Reactions, part 1

[Warning for somewhat graphic discussion of medical procedures and adverse allergic reactions.]

I have been dealing with weird, severe, and inexplicable allergic reactions since the age of 14.

Most of these reactions have been to food items; my known food allergies include peanuts, various tree nuts, and (wait for it) green bell peppers. Of course, I take great caution to avoid these foods and my exposure to them. Unfortunately, with my immune system, such caution is no guarantee that I won’t have an “attack” out of the blue.

The first “attack” I had, in fact, was one of those not caused by food. I was a teenager at the time, in Paris on vacation with my family. I don’t remember much about my initial symptoms other than I felt overly-warm very suddenly, and decided that it would be a good idea to take a cold bath in order to rectify the situation. My mom found me in the bathroom of our rented apartment, facedown on the tile floor and missing several items of clothing. I had figured, somehow, that putting my face on the tile floor as a method of cooling down would look less weird than sticking my entire head into the freezer. My face, which had initially turned bright red, swelled up so much that I soon found myself unable to see. I had quickly begun to resemble the Bob’s Big Boy logo; I should note here that if you ever start to resemble a famous food-related logo, you should probably go to the nearest hospital post-haste.

My Bob’s Big Boy transformation was quickly followed by giant, blotchy pink hives that appeared on my neck and shoulders. Joining the party somewhat late was a hot, almost volcanic feeling in my lungs that quickly morphed into breathing trouble. Severe breathing trouble. So my family (my mom, my dad, and my younger brother — who suggested that I not look at myself in any reflective surface so as not to become more freaked out) and I took to the streets of Paris in search of a hospital. We found one — after a quick visit to what we thought was a hospital but which actually turned out to be a convalescent home. At the ER, the staff took one look at me and immediately put me at the front of the queue; I was quickly whisked away to a magical land where a nurse tried to calm me down, completely in French, when I loudly protested the insertion of a large IV needle into the underside of my forearm. The only English-speaking doctor on staff, as it turned out, was on his day off, but came in to examine me and assure my family that I was going to be okay.

When we came back from vacation, I had another attack about a month later. And then another. And a few more, until one ER doctor suggested that I get a full round of allergy tests, more commonly known as “scratch tests.”  The scratch tests revealed a substantial peanut and tree nut allergy. I took care to avoid these foods, or any foods that may have come into contact with them. Unfortunately, I still kept having attacks, even when I avoided the dreaded peanuts and tree nuts. I still have them, approximately once every 3-4 months.

Sometimes, I get them as a result of cross-contamination if I eat at a restaurant. Sometimes, I get them for no reason at all — even if I haven’t eaten for a while. The symptoms tend to be fairly consistent: first, a scratchy feeling will start in my throat and lungs, followed by wheezing. Then comes breathing trouble, which tends to feel like an elephant is standing on my chest. Usually, my eyes will then swell up to the point that I cannot open them all the way, or see. Sometimes, I get gastrointestinal trouble as well, the symptoms and signs of which are not things that I can discuss in polite company due to general grossness and/or TMI.

The first five to ten minutes of these attacks are, generally speaking, the worst part(s). By now, my battle plan for dealing with these attacks is well-established: Take a shot or two of my inhaler at the first signs of trouble (usually breathing difficulties plus another symptom), then four or five antihistamine pills. Of course, it takes a few minutes for these things to kick in, which is part of why the “waiting” part is so physically painful. During these first few minutes, I am in some sort of hellish allergy-limbo: it feels like someone or something has put some bricks on my chest and torso, I can’t see or can barely see, and it feels like my intestines are being vacuumed out of me — and the only thing I can do is wait for the medication to start working. I generally consider myself to be a patient person, but nothing will sap your patience like having to wait out a potentially life-threatening medical emergency.

And if that doesn’t work, I have to go to the next level, which is using epipenephrine, a self-contained steroid shot to be injected into the thigh in case my breathing is so severely compromised that I pass out or am in danger of not getting enough air into my lungs.

For these sorts of attacks, there is really no pat, inspirational or life-affirming end, so much as a screeching halt after the medication actually starts working. And this total lack of inspiration or an end in sight is also reflected in some of the responses I have gotten from many abled people in regards to my “allergy issues” (to be addressed in part two).