay with me and translate on my behalf with doctors before driving me back to the office where a makeshift bed was waiting for me so I could sleep until they could drive me home at the day’s end.

I couldn’t have asked for more support! But an uncomfortable, lingering feeling stuck with me… what would have happened if this had happened at the weekend? I would have never known where to get medical attention, much less how to ask for it. I was terrified that my translations were not able to consistently help me find something nut-free, and I still had 6 more months ahead of me."

Finding a solution for those with allergies abroad

"What could I do?

I put my entrepreneur hat back on and started systematically listing the support I received from my coworkers:

  • Translating my allergy and explaining cross-contamination to avoid the issue in the first place
  • Knowing where the local hospital(s) are
  • Asking for emergency medical help

As I listed the things my team did to save my life (and help me eat on a daily basis), I recognized an opportunity to turn what happened to me into a defining moment and help others in our community. I ended up creating a mobile app prototype that would help me translate my allergy more effectively and automatically locate medical support in a crisis. I continued developing the app until Kdan Mobile offered to become an equity partner with me, applying their engineering and industry expertise to my ideas and fully developing the EpiCenter App.

The app automatically locates the nearest hospital(s) during an emergency, calls the local emergency number, and notifies up to 30 emergency contacts and provides them with your GPS location. It also provides a translated “HELP,” message and communicates over 500 different food allergen(s) thanks to a partnership with Kyle Dine of Equal Eats.

This terrifying event impacted me in a number of ways, but I’ve spent the past 2 years trying to make it an overall positive influence in my life and in the lives of others. I believe experiences like these propel innovation and teach us, and others with whom we share our story, valuable lessons. That’s what you can expect from the content I’ll be sharing going forward, where I’ll talk more about what it’s like eating out with allergies, my involvement with the food allergy community in the UK, how I have dealt with allergies in the workplace, and how the condition impacts relationships with friends, family, and others.”

Next time on Joey's Allergen Diaries: Joey will be discussing what it’s like eating out at various different establishments and how you can stay safe when ordering takeaways with allergies.