Talking nuts with Alex Tagliani

Anthony Abbondanza
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“Living without my EpiPen is like a race car driver racing without a helmet,” Alex Tagliani told students seated in the St. John Fisher Elementary School’s gymnasium last Friday morning.

Alex Tagliani speaks to children at St. John Fisher Elementary School, who like him, have a food-related allergy.

The NASCAR and Indy Car driver’s life-threatening allergic reactions to nuts was the hot topic of conversation.

As part of his second annual Summer of Tag school tour, Tagliani, a Montreal-native, is visiting Canadian schools highlighting the importance of anaphylaxis management.

Anaphylaxis is the term is used to describe a life-threatening allergic reaction to certain foods, insect stings and bites, medicine, and latex.

As of 2012, nearly 2.5 million Canadians reported having at least one allergy.

The Montreal-native, 40, has been allergic to nuts and tree nuts since he was a toddler.

“My mom was breastfeeding me. In her diet, there were lots of nuts and almonds. The doctors realized I was developing skin problems and the realized I had an allergy,” Tagliani told the Chronicle.

And though his allergy has a profound impact on his lifestyle, the race car driver has managed an impressive career thus far, racing in Cart, IndyCar, and Nascar – thanks to a multi-coloured life-saver, one filled with adrenaline instead of delightful sugar.

It’s called an EpiPen Auto-Injector, an adrenaline-based drug used to counter severe allergic reactions.

And for Tagliani, it’s come in handy.

Whether dining at home, a restaurant, or eating on a plane headed for his next race, Tagliani has used EpiPen a handful of times.

“You can’t take the risk,” he said when asked about the importance of having the device readily available. “When you eat, you’re exposed and mistakes can happen. You just have to make sure to have the EpiPen at all times.”

Tagliani knows a thing or two. The race car driver learned the hard way –and, it couldn’t have come at a worse time.

The Montrealer recalled an incident, which he described as his “worst reaction” ever, at a restaurant just days before an Indianapolis 500 race a few years back. It wasn’t the cheesecake that clogged his breathing, leaving Tagliani clutching at his throat and gasping desperately for air, but the fine layer of almond paste topping the dessert.

“When you run out of air, you panic. You’re useless. And I’m not myself when I’m panicking,” he said.

To make matters worse, he left the device in his car, parked just outside the restaurant.

“...It was the first time I learned the mistake I made,” Tagliani said.

The second mistake happened mere moments later when he finally retrieved the device and wasted valuable seconds as he returned uselessly to the restaurant.

“I was panicking. I lost my mind,” he added.

Then the unthinkable happened.

Tagliani dropped his pants in plain sight, for all to see, as he injected an indispensable source of adrenaline into his veins. EpiPens can be applied through clothing.

Needless to say, his experience with the device is his source of inspiration for the Summer of Tag tour. It’s also what allows him to connect to like individuals.

Before he left the Pointe Claire school, Tagliani sat among 11 children –all of whom suffer from life-threatening food allergies – in the basement library.

The students, in turn, shared their brief brushes with death. One boy, in particular, revealed how his older brother had to rush and locate an EpiPen after suffering from anaphylaxis episode – courtesy of Nutella.

Not unlike his fellow classmates who sat nearby nor others like him in Canada, for which 3-5 per cent have a food allergy, the boy was allergic to nuts.

“No matter how good of a job you do to avoid a reaction, you can never take it for granted it won’t happen to you. You must always take it serious,” said Tagliani.

It’s the very message Tagliani will continue to preach to children across Canada as he continues his Summer of Tag tour.

For more information on the tour or anaphylaxis and food allergy, visit www.summeroftag.com.

Follow @AAbbondanza1 on Twitter!

Organizations: NASCAR, Tag school, Pointe Claire school

Geographic location: Montreal, Canada

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