Editor’s note: Looking back, it’s pretty wild that I’m able to still sit here and write this out.
I will always remember the first time I went and got an allergy test. While the appointment itself is stressful enough with all of the different examination processes, leaving with some answers brings upon a sense of a clarity, but also spine-shivering fear.
Many are fortunate enough to leave the doctors’ offices being told they have a minor allergy to something more avoidable such as an animal, a fragrance, a rare food, or even a type of material. Others, such as myself, are not so lucky. At around age 5 years old, my family and I learned that I was officially allergic to tree nuts, and warned that my reaction, if consumed, would not be so minor. For years following, my allergy would become essential to me as that of a second wallet. Wherever I went, whatever I ate, I always had to be cautious about the possible food options around me. From big, expensive restaurants with unfamiliar dishes, to my own grandmother’s living room where almonds, walnuts, or pecans would be out for guests, I was turned into a walking caution sign.
As two decades went by of being reaction-free, my hazard signs started to dim. At one point, it even seemed like the coast was clear for my health, as I dabbled in items that displayed “may contain nuts” or “processed on equipment that also processes tree nuts” on their labels. I was able to indulge in some of my favorite things in the world, with one of them being chocolate, and carry on with life as normal, despite some ingredient lists warning of otherwise. Soon, I got cocky with my risk-taking, and stopped asking waiters and restaurants what was in their outside dessert items. I didn’t seem to be concerned with the little flakes that I found on common salads, baked goods, or finger foods. I started leading a life of trying new things without care, and I was happy to be able to break out of my simplistic, restricted taste buds. Up until a week ago, I convinced myself I might have been lucky enough to “grow out of” my allergy, and stopped carrying around my epi-pen. Unfortunately, I got the brutal wake-up call my body and mind desperately needed.
On the evening of Tuesday, July 12, my perspective on my body, and life, changed forever. I went to dinner with a few friends at one of my favorite food spots in Manhattan. After craving their specialty burger and lobster for weeks, it was heavenly to finally embrace my favorite cuisine. The evening of dining was going without flaw up until the waiter came over and offered a free dessert option. With my love for chocolate, the gelato option sounded too good to be true, and I quickly learned that it was. The waiter graciously let me pester him twice about any possible tree nuts being in the delectable dessert item, where he assured me it was in the clear, despite the suspicious appearance of the crumb toppings.
The first bite I took was delicious, but immediately triggered an alarming sense that swept throughout my body. I knew right away that something wasn’t right. I ruled it out as my own paranoia, which, in the past, has led to falsified reactions in my body. Unfortunately, this reaction was all too real, and I would soon learn the emergency it truly was. While leaving the restaurant, my tongue started to become inflamed, and my throat became a bit tighter. Continuing to rule out the option of the worst case scenario I had already spent 25 years avoiding, I proceeded with the evening. Within the hour, I made my way to a concert venue to check out a music showcase with some friends. By the time I entered the building, I rushed to the bathroom to find my hands swelling, and my asthma flaring up. Unbeknownst to me, my asthma turned out to be my throat actually closing, as the inhaler failed to help, which alerted me that this was much more serious than I could comprehend. Within minutes, my lip started swelling up to twice its size, leading me to finally make what I believed to be a more conscious decision to take a Benadryl and go home to sleep.
The train ride back uptown would be one of misery, and a serious reality check. Three stops in, my hands were nearly twice their size with swelling, and soon, my face started feeling numb. I opened up the selfie mode on my phone’s camera, and hardly recognized myself as my eyes, nose, and cheeks were completely puffed up. I noticed my adrenaline was pumping at an alarming rate, and no matter how deeply I breathed, I couldn’t get enough air to make my heart slow down. It was then, I knew, I was in serious trouble. I had to get to a hospital, and as quickly as I could.
I managed to get myself out of the 59th St. Columbus Circle stop on the 1 train swiftly enough for no one to notice my altered facial features. With the last bit of energy I had left, I rushed over two blocks to the hospital, and found myself weakening within a few feet from the door. By the time I made it inside the emergency room, I started to collapse, alerting the front desk that I needed help. From one look at my face, they immediately took me into the resuscitation room, letting the medical team know that I was having a severe allergic reaction. As I got onto the stretcher, at least 5 or 6 other doctors and nurses flooded into the room. Before I knew it, things started to become blurry, and I felt my throat approaching almost a full close.
Within a matter of seconds, an IV was inserted into my left forearm by a nurse as a doctor told me that they had to inject me with epinephrine, which is the equivalent of the average epi-pen. The doctor warned me that my heart was going to beat at an extremely high level in order for my airways to open up and give me more oxygen. While I at least got a warning, what I wasn’t prepared for, however, was what that would actually do to my whole body. As I breathed through an oxygen tank, my heart rate increased significantly within the next minute. Soon, my body began to have uncontrollable spasms, my mind felt like it was spinning, and there was no way to calm any of it down. Imagine being injected with a severe panic attack straight into your body. That’s the most accurate depiction of experiencing epinephrine entering your system, and the highly uncomfortable sensation lasts for at least 10-20 minutes. The good news for me, however, was that my eyes, lips, and burning rash went away almost instantly. It was a sign that the medicine was working, and that I had a second chance at life. Unfortunately, it also meant that I would be spending the evening in the ER, as protocol requires at least 6 hours of monitoring to make sure the body doesn’t rebound.
After resuscitation, I was able to be moved to a regular sectioned off room in the ER, and was met by my father, who had one of the most traumatized looks on his face that I will never, ever forget. From one look in his eyes, I knew that this incident was much more serious than my naive mindset had been downplaying it to potentially be for years. The rest of the night in the emergency room would be filled with flashbacks to the times I doubted how authentic my allergies really were, and how heart-stopping the text to my dad that read, “Having a severe allergic reaction. Going to the hospital now,” truly was. While it took me about an hour or two for my body to fully calm down from the epinephrine injection, and another two for me to shake off this horrific experience, I showed signs that my body did not require extra steroids.
By 3:00 A.M., I was ready to be discharged after a long evening of grief. As my family and I departed the hospital still a bit shaken, we knew that I was going to have to make a shift in my lifestyle. My life had been saved, but it was not cured. This is something I have to carry with me for the rest of my life.
It’s time to put much more trust in my gut instinct, and take it away from waiters, ingredient lists, and peers without allergies themselves. If you don’t have an allergy, don’t rule out those that do. Do not take the statement “I am severely allergic to…” lightly by any means. These life-or-death scenarios are very much real, and they can come at any time, at any place, and from anything.
If you have a severe allergy, you will always fear the day that any of this could happen to you. Don’t be afraid to speak up and embrace that paranoia, no matter what the surroundings. Keep people around you that can help, and carry your emergency tactics (Benadryl, epi-pens, inhalers, etc.) with you at all times. You never know when the day may come that you find yourself in that resuscitation room, regretting having taken that “just this one time” risk. Prevent yourself from playing Russian Roulette with your life.