Joey DiGangi is a recent graduate who’s had severe food allergies his entire life. For the past 2 years, he’s been working alongside students, faculty, and alumni to invent a technology that will help make a difference for those living with food allergies. Currently, Joey is living and working in Taiwan.
AllergyBites: What foods are you allergic to?
Joey DiGangi: I’m severely allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, and almonds. I also have a pine nut intolerance.
AB: Can you describe the first time you truly understood you had food allergies because they impacted your life in a meaningful way?
JD: One of the first times I understood the severity of my allergy was when I was old enough to be out on my own (when I was around 12 years old). I nearly ate something with peanuts in it, and had forgotten my EpiPen as well that day. I recognized that I had to be responsible for my own allergy and it was a bit overwhelming to think about what that meant.
AB: Have you ever experienced an anaphylactic reaction? If yes, what happened?
JD: The first reaction I had was when I was eight months old, so I have no memory of that. I’ve been lucky enough to avoid one since that point — at least until a few weeks ago. I have a favorite sandwich shop outside of my office in Taiwan that I usually trust, but there was an issue with cross-contamination one day and I accidentally ingested peanuts. I had a bad reaction and spent the day in the hospital. I was lucky my awesome co-workers stayed with me the whole day to take care of me and translate for me.
AB: How were your parents when it came to letting you participate in everyday activities?
JD: My parents were AMAZING! They always made me feel normal, but also raised me to be very careful to avoid any of my allergens. My dad used to tell me that even Superman was allergic to Kryptonite, and changed the lyrics in Take Me Out to the Ballgame from “Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks” to “Buy me some popcorn and Apple Jacks,” so I would stop asking for peanuts at baseball games.
They also always made sure I was the one to talk to the waiter or waitress about my food allergy instead of them doing it for me. They started me so young that I was never shy about it.
AB: In retrospect, is there anything you wish your parents had done differently?
JD: The one thing that they may have been able to help me more with was remembering my EpiPen. They were extremely careful about remembering, and would drive home no matter how far away we were if we forgot, but they always took the lead on packing it. I think that if they would have made me ask them if they packed the EpiPen before we left home each time, it might have made me better at remembering it.
AB: Have you ever thought about what your parents’ grieving process looked like? Do you think they ever reached the “acceptance” phase?
JD: I’ve never really given this much thought, to be honest. They knew about my allergy since I was 8 months old, so if there was a grieving process, I think they went through it before I was old enough to recall. I know that once they found out about my allergy, they started doing their homework (researching, talking to every doctor they could, and attending conferences) so they could face the problem head on.
AB: As someone who grew up with food allergies, what’s the #1 tip you’d like to share with other parents trying to keep their little ones safe?
JD: I think that repetition was the most helpful tool for me growing up. Every time we went out to eat, met a new teacher, or went to a classmate’s party, my parents would make sure I gave a rehearsed explanation of my allergy and that if anything happened, they were to call 911 after administering my EpiPen.
AB: Any tips for young adults navigating life with food allergies?
JD: College life takes a lot of getting used to. It’s tough being the only one in charge of remembering your EpiPen. There’s also a lot of new experiences, like going to social events or dating, many of which I had never experienced before.
It was easier once I found people I could rely on to have my back.
My best friend and roommate was always quick to mention something (usually in the form of a lighthearted joke) whenever someone would join us at mealtime with food that contained peanuts.
AB: What were your biggest challenges as a ‘food-allergic kid’? Now that you’re all grown up, have those challenges evolved?
JD: My biggest challenge growing up was probably remembering to bring my EpiPen with me when I went out. I’d say I’ve gotten better at this now that I’m older, but it’s still (ironically) one of the things I struggle with even though I’ve spent the past two years developing something to help people remember their EpiPen. It’s amazing how easy it is to forget if you’re stressed out about something like an upcoming test.
The other big challenge I’m facing right now is traveling and living somewhere that I don’t speak the language. I was smart to buy a medical alert bracelet with my condition listed in traditional Mandarin and asked a friend for a card that explains “no peanuts,” but as I’m learning, there’s a monumental difference between “no peanuts” and “no peanuts, no cross-contamination, no preparing my food in the same area as peanuts”— especially in regions of the world where food allergies are less prevalent.
AB: How often do you eat out?
JD: I eat out for every single meal in Taiwan. That’s part of the culture here — you don’t cook if you’re young and living in an apartment. I don’t even have a kitchen!
