A bouquet of lilies with pollen blowing off the flowers

The Wrong Way vs. the Right Way to Accommodate My Asthma Trigger

I was exposed to the same asthma trigger in two different settings. Below is the story of how differently the situations were handled. One organization handled it much better than the other.

The wrong way

A coworker had a birthday bouquet of flowers sent to our office. It was a gorgeous vase filled with lilies, roses, and greenery. Lilies are one of my asthma (and allergy) triggers, and it’s the type of trigger that causes symptoms immediately. My coworker sat at the reception desk and I needed to walk past the desk to go to the restroom and other parts of the office. The bouquet was so big that the scent of lilies could be smelled throughout the office.

I felt my chest get tight and my nose was getting stuffy. I knew an asthma flare-up was on its way. I used my quick-relief inhaler and mustered up the courage to talk to my coworker. Since we had a fragrance-free policy, I figured she would understand her flowers could be a problem. I was wrong.

I explained that the flowers were beautiful, but unfortunately, I could not be around them due to my asthma. I also explained that the yellow stamen inside the lily was full of pollen, and that pollen will get airborne and travel through the ventilation system. Since some of our office mates also had asthma and allergies, I asked if she could put the flowers in her car or on the office balcony and bring them home at the end of the day.

She asked, “Can’t you just make it until 5 PM? They are so pretty I want to look at them.” I again acknowledged how lovely the bouquet was, but the double whammy of the fragrance and pollen was just too much for me and my lungs to handle. She refused, so I talked to my supervisor. My supervisor was sympathetic but told me if the flowers were a problem for just a few hours, I could take personal time off and go home. So, I did. It felt like my asthma was not being taken seriously. It was upsetting to know I did not have an ally in my workplace, and that someone’s desire to have flowers trumped my need to breathe. I felt judged.

The right way to accommodate my asthma trigger

A few days later, I went to lunch with coworkers. We walked into one of our favorite restaurants in downtown, D.C. As we entered the lobby, the smell of fresh lilies was overpowering. My nose is always correct. When we reached the hostess’ desk, once again I came face to face with a bouquet of lilies. Inside the flowers, I could see the yellow pollen stems blowing slightly from the air vent above. The hostess gave us a friendly “Welcome!” and I turned to my colleagues and said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t be around these lilies and the pollen. I’m going to have to leave.”

The hostess asked with general concern, “I’m sorry, are you allergic to these flowers?” I told her yes and apologized for having to leave. I told my colleagues to stay and enjoy their lunch, I would pick up something from the salad place next door. The hostess said, “Oh no, please don’t leave. We want you to be comfortable. I’ll remove the flowers.” I thought to myself, what just happened? A stranger believed me and did not judge me. She just wanted me to be safe and comfortable. When we left, I thanked her again for her kind gesture, and she told me she talked with the manager about the flowers. They were not aware people could be allergic to lilies, and moving forward they will no longer use them.

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