By Perry Lefko

While Debbie Bruce works tirelessly as a volunteer to educate people about food allergies, she received an award earlier this year from the City of Mississauga for her work. She believes there’s so much more that needs to be done by schools, politicians and society in terms of awareness and understanding.

“My son was diagnosed 30 years ago and it seems like they don’t present near enough information and I don’t understand why,” she said. “I know it’s annoying to have food restrictions in the school for everyone, but if we work together we can implement the minimum accommodation until we can find a cure, which would be very helpful and nice. All the school boards have statements about how it’s important for kids to be included and have compassion and yet this is treated differently and I’m not sure why. It’s treated more like an inconvenience. This is a life threatening issue affecting, on average, two kids in every class room. Something needs to be done to pay more attention to it.”

A longtime resident of Mississauga, Bruce is the mother of two sons, 37-year-old Andrew and 26-year-old John. Both have had to deal with life-threatening food allergies. Andrew was diagnosed back in 1985 with a nut allergy and, at the time, little was known about the condition, which can produce an anaphylactic shock that is rapid and could cause death. At 18 months, her younger son developed a life-threatening reaction to eggs. He was subsequently diagnosed with allergies to eggs, shellfish, peanuts and nuts.

At the time, Bruce worked in the packed-goods industry. She had strong marketing skills and used that to take medical information, which is complicated and intimidating, and tried to make it simpler for teachers to understand by volunteering in schools. Her concern amplified when taking her sons, in particular, John, to Toronto Blue Jays games and worried about people eating peanuts near them.

“I just felt that kids should be able to go enjoy a baseball game just like everybody else,” she said.

Through a Toronto Argonauts football seminar for women in 2007, she met the team’s head coach, Michael (Pinball) Clemons and he sympathized with Bruce’s concern.

After a meeting with Rogers Centre management, an executive suite was provided for four games in 2008 to serve as a safe-seating area for children with food allergies. It sold out immediately and the program has been building ever since. Since 2012, there has been a Nut-Reduced Zone at Rogers Centre.

“It’s been challenging, but what makes it worthwhile is the look on these families faces when there at a game, watching the Blue Jays play like everybody else, they don’t have to be nervous about someone shelling peanuts behind them,” she said. “If someone happens to get into the section, they’re just politely asked to leave. It just reduces the risk, which we’re all about. We’re not about elimination. It’s about reducing the risk. It’s only for 15 games, but my objective it to have it available for every game or at least every weekend game and special holiday game. I don’t think those with a life-threatening allergy should be limited to the number of games they can attend. Anaphylaxis is recognized as a disability by the Ontario Human Rights Commission.”

She has been actively working to have civic landmarks in the Greater Toronto Area to be lit up in teal blue in May as part of Food Allergy Month and is involved in various other initiatives that collectively take time and energy. She is the director of the Canadian Anaphylaxis Initiative and, collectively, works about the equivalent of a full-time job to create awareness.

In June, Bruce was one of more than 100 people who received a City of Mississauga Civic Award for their voluntary work. The nomination was put forward by her husband, Jim, without her knowledge.

“He knows all the work I do in the community that I don’t usually get recognition for and he thought I should,” Bruce said. “I was shocked to receive the award. I don’t do this to be rewarded. It was very nice to be recognized because I’ve been doing this for 30 years. It was really rewarding when Councillor Carolyn Parrish told everybody that I saved lives. That was very nice. These kids don’t advocate for themselves. If you are a young person, you just want this to go away … especially in high schools where kids are particularly at risk. Seventy per cent of the deaths are between (the age of) 12 and 21.

“A lot of people say it’s because of the risk taking at that age and that makes me a little frustrated. It’s not that they are taking more risk; they are just seeing more situations where they don’t want to speak up and draw attention to themselves.”

Bruce has worked with the Mississauga Fire and Emergency Services to have all their frontline trucks equipped with an epinephrine autoinjector (called EpiPens) used for anaphylaxis. Last year, through her continued co-ordination and diligence, all 250 Peel Region schools were equipped with epi kits. She also does school training for the Allergy/Asthma Information Association of Canada in the Greater Toronto Area.

Photo: Debbie Bruce receives a City of Mississauga Civic Award from Mayor Bonnie Crombie.