Updated: Nov 30, 2020
“You are incredibly poised,” Carole King said to me.
Was I dreaming?
In 2007, at only 10-years-old, I auditioned at Radio City Music Hall and was later granted the
opportunity to sing “America, the Beautiful” in the Arthur Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Open. I
was called back the following week to sing “America, the Beautiful” again at the U.S. Open, and was then honored to open up with the song for Carole King at the Women’s Finals. I felt like I was on top of the world — healthy, happy and carefree. If this is what people call “The
American Dream,” I was definitely living it.
In 2008, my life took an unexpected turn for the worse. I became terribly sick with severe migraines, where my mom would have to keep pressure on my head to alleviate some of the pain, and numbness in my legs. I cried because my hair was thinning and falling out. It became so bad that I completely stopped eating. I was witnessing a nightmare before my own eyes as I was becoming a ghostly image of a frail, lethargic, sickly-looking figure in the mirror.
While kids were playing, laughing and finding their group of friends, I was home in pain, struggling to keep my head above water. Luckily, I was diagnosed with celiac disease four months later. I was grateful to be diagnosed at such an early stage, considering the severe and deadly consequences of finding out too late.
In 2009, I felt much better after being on a strict gluten-free diet. Never thinking I would recover from the disease and continue my singing career, one day I received a random call from the New York Jets. The person said he had watched one of my videos singing at the U.S. Open and inquired if I would be interested in singing the National Anthem at one of the Jets football games. That day, I performed in front of 76,866 people. The inexplicable feeling of such a breathtaking experience inspired me to continue to strive for my life’s dreams.
Behind the curtains, I had been consciously navigating this whole new life for myself, learning all I could through my own research and personal experiences. My celiac diagnosis, accompanied by my adherence to a strict, gluten-free diet, presented me with many new challenges due to a lack of awareness, resources, and food options at the time. More often than not, I left the supermarket in tears and asked the question, “Why me?”
However, these experiences accumulated into a better understanding of the disease and its safe management. I suddenly became a helpful resource to newly diagnosed celiac patients who reached out to me for guidance. I would often meet them at a designated gluten-free restaurant (which, at the time, were few and far in between) or have them come to my house, where I would walk them through the whole process of navigating safe foods and places for them to eat at and then offer any additional help. This pivotal part of my journey sparked the beginning of my unsurmountable passion for nutrition and my ongoing aspiration to becoming a registered dietitian.
Then, in 2011, three years after my celiac diagnosis, I began experiencing new symptoms which would only occur after eating. That summer, I left for sleepaway camp but prior to leaving I was tested for food allergies pursuant to the recommendations of an allergist. At sleepaway camp, I struggled to cope with my new symptoms but kept trying to fight through it. At one point, my mom saw a picture of me with my camp friends posted on the camp’s website where I looked abnormally pale and swollen, and so she quickly called the camp in a panic to inquire about my well-being. It was a tough situation, where I felt like I was stuck in limbo with my health but really just trying to move forward with my life.
Fast forward to the mid-point of the 7-week camp program, where we had been celebrating one of the dress-up themed dinners, one of the nurses who worked at the infirmary took me aside, sat me down on a bench and explained to me my food allergy test results. She said I was allergic to dairy, eggs, peanuts and casein. She then advised that I would have to change my diet.
I still remember the phone call I made to my mother after receiving this advice from the nurse. While I felt a range of emotions, it was hard for me to articulate my feelings into words. All I could think was “Where do I go from here?” Actually, it was more like “I really don’t want to give away my Udi’s cookies, or the cookie cake that my family gave to me on visiting day, which I would secretly share with my camp friends by helping them to sneak into the back kitchen with me…” But you didn’t hear that from me.
In all seriousness, though, it felt like I had just fallen into another unknown maze where I had to navigate, once again, a strange new life. It meant saying goodbye to the foods that I traditionally ate and enjoyed.
I have learned through my own personal experience, research and education, that food means so much more than survival. As quoted in my book, “When Food Can Kill You: What The World Needs To Know,” “[f]ood is a ‘lens’ through which we move and learn about the world and, quite naturally, ourselves.” From this standpoint, I lost another part of myself—a part that was still somewhat “normal” and could eat what everyone else did.
But, as I acknowledged throughout my book, “normal” was never in the cards for me anyway.
After being diagnosed with multiple food allergies and celiac disease, I grew heavily interested in the game of tennis and decided I wanted to try out for my school tennis team. I spent hours of tennis every day on the court and played in numerous tennis tournaments, reaching the finals my first time and winning the whole tournament my second time.
While I have played many sports in my life, there was (and still is) nothing comparable to my love for the game of tennis. For me, every match served as a reminder that I could still find it in myself to persevere through any obstacle(s) that I face in my life—past and present.
As a published author, I would like readers to take this message from my book: you are not alone in the world of food allergy and celiac disease. There is a whole community of people who can relate to the challenges and anxieties that you face every day. Don’t be afraid to speak up and use your voice to make a difference. Never lose hope in your dreams and dare to be different.