As a severe food allergy survivor, a sustained level of anxiety maintains my vigilant quest to be out and about while simultaneously avoiding being rushed to an ER due to anaphylaxis. Recently, however, I was reminded that I can never become even a bit complacent. It is important to always communicate clearly and advocate for myself, and sometimes that means adapting my tools and methods in order to stay safe while dining away from home.
A recent incident occurred while visiting a friend’s new home in Cleveland, OH. After a long day spent spray-painting old furniture while enjoying drinks in the garden, we ventured downtown for a steak dinner. Being huge steak connoisseurs, we chose our restaurant carefully. Upon arriving, we were seated at a great table and handed menus as we began to salivate for our long awaited choice cuts of beef.
Our informed server took my food allergy list along with our appetizer order. She promised to note my allergies and share the list with the kitchen. I felt safe at this big fancy steakhouse! Our appetizer of prosciutto wrapped mozzarella arrived and our forks and knives got to work. Yum! The first bite was delicious! I lowered my gaze to gather up another morsel and my heart dropped to the pit of my stomach.
“Is that tomato?” I said to my friend. “I think it’s tomato!” Before I finished my last word, I was up and headed for the restroom. I was not certain I had ingested the severe food allergen but I couldn’t take any chances. Off I went in the fancy steakhouse to make myself vomit. My friend grabbed my purse (where she knows my epi-pens are located) and hurried after me. As I expelled the food, she was frantically trying to refresh her memory on how to use the epi-pen. She stood outside the bathroom stall continually asking if I was ok – I am certain she was terrified for me and she later offered feedback on the how the auto-injector is not intuitive nor could her panicked mind make quick sense of the multi-step instructions (this is another topic and one I feel we, as a food allergy community, need to better address).
Luckily, I did not need epinephrine that evening. Somehow I dodged the hidden tomato and also avoided falling victim to cross-contamination. Upon returning to the table, we informed the server what had happened and she took the food away while apologizing repeatedly. The manager came over and offered us a free round of drinks while also assuring us the appetizer would be taken off the bill…somehow the manager did not realize that perhaps this was somehow inadequate for having almost sent a customer to the hospital… When I later contacted the general manager, he agreed and assured us the kitchen staff was reprimanded because all of my allergies were properly noted. He did not share where the breakdown in communication/training may have occurred.
What restaurant was this? The thing is, it could be any restaurant. If you are really curious, my Yelp reviews will tell you, but the key point is that not even in a fancy restaurant (that assured me they could handle my allergies) can I let my guard down. Vigilant. Always. Everywhere. For those of us with severe food allergies, danger always lurks.