In your life certain events are more important than others. Going to secondary school, going to university, your first ‘proper’ job and buying a house for example. Your parents realise this and start preparing you from an early age, teaching you how to: feed yourself, do laundry, manage your money etc.
Whilst important, all of the above are not life threatening.
However, for an allergy sufferer, we have a potentially deadly addition to our lives.
I have personal experience of this. January 3, 2007 was the day my parents preparation was tested to it’s limits. It was completely unexpected and as horrendous as we had imagined. It changed my life forever .
From left to right: My brother, my Mum and me (Nina), I think Dad took this picture, while on a trip to Goa to visit the seaside.
——Let’s Start At The Beginning——
You see, I have anaphylaxis to tree and ground nuts. This means I have a potentially fatal allergy. This means I have to carry a medical kit with me at all times: adrenaline pens, inhalers and anti-histamines. My parents found out in the worst possible way too, I was too skinny as a baby as I was allergic to cow’s milk, so I was given a teeny weeny bit of peanut butter, within a few minutes I was covered in hives. There was no internet, no mobile phones. I was fine, but my parents were freaked out. Fast forward 3 years and I was diagnosed with a anaphylaxis to tree nuts and peanuts and have been carrying adrenaline pens ever since.
——Back To The Story——
Firstly, can I just say that traditional home-cooked Indian food is AMAZING and completely different to what you get in restaurants! The aromas! I wish I could capture them and attach it to this post for you! (I will be writing up some allergy free Indian recipes for you! Watch this space!)
Indian culture dictates that guests are extremely well looked after, it’s the same as in Spain: mi casa e su casa. It is all about hospitality but.… and it’s a big but… allergies are almost unheard of, especially among my grandparent’s generation.
It was coming to the end of a 4 week family trip in India. It had been a great trip, bringing relatives from England together with their extended family (Indians LOVE extended family connections!). It was a huge sprawling affair with lots of people to meet, being continuously fed, sight seeing and a spot of shopping. Thank goodness I was 16…had I been younger there would have been a serious amount of cheek pulling!
At the sides of the roads there were always fresh coconuts on sale. Rather than a service station, we would take a break and have fresh coconut water and then eat the coconut flesh from the insides. (A man with a very large knife would slice open the coconut!)
The last social call we made was to my Grandparent’s friends of over 50 years! More than triple my then age! A big lunch had been planned to celebrate more tenuous family extensions. It seems only a slight excuse is needed for a celebration in India! (A cultural characteristic I wholeheartedly love to indulge in!)
In preparation for this last family lunch, my parents and grandmother had been communicating with the host about my needs. She had been made aware of my allergy and there could be absolutely no nuts in the food.
We thought after multiple communications that this was understood.
This was the view from the road while on a trip to Ooty, a hill station in South India.
After all we had managed 4 weeks of eating at out at restaurants, travelling, and being fed by other family members. There were a couple close calls at restaurants but we would double or triple check with the staff. Those dishes that actually did nuts would be sent down the other end of the table and kept away from me, but otherwise with no incident.
The snacks before dinner were a traditional Indian snack which contained nuts. There were crisps next to the nuts. This was obviously a no-go area for me, so my Mum asked that I could have my own un-opened bag which was happily provided.
I was 16 and understood my allergy as best I could. I was wary of cross-contamination and I watched and listened checking for myself. However I think during this time I left a lot of the allergy checking to my parents. I was in a new country and at a new person’s house. Looking back, I feel that if I had had a more active role in my allergy care, asking questions and being more vocal, maybe the following incident would have been avoided…
When A Little Bit Is Too Much…
When lunch was ready all the dishes were laid out on the table. I was to sit next to my Grandfather at one end of the table. As I walked to my seat, my Mum and I noticed there were cashew nuts on top of the rice.
Errr…hang on a minute, we said no nuts…
Mum pointed this out.
Ok, I wasn’t going to have the rice, no problem.
My mum asked, “are there any other nuts anywhere else in the food?”
“No, no, there is nothing” the host said.
Ok then. Food time.
At this point in my life, the last major reaction I had had was when I was 9 months old. So I didn’t really have any idea what to look out for apart from what I had been told could happen.
I was served a plate of food with a taste of each of the dishes (there were lots to try!) and I started to eat. The first mouthful was delicious, the second divine! It was all SO GOOD!
Hmm that’s strange, am I getting ill? I feel like there is something at the the back of my throat, I can’t clear it.
My third mouthful continued to entice my palette.
As I finished chewing my fifth mouthful of food my Grandfather said “Nina, don’t eat the salad it has nuts.”
(The reason he could tell there were ground peanuts in the salad is because he doesn’t like it when it gets under his dentures.)
My Severe Allergic Reaction…
My lips began to swell.
My panic sent me into action stations: I needed to get this poison out of my body.
I sat on the cold tiled bathroom floor, face over the toilet, my finger as far down my throat as I could get it. I just remember thinking “If I can get this out of my body I would be ok, right?!”
I could feel my stomach screaming at me: “What have you put inside me?! Get it out! Get it out!”
My Mum held my hair back as I desperately tried to purge myself. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t make myself throw up. I started to freak out.
My stomach continued to scream. It was the worst stomach pain I have ever experienced. (Worse than any period pain – which once I have almost fainted from, had to go home from school and be dosed up on extremely strong painkillers for.)
