November 11th is many things to me. It is the day we honor our Veterans in the US. It is also the day that my best friend was born. Now, it is the day when I did everything I could at a restaurant to have safe access to food and was still served a hidden food allergen in my meal. It is the day I was administered epinephrine in an airport security area and the day I went to the ER instead of getting on my flight home. It is another day in my list of days when my life was threatened simply by trying to nourish myself.
Five colleagues rode with me in the airport shuttle, some with earlier flights and some with slightly later flights. It had been a long couple of days and we were happy to be headed home. After making our way through airport security, a few of us settled in at a chain restaurant near our gates. My colleagues let me pick the restaurant due to my food allergies and I went with the national chain due to a higher likelihood of better training on food handling and possibly even the chance for a gluten free menu.
This restaurant did not have a gluten free menu, but it did have a note that I could speak with a manager about food allergies. After quickly assessing that the server did not have any understanding of allergies, I asked for the manager. When the manager arrived, I handed her my food allergy list, explained that my allergies were very severe, and asked if there was anything that would be safe to eat. She asked if there was anything I was considering, to which I replied, “The hamburger, no bun, no onion strings and no fries.” She looked over my list again and shared she could also get me the burger along with a salad with no nuts and no tomato. Great! I felt like she had this under control.
I sat with my colleagues awaiting our food and chatting about random stuff, amongst a few questions and thoughts on my food allergies (especially when the server stopped back twice to clarify a few things on my allergies…and again, I am thinking they are super cautious and want to ensure they are getting it right – the server even shared it is the manager herself preparing my food). Then our food arrived and it looked good! I ate my hamburger patty with no issue and then moved to my salad. I didn’t put any dressing on it because I often find dressing is where gluten is often hidden and I don’t want stomach pain and upset on my flight home. One bite…two bites – it tastes good! Goat cheese, cranberries, greens, orange wedges appear to be the contents. Around the third bite, I noticed some itchiness in my mouth, but at first dismissed it as pollen cross-reactivity. I remained my typical level of happy and content.
Then, I saw it. I said out loud, “is that a seed?” My colleague looked over and the foreign object was identified as a piece of an almond. “I am allergic to almonds,” I said out loud even though my colleagues are already aware of this. And then the realization hit me. My itchiness in my mouth is the start of a reaction! But I instantly went into denial. I told my colleagues, “it could just be anxiety.” I feel my tongue swelling… my colleagues are asking me questions…they want to know where my epi-pen is and if I need help. It all felt so overwhelming. I told them where my epi-pen was and that I needed a minute to assess and they let me take a breath. I grabbed my phone and took a photo of the salad, followed by a couple of deep breaths. I remind myself that was an almond and due to the speed of my tree nut allergy, seconds matter. Itchy lips and tongue, swelling is starting on my tongue and lips, and I feel like I am out of it. I quickly determine, yep, it’s anaphylaxis.
I looked to my colleague on my left who is a pharmacist and trained first responder. “I am having a reaction.” As the words left my lips, I could feel it progressing. Terrified, I started to cry – I have been here too many times before. But my colleague is already up and has my bag – she said we need to get help and I followed her. She led me to airport security. I was getting dizzy. Before I knew it, I was sitting down. I could no longer think to take care of myself. Security asked about my epi-pen, my colleagues asked too. I couldn’t think to respond, but I could think that my medic alert bracelet has my information – I point at it and got the words out that “this is all my information.” I am moved to another area…I felt so dizzy, but I was not yet wheezing. There were so many people around me suddenly in the little room they moved me to and they all had questions. I just say, “I am not wheezing yet and wheezing means it’s really bad.” This was not the right thing for me to say and it is not in line with my food allergy reaction protocol. What I failed to convey is that, because my reactions progress so quickly, I am to administer epinephrine at the first sign of a reaction. The scariest part of my reactions is how quickly my cognitions slips away from me.
The airport fire department medic began taking my vitals and suddenly I noticed my throat was really closing up. It felt like I yelled “I need epinephrine!”…but it could have been a mumbled request at that point, I can’t be sure. They administered epinephrine. It’s an amazing medication. Within seconds my brain fog cleared and my symptoms began to resolve. The EMS team arrived and continued monitoring me. Unfortunately, I started to slip back into a reaction. The itchiness in my mouth came back and I started to feel dizzy again – my first thought was not to tell them because I didn’t want me or my colleagues to miss our flights (again, my cognitive symptoms and poor decision making during a reaction is always the scariest part when I think back). Luckily, they began to pick up on my symptoms and it was time to go to the ER.
With my colleagues by my side, I was on the stretcher and headed out the door. It pissed me off that people were looking at me as we left the airport and probably wondering what had happened. I wanted them to know that someone in that airport had poisoned me!!! I wanted them all to know there were bad people there who tried to kill me. As often happens after my first dose of epi, I was angry and agitated…but I kept it all inside. I Kept trying to say thank you to the paramedics. And now, two days later, I want to sincerely thank the paramedics, fire department, airport security and my colleagues for all the assistance. I am ok today because of them.
Physically, I am here and ok…emotionally, I am a mess…but I will get through this. I will get through the fear that lingers after a reaction – fear of being outside my house, fear of being away from my epi-pens, fear of eating... One thought I can’t shake - they say a cat has nine lives…how many does a woman with anaphylactic food allergies have?