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the woman who's allergic to water

More and more children, and adults, are being diagnosed with allergies in New Zealand than ever before. Awareness of food intolerances too has skyrocketed in recent years, but for some people, staying away from certain foods and day to day substances is a matter of life or death. Channel’s super sharp (and fittingly named) graphic designer Crystal Sharp has lived with staggeringly severe allergies all her life. With Allergy Awareness Week running from the 12th to 18th of this month, and World Allergy Week running April 7th - 13th last month, Crystal kindly agreed to speak up to Channel's Heather Vermeer about her condition in the hope of raising awareness of this potentially fatal issue...

Crystal Sharp has never eaten at a restaurant, a café or a bar. She has never tasted cake or regular chocolate, and has never had even the smallest sip of alcohol. Drinking a cup of tea with cow’s milk could kill her. She is even allergic to skin contact with rainwater, seawater and chlorinated water.

Crystal, 22, is one of the most severely allergic people in New Zealand, possibly the world.
As an infant, Crystal, the youngest of three siblings, began to display worrying reactionary signs to food. Crystal said: “My Mum noticed when I was a baby that when she gave me baby food containing milk I would turn bright red. She was worried and so took me to quite a few doctors who didn’t know what was wrong, eventually she found one who diagnosed it as allergies.”
Testing revealed allergies so acute and wide-ranging it was clear that this would have a huge impact on young Crystal’s life. Mum Denise, who already had two children without any medical conditions, said: “She had been a finicky baby from the start, and developed eczema from just one week old. I’d been drinking cow's milk and eating things like nuts. Back then, people didn’t realise this could affect a breast fed baby who was allergic to these things. But all the problems really began to get much worse when she started on solids.
“She was misdiagnosed for a while by the GP who just told us that all babies were finicky. I’d had enough by the time she was nine-months-old and decided to investigate further, and thank goodness, I got on the right track, as I was quite literally at my wits end.
“When we discovered the extent of her allergies, it was a case of ‘right, how do we deal with this?’”
Crystal began school when public awareness and understanding of allergies was still very limited. “I was the only kid in my school with allergies and I always had to stay away from other children when we were eating. I had some good friends who were very understanding and who would only bring things in that I wasn’t allergic to so that we could all sit together.”
From the age of six through to 16, Crystal had to visit a specialist at Auckland Allergy Clinic every month to be administered with three injections as part of a desensitisation process.
“The allergy specialist said we had to get rid of our dog, but I didn’t want to and my Mum didn’t want to, so I began having desensitisation jabs to control my allergies to dogs, as well as grasses and dust. “It was quite a long term process, and expensive according to my Mum! But worth every penny, I love dogs and it meant that we could keep ours. We now have two in the family!”
Despite her allergies to them, animals have always been a big passion of Crystal’s. As a youngster, she was selected for a Make-a-Wish Foundation experience. It is something that causes Crystal’s face to light up to this day.
“I was so pleased to be able to go on a ‘behind-the-scenes’ trip to Auckland Zoo. I had to put gloves on, but I was able to feed the animals - lemurs and monkeys etc. It was a wonderful experience for me. Animals have always been very special to me, despite being allergic to them.”
A Bichon Chinese-crested cross dog called Bree is one of Crystal’s joys in life and, thanks to the 10-year desensitisation process, she no longer has any reactionary problems to her
four-legged friends.
One of the most positive people anyone could ever meet, Crystal has incredibly never let her restrictions get her down. “It was a joke in my family when I was growing up that my brother had swimming lessons, my sister had tap dancing and I had my jabs!” She smiles. “The main problem is that I can’t go into restaurants or cafes. I have to be really careful. Even a smell could start me off with a reaction. But I don’t ever let it get me down.”
Her Mum Denise, a school office manager, has been astounded at how Crystal has always remained positive in spite of the limitations her allergies create. She said: “She has always had a smile on her face. Even when she had the most horrendous gastric problems, even when I had to wet bandage her skin from head to toe and she looked like a burn victim, through all of it she has never, ever complained.”
Despite her family and friends’ incredible support and adherence to Crystal’s needs, there have been scary times.
“I remember two years ago, I had a friend visiting and Mum had made everyone a cup of coffee and made one for me. She accidentally gave me and my friend the wrong cups and I drank a sip of some dairy milk. I had to go straight away to Accident and Emergency to get some medication to stop the reaction in its tracks. Because we acted fast to stop it, and because I'd only had a sip, the reaction only caused me to feel nauseous, vomit and have eczema. If it had have been a full glass of milk that I drank it could have been life-threatening.”
In the Channel office, colleagues wearing perfume can prove problematic. On deadline for last issue, Claudia Renford’s Tom Ford fragrance caused Crystal to react almost the instant Claudia sat down next to her. They had to have a discussion across the room.
Crystal never goes anywhere without two EpiPens, the medical injection device that contains adrenaline to counteract the effects of life-threatening anaphylaxis. They live in her handbag and are forever at her side. On them are visual instructions on how to administer the jabs to the outer thigh area in the event of this needing to be given by an uninformed stranger. She also always wears a Medic Alert bracelet which cites some of her major allergies and her severe eczema.
One of life’s inherent optimists, Crystal points to the up sides of her condition. “It means that I can never eat junk food or get a hangover!” At home, Crystal likes to make her own sushi and lives on a diet rich in fresh produce - apart from citrus fruits which she is allergic to - and has her own vegetable patch so that she can grow organic produce herself. She can’t eat beef, chicken, fish, shellfish, soy, or eggs, so for protein she turns to lamb, venison & rabbit - two of only a few meats she is able to tolerate.
 “When people ask me what I’m allergic to, its quite hard to list it all off!” She concedes. The list includes; dairy, wheat, nuts, pollen, grass, latex, sesame, yeast, mushrooms, sulfites, soap, deodorants, sunscreen, perfume, wool, fur, birch and more. A reaction can be caused by as little as touching something that has previously been touched by someone who had been touching an allergy-causing substance. Incredibly too, sweat also features on Crystal list of no-nos. She cannot engage in vigorous exercise for this reason and chooses to walk during lunch breaks as her way of staying physically fit.
Even having the family portrait taken didn’t go without a hitch, when Crystal and her family discovered she was also allergic to camera flashes. She explained: “It made it a hard job for the photographer because they had to pretty much get the shot in one take, because when the flash went off I turned bright red! And each time it flashed I started going redder and redder!” Crystal laughs as she recalls this memory, which was more inconvenience than health-threatening, and she has since out-grown this allergy. 
Is there anything she has found that has given her relief from her acute eczema? “Whenever we get to go away on holiday, my Mum and I head to Rotorua because I have found the hot pools there are fantastic for my skin! My skin doesn’t react to the water there, my eczema always clears up after using the natural mineral spas – they have an incredible healing quality. It’s amazing!”
So, not only is Crystal a great advert for Tourism Rotorua, she is a super positive, super sharp member of the team that brings you Channel each month. And in line with the positive aims of the magazine, Crystal hopes she can help to educate people and inspire those affected to remain positive, whatever life throws their way.

