Deep in the Heart


I pushed my cart through the crowded aisles of the H-E-B grocery store, wide-eyed. My job was simple—buy lunch supplies for myself, something that could be easily prepped in the teacher’s lounge.

For the next four days, I was going back to school. The South Texas Independent School District (STISD) consists of six magnet junior and senior public high schools that span the Rio Grande Valley, drawing students from 28 districts in three counties. Students are encouraged to pursue professions in science and technology; funds go to state-of-the-art laboratories instead of athletic teams. STISD might be the only place in the nation that certifies 18 year olds to practice phlebotomy.

I never set out to be a “Young Adult” author. Then School Library Journal tagged my book, Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life, for back-to-school bookshelves. The next year, Health Occupational Students of America (HOSA) named it one of five “Medical Reading” picks, eligible for their essay contest.

My generation didn’t think of reading as a competitive sport. Sure, we had Pizza Hut’s “BOOK IT!” in elementary school, for which meeting a monthly page quota earned a free personal pan pizza. But that was a lame prize, particularly for kids like me who couldn’t eat pizza. Today, thanks to HOSA and other programs, students can work their way up through local, state and national literary tournaments, with prizes ranging from trophies to plane tickets to college scholarships. These kids hadn’t just read my story; some of them had battled over it.

Every day, I packed my lunch bag with an apple, tuna, soda and so on. Every day, I was awestruck to meet dozens of students—hundreds, total—learning about food allergies, celiac disease and other dietary restrictions.

They knew how an EpiPen worked and could describe anaphylaxis. One school hung up a big, elaborate hand-drawn banner. At another school, the auditorium was decorated with balloons to look like a birthday party. The Medical Academy Library handed out pins with the skull-topped cupcake image from my book’s cover. We posed for the yearbook, for Facebook, for Twitter, for selfies on camera phones. They had lots of questions.

“How did you first figure out you have allergies?”

“What is the worst reaction you’ve ever had?”

“What’s your favorite thing to eat?”

“If you could eat anything while you’re here in Texas, what would it be?”

“Tacos,” I said. The teenagers nodded.

Given my allergies to beef and cheese, I was right to steer around the taco stands. But I wish I’d had a chance to tell those teens about the meal I had at Arturo’s, a local favorite for Mexican food. Conversation with a knowledgeable waiter secured fresh tortilla chips, tilapia ceviche and a salad with sunflower seeds and hearts of palm. Between that and H-E-B’s signature spicy rotisserie chicken, Texas treated me well.

The students of STISD are tomorrow’s doctors, nurses and EMTs in the Rio Grande Valley and beyond. They are tomorrow’s parents, aunts, uncles. And they get it.

They get that challenges posed by our bodies are grounds for curiosity, not for fear. They get that the question isn’t, “How can I avoid dealing with this,” but rather, “How can I help?”

I may have never set out to become a “Young Adult” author. Yet it turns out to be the most important work that I do.