AB: Where are your go-to SAFE eating spots?
JD: I go to the 7/11 a lot because it’s the most popular convenience store in Taiwan (there’s like five in a half-mile radius of my apartment). I also like to go to places, like chain restaurants, where I’ve already had positive interactions with the staff, because people start to remember your order.
AB: Can you tell me why chain restaurants make you feel safe?
JD: When I go to a chain restaurant at home like Olive Garden, I know that it’s a restaurant that I’ve been to several times before and have not had an issue. Chains like to standardize things, and that includes recipes. I’ll still double check with my server and ask them to be extra careful, but past experiences help give me peace of mind. I also never order dessert, which is one of the main places you will see all of my main allergens.
AB: Tell me about AssureTech and the allergy-friendly product(s) you’re developing.
JD: Like I’ve mentioned, I’m not the best at remembering my EpiPen. And after surveying dozens of other young adults with allergies, I learned that this is a serious problem for lots of other people as well. One student even left her EpiPen in a different state over break! The young adults that do bring their devices with them do so in a way that can seriously damage the medication, such as leaving it their cars to overheat or freeze.
My team and I created a patent-pending case that can insulate the medication inside the EpiPen or Auvi-Q. The case wirelessly links to a mobile application that we are developing. Whenever a user forgets their medication, they will receive a push-notification telling them to go back and get their EpiPen. The app also tracks the EpiPen’s last known location (in case it is misplaced) and its expiration date.
Finally, and maybe most importantly, the application can alert emergency contacts if the user suffers an allergic reaction and isn’t able to communicate on his or her own if their throat closes up.
AB: Unfortunately, you didn’t reach your financial goal for your Kickstarter Campaign back in the spring. Any thoughts on Plan B?
JD: We’ve decided to start our business in a very different way now, which has been largely influenced by my experience in Taiwan. My team and I have spent the last several weeks developing our first application: a mobile resource for people with food allergies.
We wanted to create a centralized location for people to find all different kinds of support. The first feature that we designed is a translation service that goes in depth explaining what allergens a person has and the importance of avoiding cross contamination. Right now, we’ve got 24 languages. We get our translations from native speakers who can explain the importance of safely preparing food.
The application can also locate a hospital if an emergency should happen. A user just has to press a button and they’ll find the hospital(s) nearest to them. While this search is performed, the app also displays a message that can ask a bystander to help them find a hospital in each of the languages as well so someone can find help as soon as possible.
We wanted more than a translation app though, so we’ve been working with different partners. We’re going to have vendors that offer allergy-related products and work with different charities/foundations throughout the year so our users can learn about some of the support options available to them. Right now, we’re working with the Top 10 Challenge to help spread awareness and raise funds for allergy research.
And of course, we’re working with some awesome bloggers (like AllergyBites!) who publish content that’s filled with information, advocacy, and more.
We’ve also teamed up with Allergy Cloud because they share a similar goal of bringing together allergy resources. Together, we want to create the strongest support community possible for people with allergies. Through this collaboration, Cloud members (membership to Allergy Cloud is free) can get free premium memberships to our app as well! To learn more about our application and download it, visit our website!
AB: Tell me about your adventures in Taiwan.
JD: I was recruited to be a global marketing specialist by a professor at Juniata College who also helps run a software company here (Kdan Mobile). A large part of why I was selected was because of the how I started my company as an undergraduate. It’s been incredible so far!
The first two weeks, I took a class in Taipei where I learned some basic Mandarin and about Taiwanese culture. Then I moved to Tainan to begin working. Managing my food allergy has been a little difficult at times, but successful so far. My colleagues set up a crowd for me so I could teach them about my allergy and demonstrate the Auvi-Q. It was complete with a translator for the people who didn’t speak English! I also use our application whenever I eat out, which helps me safely order food. My coworkers have also been amazing here. We go out to lunch every day and they also help me order at each place.
AB: And finally, what was it about the Top 10 Challenge that made you want to become a Challenge Ambassador?
JD: I fell in love with the Top 10 Challenge because of how easy it is to participate. Even if you can’t spare a dime, going a ‘day on the plate’ of someone with allergies is such an awesome way to spread awareness and create empathy. I wanted to help spread this mission in every way possible.
Read about Joey’s experience doing the Top 10 Challenge in Taiwan.
Friendly. Supportive. Encouraging.
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