While many are familiar with the various physical effects food allergies, I still come across people who presume that we Intolerants are food-fearing individuals who have made a miscalculation about the items we leave out of our diets. While this doesn’t bother me, I’m sometimes still irked when people can’t understand why someone would politely decline to eat a serving of dairy-gluten-peanut-shellfish-soy-insert-other-allergen-here laden items. It’s sometimes assumed that I must be on some kind of diet, am one hell of a finicky eater or am possibly the worst kind of sadomasochist. I mean why else would I willingly deprive myself of butter-laced mashed potatoes, chocolate filled croissants, chocolate chip cookies, chicken cordon bleu, tagliatelle with mushroom sauce, and all those other buttery, cheesy, creamy things that others can’t live without? There must be a method to my madness.
And there is, of course there is.
It’s been a couple of weeks since things were shaken up around this Intolerant’s home. Where an enjoyable evening turned into an uncomfortable and rather frightful one where I found myself spending a night in the hospital ER . It was a weekend evening just like any other. I ate dinner. I went to the theatre. I grabbed a drink with friends and was home by 23:00. Tired, I climbed into bed around quarter to twelve and expected to have a good eight hours of sleep before my alarm went off. My morning plan was to get up at 08:00, practice yoga, eat breakfast and spend the day in Manhattan. I settled into bed and tried to get comfortable, but after about 10 to 15 minutes of tossing and turning I started to feel like something was crawling along the length of my insides. Starting from the center of my sternum it moved upwards towards the hollow of my throat. The feeling was one part heavy and one part skittish, like something had hatched deep within my ribcage and was seeking a way out. It was only five minutes later, with my face red, eyes swollen, hives covering my body and sinuses completely blocked that I realized that the feeling of something struggling to crawl out of my body was in fact the physical reaction of my airway closing.
My body moving into a state of anaphylactic shock.
I tried to breathe. I tried to stay calm. I tried to write the incident off as “this will pass. It’s no big thing. Just relax.” However, about 15 minutes into losing my breath I realized this episode wasn’t going to resolve on its own, so I pulled on my boots, roused Mr. Intolerant from his slumber and we walked the five blocks to the hospital. The whole way there I kept looking at the stars and counting my steps as I focused on getting some air into my lungs. I remained convinced I was blowing things out of proportion even though it got harder to breathe with each block we walked.
Upon arrival at the hospital I was admitted for the night and rolled into the ER. I was taken out of my street clothes and put into a gown as electro pads were slapped onto my chest and I was hooked up to a machine that beeped a heartfelt reminder behind my head. Stuck with with two fat needles the nurse jabbed one into my left upper arm and inserted the other into a juicy vein just below my right elbow. Taping the larger one into place, it was suctioned to my skin and the nurse opened the floodgates to release a cocktail of drugs that would have made a crack addict hallucinate with glee. Because I didn’t respond to the epinephrine injection (in my left arm) the way the doctors had hoped I was injected with three other medications whose names I couldn’t pronounce if I tried. I was then hooked up to IV drip that sploosh sploshed sodium chloride into my bloodstream and made me strangely sensitive to the light. I lay prostrate on that bed for six hours straight as drunken fools snored away in the corner, a person (supposed drug overdose) was escorted in and out by police, and a guy in the bed next to mine coded all shades of blue; his heart stopping more than five times that night. After starting my neighbour’s heart for the third time in a two hour period, my doctor came by to check my vitals. Peering closely at my face he asked if I’d ever been intubated before. You know, intubation, as in “have you ever had a plastic tube jammed down your airway, making you gag as your trachea is assaulted in order to see if we open your airway long enough so you can breathe?”
While I don’t remember everything that happened in those early hours of Saturday morning, I do recall staring at my heart monitor as the doctor asked that question and watching as my resting rate jumped from 66 to 75 to 89 beats per minute. I remember feeling the sweat break out on the top of my lip and hoping the drugs would start to take effect because I was really in no mood to have a plastic tube jammed down my throat. But then the guy in the bed next to went into cardiac arrest once more and the doctor rushed away. I heard the sound of people yelling, electric paddles charging, shocks absorbing and skin sizzling. Amongst the din I picked up the modulation of hearts restarting, syringes aerating and incisions being made. That was when I realized that I was actually in good position; I mean my body was just staging a minor protest for whatever reason.
That guy was intent on dying that night.
