Yesterday I had a very frightening experience. I’m sharing it here, partly as a reflective entry, and partly because if it encourages one person who reads this post to take their own allergy a bit more seriously then it will have been worth it.
Since I was about 8 years old I have been allergic to Nuts. When I was 8 years old, no one was allergic to anything (!) so I think my mother had to push quite hard for a referral to an allergy specialist in a Central London Hospital. Here I had a series of tests (we have much more accurate ones today) and was confirmed as severely allergic to Brazil Nuts, Hazelnuts and Peanuts, and moderately allergic to walnuts and all the rest. I was prescribed an epi-pen which I expect most of you know is an auto-injecting adrenaline device. Through my childhood my mother diligently refilled my prescriptions for this epipen, but I never had to use it. By trial and error I learned what to avoid (i.e. doesn’t say it contains nuts, but often has nut oil eg all Belgian chocolate, cheesecakes bases, some curries, expensive desserts, etc etc) I never had a severe reaction (by my standards) because I always had an early warning signal that something contained nuts – severe tingling and itching in my lips and tongue, so I stopped eating it. Usually I would then be sick, and apart from taking some antihistamines and steroids for a day or two, everything would be ok.
I, as an adult, stopped bothering with an epipen, I’d never used it, they go out of date really quickly and I’m busy ….
Yesterday I went to a meeting, and at the beginning the Chair handed out some biscuits that he had bought specially. I chose one without chocolate chunks (see above), and didn’t check the packet. I didn’t even want the blasted biscuit and took it only to be polite. I ate the whole thing, two bites really – and only THEN did the tingling start. Lulled into a false sense of security by my relatively contained reaction in the past, I foolishly decided to stay in the meeting. My lips swelled, I developed swelling round the eyes, my soft palate at the roof of my mouth was so swollen I could barely talk, but I stayed ( Why ??) By the end of the meeting, about 50 mins after ingestion, I was bright red and although not struggling to breathe, I realised I needed some medication.
So I drove about 5 mins up the road to the local health center where there is a pharmacy, got some antihistamines which I took, then decided they were unlikely to ‘cut it’ in terms of getting on top of a IgE medicated anaphylactic reaction, so I trawled the corridors looking for GP I knew. Really doctors never learn. I found a colleague, he gave me a prescription for some steroids, I collected them from the pharmacy, took them immediately and sat down for about 30 minutes. At the end of that time the intense itching had started to subside, and my soft palate was less swollen. Still no problems breathing apart from a slight wheeze, definitely no airway obstruction.
I decided to go back to work, about 15 minutes drive away. Walked to my car, started out, and about 1/2 way realised I couldn’t see properly, there was a definite feeling that I was about to pass out, and I really felt very unwell indeed. I tried to subdue these symptoms by sheer force of will. It didn’t work. In fact it got worse. I vomited, completely unexpectedly, all over my (new) car. My dizziness got worse and I really thought I was going to faint. I have never ever fainted… I pulled into a side street, lay down – thank goodness for modern cars with a push button seat relaxer …vomited again, again no warning (YUK) and tried to think what to do.
Had I been my own patient, I would have called 999 without hesitation. I should have called 999. But I didn’t. I called a colleague… Duh! Fortunately she had the presence of mind to call the emergency services who arrived about 3 minutes later to rescue me. Even after they had assessed me and I was able to initially sit up – about 30 mins later and then stand up, about 45 mins later; I refused their suggestion to take me to hospital. Did I NEED to go ? Well I’m still here, so strictly speaking I guess not, but I’m sort of realising that this might be more due to good luck than judgement.
Today I’m chastened, tired, aching all over, headache-y and honestly a bit scared. I don’t know why my ‘failsafe’ early warning system that has served me so well for the last 44 years should have failed, and it scares me. Because I know what the consequences were from eating a small biscuit, what might they had been if I had eaten two? Or if I again eat something that contains nuts and I DON’T KNOW till its too late…
I now have two epipens and will get a third later today. One thing I will promise myself, If this happens again I will be a LOT less cavalier about the whole thing …