“Lights and sirens the whole way?” came the slow question from my mother as I relayed the tale of my unexpected ambulance ride to the local ER earlier that day. The brief phone call ended and I sat with my Epipens around me, terrified my reaction would start again. Even though I was now safe at the home of a family friend outside of D.C., my panic remained despite the exhaustion of the post-epinephrine come down. The events of that afternoon are not all completely clear to me…but I knew at that moment that I was still breathing despite having had another severe anaphylactic reaction.
I had ordered a steak salad for lunch. It was delicious. There was no way for me to know it was harboring a severe allergen that would soon threaten my life. The server carefully noted my allergies and I felt safe. Maybe too safe because I enjoyed my meal and disregarded the first hint of an allergic reaction that occurred after finishing the salad, thinking to myself it couldn’t really be a reaction. Perhaps it was a walnut or pecan that made its way into my food through contaminated hands or gloves in the kitchen. There was never a crunch to alert me to the intruder. The attack was silent and unnoticed.
My colleague had to rush back to the office and we hurried through the bill and goodbyes. I did not tell him that I thought I was having a reaction. By the time I was at my car (approximately 10 minutes post exposure), the reaction was obvious. I drove the ½ mile back to the office in denial. Upon entering the almost empty office, my reaction was increasing in severity. Following my reaction protocol at the time, I needed to take an antihistamine but quickly realized I had let myself run out.
With my illogical anaphylaxis brain in charge, I decided to drive the two blocks to the drug store up the street. I don’t recall parking my car, but I do recall the moment I realized how severe the reaction had become so quickly. Sitting alone in my car with no mobile phone, fast action was paramount. I vaguely recall fumbling in my purse for my Epipen and plunging the needle into my thigh expecting to stop the reaction.
“Oh no! Oh my God!” I cried to myself as I quickly realized the reaction was not stopping. The injection didn’t work! I needed to get help. With the used Epipen discarded on the seat of my car, I searched for the door handle and stumbled out of the car. Seeing the store’s front door, I knew all I had to do was make it inside and they would call the ambulance.
Upon entering the drug store, I remember trying to place my hand on the counter to steady myself. It didn’t work and I began to fall. Someone helped me sit on the floor as I got the words out, “I am having an anaphylactic reaction and I need an ambulance.” I felt my eyes roll back in my head and my body slump and all I could think was I am going to die right here on the floor!! Suddenly and yet slowly all at the same time, someone shook me. I saw a white lab coat next to me and an Epipen. The pharmacist helped me administer the epinephrine – my second dose in a matter of minutes. I became more alert; it was slowing the reaction.
Despite the second dose, I was still not safe and when the paramedics walked in the door, they knew it. I was quickly strapped in and injected with either more epinephrine or perhaps an antihistamine or steroids. I could hear the ambulance sirens and I was jostled around by each bump in the road. With so much epinephrine surging through my veins, I became agitated. I demanded they stop and tell me where we were going. I was terrified and confused, but they reassured me we were going to the hospital. I told them we didn’t have to go so fast. Looking back, I imagine these statements were relieving to the paramedics – I was finally alert. I don’t know how I survived that day (nor how I avoided injuring anyone else while driving my car), but despite making multiple unsafe choices, I lived through it with nothing more than injection marks in my arm and thigh.
Every allergic reaction I survive comes with its lessons. Before that day, one Epipen had always been enough and a salad had never attempted to kill me (haha). It was a day of new concerns. Even now, I get anxious when eating a salad in a restaurant. If I have any reservations, I skip ordering it altogether. Some of those reservations include seeing several salads with nuts in them on the menu or even other non-salad entrees with nuts. And since that day, I always carry two Epipens when eating outside my home. I also now have a more aggressive anaphylaxis protocol to follow that includes immediate injection of epinephrine at the first sign of a reaction. Navigating a danger that is part of my daily life, and actually healthy for most, requires that I always stay vigilant to protect myself from severe food allergies.