Crystal's Allergy Tips & Facts
Allergies are the result of an over-active immune system, which can mistake a food protein as being hostile and attempt to fight it, this can result in a reaction ranging from mild (such as eczema) to severe (anaphylaxis). An anaphylactic reaction has the potential to be deadly if it is not attended to quickly. It can cause swelling on the face/rest of the body, and suffocation as the throat swells up.

There is no cure for allergies, however desensitization injections can lessen the severity of some allergies. (I've had them for grass, dogs and dust mites!)
EpiPens and Anapens both inject adrenaline and either can be injected into the outer thigh of a person suffering an anaphylactic reaction to help reduce symptoms. 
Even a tiny trace of an allergen that isn't eaten can cause a reaction in a person who is severely allergic - this could be the smell of an allergen in the air, or even touching something (such as a door-handle) which was previously touched by somebody who was eating an allergenic food.
Allergies aren't something people choose to have - please be considerate
and understanding if somebody asks you (or your child at school) not to
eat a paricular food around them, their life could be on the line!

Allergy vs Intolerance
Many people confuse allergies with intolerances. While both conditions relate to food, they are very different, the table below details some differences.

Allergy
• Can be deadly
• Involves the immune system
• Symptoms can include difficulty breathing, hives/eczema & swelling of skin
• Consuming small amounts of an allergen causes a reaction

Intolerance
• Is never deadly
• Involves the digestive system
• Symptoms include stomach cramps or bloating, heartburn & headaches
• Eating small amounts of a food you're intolerant to doesn't always cause a reaction

One in Ten

An estimated one in ten kiwi kids develop an allergy.

The Dangerous Eight

Eggs, Dairy, Peanuts, Tree Nuts, Soy, Wheat, Fish & Shellfish are the eight most common allergies, and cause 90% of allergic reactions in people. In some countries people develop allergies not frequently found in other regions, such as mustard allergies in France, and cocoa in Turkey.

by Heather Vermeer

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