Though I slept for a little while I spent the majority of the night trying to regulate my heart rate and searching for a way to breathe normally again. It was only six and a half hours after the whole mess had started that I noticed the feeling of tightness in my chest had completely subsided. The colour of my face had moved from cherry red to an even tone of cappuccino, and all of the sodium chloride had moved from the IV bag and was cavorting throughout my bloodstream. Discharged just after dawn I was sent from the hospital with a handful of papers that screamed ” moderate allergic reaction” (I would hate to know what severe is). I was also given a prescription for two EpiPens and a printed outline of what to do should I ever fall short of breath again. Walking home, feet heavy underfoot, we returned home to sleep the morning away. When I woke up again towards noon that same morning, I felt a bit ragged and roughshod (I mean, who wouldn’t if they were up most of the night?), but normal otherwise.
It’s like nothing had ever happened. Though it did. Something had.
And because of it I’m not quite sure I’ll ever be the same.
So in light of my dramatic episode, I got to thinking about the importance of addressing our allergies and intolerances and being as up front about them as possible (be it at home or when on the road). A couple weeks ago I threw together some food/allergy related tips (a guest post for Pollo Pass) for every Intolerant and the uninitiated alike. Whether you’re preparing for a long haul flight, trekking through the Andes or jumping on the subway to cross town in a quick 15 minute ride, here’s a couple of suggestions to keep in mind.
Because every second counts and all of our allergies – food related or not – are a serious business. Indeed.
1. If you have time do some research about food in the place you’re traveling to. Get an idea of the market staples and what the average breakfast, lunch and dinner looks like. If you’re allergic to certain foods, this will allow you to already identify potential setbacks in the country or city where you’re headed. Though some ingredients will always be tough to keep track of (I’m thinking soy, shellfish and whey here) at least you’ll get an idea if nuts, dairy, gluten, meat, etc., is something you’ll have to be on high alert for.
2. The next two tips are for everyone, regardless of whether you have allergies or not: Go local where possible and try to eat fresh (unpackaged) vegetables and fruits. If you can afford organic and GMO-free then invest the cash. If you’re a meat eater I find it’s worth the extra couple of dollars to get cuts of hormone-free, organic and grass-fed meat, especially beef and chicken. Some of the best dishes you’ll eat on any journey will be food that is in season and can be found in the local markets. If you’re in the heart of Africa then cassava and/or beans and wild game might be main staples, while a sure thing in South East Asia will be rice, noodles and a plethora of exotic fruits. The important thing to remember is that further away a food is from a package the less likely it has been cross-contaminated with something you can’t eat (of course in baked/cooked dishes one should always triple check what the ingredients are).
3. Ask locals and seasoned expats where to eat and what dishes you should try. Often locals/expats will be able to suggest dishes/foods that aren’t listed in the most recent edition of your Lonely Planet and they might very well be things you would have never thought of trying. In addition to certain culinary delights, locals and expats can probably recommend popular neighborhood restaurants where the food isn’t mass produced and where you’ll have a better chance of relaying your intolerances/dislikes with the server or the cook.
4. If you have allergies, try to learn the words for the foods you need to avoid in the local language. If gluten is your nemesis then carry along a note that lists “no gluten” in Spanish, French, German, Arabic or Chinese along with any local dialects if you know you’re headed into uncharted territory. What I find to be even more useful is to have a set of flash cards with the offensive food (or other) items and a big ‘X’ running through them. The ideal solution is to get your hands on flash cards that explain why (in a specific language) that food cannot be eaten. Select Wisely has a fantastic assortment of such cards that cover all sorts of food, drug and contact-allergens.
5. Pack your own snacks! At least do so if you know you’ll be in for a long haul journey or if you’re going to be “en-route” for three hours or more. I do this so much these days that it’s become second nature to slip a package of nuts, a couple of apples or a bar of dark chocolate into my purse or carry-on. I do this because I find the offerings at transport stations, airports and rest stops are often unhealthy and overly processed, as well as highly unappetizing. I’d much rather nibble on a piece of fruit, sandwich or raw bar I’ve made myself (at least I know where it came from and what went into it) as opposed to something that might appear harmless, but could send me to the emergency room and throw a wrench into my plans.
6. Admittedly, there are times when I get lazy and sloppy when it comes to checking for allergens on packaging labels. There are also times when I forget to check for potential harmful ingredients in items like laundry detergent, hand soap or even lip balm. This is important, because depending on the severity of your allergy just coming into contact with a particular substance (via skin or breathing it in) can be problematic and borderline dangerous. If in doubt, don’t hesitate to double check labels and get someone else to do a third check for you. Don’t worry about looking stupid or overly fussy. We all know the adage, don’t we? Better to be safe than sorry.
7. If your allergy or intolerance calls for an EpiPen…please carry one. If you don’t have one then at least carry a written set of instructions in your wallet on what someone should do if you fall ill and are unable to explain the situation. If you have a feeling that you’re allergic or intolerant to something but you’re not sure what, go to the doctor/allergist and get a couple of allergy and blood tests done.
Yes, I know it costs money, but it’s worth every single cent.