Woman allergic to sunlight can now swim at pool after Red Deer installs U-V-blocking film on windows

In August specialized U-V-blocking film was installed on the windows at Red Deer’s G.H. Dawe Community Centre pool.

From the outside, the windows are a little shinier than before and have a slightly blue tint. From the inside, the film is unnoticeable, but Alexis Holmgren, 20, says it makes a world of difference for people like her with sun allergies.

“I was so excited,” she said. “It’s amazing, just knowing that it’s here for me and for other people like me. There are other more common sun allergies and there are a lot of people in Red Deer who are going to benefit from this.”

The project came about after Holmgren got a federal government’s Youth Accessibility Leader initiative grant. The program provides funding for upgrades to workplaces and public spaces identified as having barriers for people with disabilities and medical conditions.

She contacted the Red Deer city council and they put her in touch with the recreation department. Her and a grant writer applied for the funding. In March her project was approved for $10,000 in federal funding.

Holmgren and her family are considered immuno-compromised during COVID-19 so she won’t be able to try out the new pool for a few months. But as soon as the pandemic passes, she says she’ll be back in the water.

Holmgren has a rare allergy to sunlight, called Solar Urticaria. She is the only known person in Alberta to have the rare condition and one of a few in Canada.

Holmgren was born with the condition, but the symptoms gradually became worse just before her teens. She was forced to take her classes online and give up one of her favourite pastime of swimming.

Any exposure to the sun’s U-V rays is dangerous for Holmgren. A short car ride or a walk can trigger a significant reaction. When she goes outdoors, she completely covers her skin, including a head and face wrap, sunglasses and gloves.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s direct sunlight or not, it can even be a cloudy day,” said Holmgren. “What matters is the ultra-violet light and that’s what produces the allergen.”

“Basically it’s the same type of allergic response someone would have to a peanut or a fish. I get covered in hives, I get extremely nauseous, my blood pressure can drop, I can go into anaphylaxis… it’s just not good.”

When Holmgren was 18, she went to New York and the only summer camp in the world for kids with sun allergies and ultra-violet light sensitivity. There, Holmgren discovered a swimming pool she could use without any risk of a reaction and it gave her the idea to have that in Red Deer.

“They had a pool where the windows were coated in a U-V-blocking film. It allows kids to go there and swim at any time of the day they want and just basically have a normal summer camp experience,” she said. “I saw it and I thought, ‘hey, I could make the Red Deer pools accessible.”