A DESIGN student whose severe allergies left her bed-bound, depressed and facing the prospect of dropping out is using her experiences to help others similarly affected by allergies and intolerances.
Eilidh Ellery, who studies at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, suffers from an acute intolerance to Salicylates, a derivative of salycilic acid, which occurs naturally in plants. In addition to anaphylactic episodes, the reaction she experiences can be so severe that it is as if she suffers from arthritis, eczema, irritable bowel syndrome, exhaustion and depression all at once.
The 23-year-old Textile Design graduand from Cellardyke in Fife has used her experiences as the inspiration for her final year project and has designed a range of clothing that helps raise awareness of the issue of allergies and intolerances whilst also keeping the sufferer safe.
Salicylates can be found in many foods, clothes, medications, perfumes and preservatives but those who are Salicylate intolerant can experience serious reactions after exposure to even tiny amounts.
Although she suffered from other allergies as a child, she was not diagnosed until last year when an elimination diet identified Salycilates intolerance as the most likely cause of her ill-health. It was at high school that Eilidh first experienced the physical and mental symptoms.
If her exposure to Salicylates reaches a certain tipping point, Elidh will break out in hives and spots. She becomes physically drained to the point she will sleep for days on end, her joints can swell up and her digestive system reacts to the presence of Salicylates.
Her difficulties with the condition reached crisis point last year when she was completely bed-ridden, severely depressed and weeks away from being hospitalised. Although Eilidh was due to finish University last year, she was forced to leave her studies before recommencing them once her diagnosis enabled doctors to find a balance in medication and lifestyle that allowed her respite.
Having retaken her place at University, Eilidh has explored allergens through drawing, photography and sculpture, and has used Sal-safe processes such as digital print to create a collection of garments containing hidden messages through QR codes which feature as part of the designs, which convey a quirky sense of humour.
“People just don’t understand how bad allergies can be”, she said. ”They think of them as something that makes you a bit sick or itchy or as something that’s all in your head but I can be absolutely floored.
“The impact for me can be like having arthritis, eczema, irritable bowel syndrome, and depression all at once. If I’m really bad then I have absolutely no energy and will be pretty much unconscious for days.
“Having been so ill, I wanted to turn my experiences into a positive, proactive project for allergy awareness. This has blighted my life so much that I wanted to use this negative experience for good and help people to help themselves and people they know who have allergies or intolerances.”
QR codes feature on the t-shirts, bags, bandanas and scarves that Eilidh has made while avoiding the types of fabrics that commonly cause allergic reactions. Scanning the codes takes you to online content, such as videos, which tell you which allergies a person has.
“I think this would be especially useful for younger children who can’t really explain their condition”, Eilidh continued. “This would help teachers, medics and anyone who comes into contact with them as the codes could easily be scanned to provide information like ‘do not give this child nuts’.”
“All the items are made from cotton and other natural fibres which do not irritate people, because I know the impact that clothing can have on someone who suffers from allergies or intolerances. If I walk into a clothes shop, I can instantly tell if they’ve just had a delivery because the levelof chemicals in the air is so elevated. As soon as I touch some clothes I can feel the chemicals that have been sprayed on.
“It was important for me to draw attention to the allergens themselves in my collections. The images contained on the garments are of some of the most common allergens, such as pollen, pets, lactose or dairy, wheat, gluten, beestings and peanuts.”
According to Allergy UK, one in four people in this country are affected by allergies and 45% of the population has some form of food intolerance. Most are not as severe as Eilidh’s, though allergies and intolerances are debilitating for tens of thousands of people whose activities, nutritional intake and medicines must be carefully controlled.
Although Eilidh’s health has improved greatly over the past year, she has been forced to make sacrifices and was forced to endure more pain as doctors tried to work out how to treat her.
“I’ve been told this is down to stress or that it’s all in my head,” she said. “I was bed-ridden and prescribed steroids that made me hallucinate. Eventually, the elimination diet identified Salycilates as the most likely cause. There isn’t a proper test for it as intolerances don’t show up in blood tests, but allergies do.
“The only ways you can confirm it is to go on an elimination diet or be given high doses of asprin under controlled conditions by a doctor which, as I was so ill and having anaphylactic episodes, wasn’t an option that was ever entertained.
“I’ve had to make drastic changes in terms of diet as there are so few foods that are safe for me to eat. I had to throw out my entire wardrobe as all the man-made fibres contain Salycilates, and I even had to find a new toothpaste because of its ingredients.
“This has helped a lot, and knowing what the problem is means I can plan my life to minimise problems. If I have to be in a room where someone’s been painting with emulsion then I know I’ll be bed-bound the next day but at least I can plan my activities around it and make sure I don’t have anything to do that day.
“I’m on a crazy dose of anti-histamines but at least I’ve been able to finish University and hopefully help some other people.”
Her exhibition is one of almost 300 at the DJCAD Degree Show which runs from May 19-27.