So apparently, it is Food Allergy Awareness Week this week. I only discovered this yesterday, though I did know that it is simultaneously Allergy & Asthma Awareness Month and Celiac Awareness Month…It would seem May is the time to commemorate all that is weird and debilitating about our bodies.
I am personally only “allergic” to one food: peanuts. I can eat every other kind of nut (because the peanut is not technically a nut, but a legume). I developed this allergy as a child, after many a PB&J with a lot more PB than J; I sometimes think my over-consumption of peanut butter made my body one day go, “STOP THIS! I will make sure you never eat peanut butter ever again, you gluttonous child!” My first allergy testing when I was about ten revealed my body’s new disdain for my favorite food and introduced me to the wonderful world of reading ingredient labels.
While I’m also gluten intolerant, that’s not technically an allergy. I don’t have Celiac Disease, though my intolerance and symptoms were severe enough to keep me from ever being able to eat gluten ever again. The only real difference between me and someone with Celiac Disease is that they tested positive for it and I didn’t. It also means that I am sometimes looked down on by people with Celiac Disease, as though they think I’m not as debilitated by my inability to ingest gluten as they are. It’s like I’m not “official”, so I must be one of those trendy weirdoes who electively chose to eat this way. For the record, I am not. If eating gluten free wasn’t the only thing that made my intestines function properly, I wouldn’t eat this way. I am gluten free fo’ life as much as any diagnosed Celiac. The little plus sign on your test does not make you any better than me, even if you do get your own awareness month.
So in honor of all this awareness, I decided today to tell you one of my favorite medical and allergy anecdotes: the time my throat closed up.
It was the summer after I graduated from college. I lived by myself at the time, and in between working forty hours per week at a crappy day job and doing theatre pro-bono for just about as many hours a week, I spent the little free time I had doing such interesting things as cleaning my apartment and watching TV.
I was doing exactly that one sunny afternoon, when it suddenly felt like there was a lump in my throat that just wouldn’t go away. I cleared my throat about fifteen times and drank a ton of water, to no avail. It didn’t register as imminent danger, just an annoyance.
But after a few minutes I realized it was getting more and more difficult to breathe. I took long, controlled breaths but still couldn’t get much air. I tried breathing through my nose, but that wasn’t any better. I was just thinking something was seriously wrong when my swollen windpipe abruptly snapped shut.
The next fifteen or twenty seconds were the longest fifteen or twenty seconds of my entire life. I could not breathe. I could not breathe AT ALL. As a land mammal, I am rather attached to breathing. And this unprecedented decision of my body to stop all oxygen-intake made me realize that I just might never breathe again. That one day, my body would stop breathing entirely and I would cease to exist.
Luckily, this was not that day. After about fifteen or twenty seconds, my airway let up just enough for a tiny squeak of air to get into my lungs. I found myself on all fours on my living room floor, wheezing like the asthmatic kid in gym class and thanking whatever deity who might have been listening that I hadn’t died.
It was in this state that I realized I should probably go to the hospital. Randomly not breathing can’t exactly be good for you. I thought about calling 911 for an ambulance, but I could still barely get oxygen to my brain. Talking enough to tell the operator what had happened and where I was didn’t seem likely to happen. And as my adrenaline doesn’t always make the best decisions for me, I did probably the dumbest thing I have ever done in my entire life.
I got in my car and drove myself to the emergency room.
I am still thanking my lucky stars that my angry windpipe didn’t close up again on the way. The very real possibility that I could have died on the way to the hospital still floors me almost six years later. But I made it to the ER without incident, still wheezing but able to get a little more air into my lungs.
I made my way up to the counter and signed myself in, telling the nurse I thought I must be having an asthma attack or something. She looked at me with mild annoyance and asked me what medication I was on for my asthma. Her eyes were calling me an idiot for not taking it and getting out of her hair.
And my wheezy response: “I don’t have asthma.”
Her disdain quickly morphed into confusion, so I explained in as few words as possible what had happened. Apparently I got enough out in between wheezes and coughing fits to make my situation clear. She had me sit down in the waiting area, where I focused on each painstaking breath, until I was quickly called back into triage. From triage I was ushered into a hospital bed, told to remove my shirt and bra in favor of a hospital gown, attached to several machines and equipped with a mask that seeped a combination of oxygen and breathing medications directly into my face.
My diagnosis: a bronchospasm. The doctor had no idea what caused it. I hadn’t eaten or done anything out of the ordinary, so I was told it must have been an allergic reaction to something in the air in my apartment. My body just decided, “Nope, don’t want none of that!” and closed off my airway to keep whatever it was from getting in. I was prescribed an inhaler, pumped to the brim with albuterol, and sent on my merry way.
And since I’d driven myself to the hospital, I drove myself home. Where I proceeded to remain awake, thanks to the mix of albuterol and adrenaline, for nearly forty-eight hours. The wheezing didn’t entirely stop for almost a week. And so far, it has never happened again.
I told this story to my allergist at our first appointment, and she immediately prescribed me an Epi-Pen. She also told me if it does happen again, driving myself to the hospital is not the best plan. If there is no one to drive me, there is a feature on my cell phone that should allow the 911 operator to locate me via GPS.
So, happy Allergy & Asthma/Celiac Awareness Month and Food Allergy Awareness Week everyone! Be careful out there, keep your Epi-Pens and inhalers handy, and never, ever drive yourself to the ER. Your allergist will yell at you if you do.