But I had to get it together. I had to make decisions: first, piriton; second, do I use my Epipen?
My Mum sat with me as I took two piriton tablets. Hopefully that would help slow things down.
From the information I knew at the time, my Epipen was to be used if my throat started to close up. My throat was not closing up, I could still breathe. But I was scared.
I don’t like needles, but more than that, by using an adrenaline pen it seemed to confirm the situation was at its worst. That the worst could happen. That’s terrifying.
Ironically, you are scared to use this life saving medicine because it confirms the fact that your life needs saving. Maybe that’s just for the first time, what do you think?
I was feeling very nauseous. I wanted to throw up but I couldn’t make myself throw up.
I ignored everyone but my Mum and Dad. Anyone who was not going to do what I needed was ignored, they were irrelevant. My life is more important than other people’s feelings.
Did I want to go to hospital? Yes.
As we drove to the hospital I had a plastic bag on my lap. The bumps on the road made me feel really sick. I felt the nausea rising and my strength waning.
When we got to the hospital, I had to be carried in. One arm over my Mum, the other over the lady who had poisoned me. From my Mum’s view, she might as well experience what she’d done…
From this point on, time didn’t have value. I don’t know if it was hours or minutes I was in the hospital.
I was taken straight through and laid down on a bed. The doctors and nurses began attending to me. I felt weak. My stomach was still screaming. I didn’t have the strength to sit up.
It was probably quite obvious, I was very sick. I needed medicine and fast.
The nurse was trying to get a canula into my right hand, I turned away (I really hate needles). My Mum stood by my bedside as the nurse poked and prodded. It hurt, I didn’t like it. She kept trying. Why was it taking so long?!
She couldn’t get the canula in, they had to try a different place.
Sharp pokes again and again. Rather than the top of my hand, this time on the inside of my wrist, she was trying to get into the vein that runs up from your thumb.
Pierce, pierce, pierce.
Finally the canula was in, the sharp pain could stop.
But then there came a new sensation. A ferocious burning, forcing its way up my arm. Then again, like a molten fire. And a third time.
It was the medicine. If ever the phrase “coursing through my veins” had meaning, it was now. This fiery medicine was coursing through my veins.
Minutes or hours passed, I don’t know.
Worried people stood by my bed. I didn’t acknowledge them. I had no energy to make them feel better, to reassure them that I would be ok. To be quiet honest, I couldn’t have cared less at this point.
Then suddenly, I sat up. I could feel something welling up inside me. I was about to burst. Where was the plastic bag that I had had in the car?!
My eyes searched for it, where was it?!
This force inside of me was getting stronger.
It was at the end of the bed.
I could feel it pushing itself up inside of me, stronger and stronger. My body was tensing getting ready, and I could barely contain it.
I grabbed the bag.
I was like a dragon. A fiery force propelling its way up from my stomach, through my throat and out. It was like a river flowing and it didn’t want to stop. It was outside of my control.
My stomach kept pushing, my body doubled over, my throat began to burn. And still this fiery river propelled out.
When it was over, I fell back. Exhausted. I just lay there, semi-conscious. The burning in my stomach lessoned.
I just lay there. I didn’t panic, I didn’t think of life, or death. I just didn’t have the energy.
Looking back, the reaction was short. But the ramifications were not. From ingesting the peanuts to waking up the next morning, I threw up 4-5 times.
The reaction itself was not only stressful for my parents but it also happened the day before we were due to fly back to England. So as you can imagine, caring for their daughter as well as packing was not an easy task.
When we got back to England, I do remember I was famished. I happily tucked into the pizza we had ordered. The next day on the other hand, was a different story.
I didn’t feel well. I couldn’t eat. I felt exhausted. I tried to eat some bread and cheese but the cheese made me feel really sick. Milk and yoghurt made me feel sick. Meat made me feel sick.
For the next two weeks, all I could stomach was bread and fruit. I was also due to go back to school, but wasn’t strong enough or well enough until a week later.
By the middle of January I could just about eat milk, yoghurt and cheese. But I still couldn’t eat meat. It continued to make me feel sick. It took until the end of January for me to be eating properly again.
By January, even though I could eat properly, I was still scared of food. If anything had a warning on it I wouldn’t touch it. Even foods that seemed safe I would still be scared.
Every time I put food in my mouth, the first 5 minutes would be terrifying. I would just wait for a reaction to start, for the whole process to replay itself. Lips swelling, stomach screaming, exhaustion, and medicine coursing up my veins…
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger
It’s funny, you hear this phrase quite a lot but very few times can it be literally and figuratively true.
Physically, it took me 2 years to recover (because I caught every virus that went round school, including contracting Mononucleosis which took me off school for over a month), but mentally it forced me to take a different approach.
Being scared of food lasts for a relatively short amount of time because you get hungry. But, you have a choice, let the fear rule you or you rule the fear.
I decided that I wasn’t going to be ruled by fear. I had to start taking complete charge of my well being.
I had to take charge of my allergy and so began a new journey in my life.
This reaction, although really quite unpleasant made it clear that other peoples feelings are never as important as my life. It showed me I absolutely had to be able to look after myself by knowing how to cook, being able to make other people understand that I am serious when I say “no nuts,” but also that getting worked up over your allergy is no way to live. I realised that how I live is my responsibility and my choice.
I was not going to let my allergy rule me, I choose to make my world safe for me and my allergy.
What will you choose?