When I first heard this story, I knew I had to share it with all of you. You just never know when an allergic reaction can hit you. Thanks for reading. -Tarah
How ironic that something that’s supposed to save your life (and trust me, my helmet has done this) almost took my life. Except it wasn’t any fault in my helmet. It just had nut residue on it.
I’ve lived with life-threatening food allergies for more than 5 years now. I’ve gotten more doses of epinephrine than I can count unfortunately. Repeated exposure from me not being careful, or others around me not being careful, has resulted in my body becoming really sensitive. Thankfully my new allergist was able to start me on xolair due to having severe allergic asthma, and thankfully, the xolair has been helping to keep me out of the hospital. I still land in the ER on a frequent basis, but it’s kept me out of there more than I have been.
Through it all, I’ve been determined to not let being allergic to nuts (particularly almonds) keep me from work. Well, until 2 months ago. Working in retail around the holidays is a bad idea if you’re sensitive to airborne nuts. It’s an even worse thing when you work in a mall and have a café 20 feet away, which has almonds in 90% of what it sells. When I came for the interview back in August, I scoped out the mall, saw nothing of concern, and was thrilled for the new job. Till a few weeks later when we started having issues and I kept breaking out in a rash randomly. My boss pointed out the café. I thought I had stopped having airborne reactions, but being exposed too much set my body on edge and I wound up taking a ridiculous amount of Benadryl some days. I have no idea how I managed to still help customers when I was so sleepy from the Benadryl.
Two months ago I gave up my position as assistant manager and turned in my key. I stepped down to just a simple sales associate until I could make a non-benadryl-affected decision on whether I would stay there or not. A few minutes later I used my Auvi-Q and my boss called 911. I was barely moving any air, my face was red, I couldn’t talk, and my mouth was swollen. It was clear I couldn’t set foot in the mall ever again without ending up in the hospital. My boss grabbed most of my stuff and handed it to the EMS crew and off we went. Except my sneakers and helmet got left at work. The ambulance ride that ensued was one of the scariest ones I’ve ever had. I was so swollen and my lungs were so tight that I couldn’t breathe and was choking. Aware only of what was going on through what I could hear and feel, the EMTs started bagging me, trying to shove air down my almost non-existent airway. They realized I was turning blue. They pulled up at the ER, thankfully the extra epi they had given me started to kick in and I could start to breathe better.
The following day, I chose to quit the job, and refused to set foot in the mall for a long, long time. My mom said she would go retrieve my stuff a week later when she was by the mall. In the meantime, I used my old helmet when biking. Once I got my new helmet back, I was thrilled. I wore it on my 3.5 mile bike ride to church. I didn’t think at all about how my helmet had sat in the back room at work, been on the floor there, been around the mall, in the air that has nuts everywhere I turned, and stayed there for a week.
On my way to church, I had my mouth open and the wind blew the extra bit of strap beyond the buckle in my mouth. No biggie, I figured. Except I was wrong. My mouth started to itch and tingle. I was 2 minutes away from church at this point, I waited until I get there to hunt down the chewable Benadryl in my bag. I made it, locked Amelia (my bike), and walked inside. I was wheezing and gasping for air and ran into a friend who greeted me with “You’re still alive!!” I told her and another friend who is an EMR (both know about my allergies quite well by now) what happened. I took Benadryl, set my stuff down, and then before I sat down, grabbed my inhaler and went to the lobby to catch my breath as the service was starting. He looked at me and asked if I was ok. “I can’t catch my breath,” I explained, “I just biked 3.5 miles here.” “Ah,” he replied, and told me to let him know if it didn’t get better. I mentioned my mouth being itchy and feeling off, and he started to keep an eye on me. I sat there, waiting for the ventolin to kick in, and it did. But the feeling of my mouth starting to swell didn’t go away. So I sat there. And he kept coming by to check on me. He grabbed another friend who was a full EMT when I started indicating I might be in trouble.
He grabbed his bags of medical equipment and monitors. I remember him pulling out was a flashlight. “Open your mouth,” he said to me, shining his light in my mouth. He asked his friend to look, and she took one look and they both made a sound that I knew meant “Ok MC, it’s time for Epi.” I sighed. I knew my tongue was rather swollen and was only getting more swollen by the minute. But I still didn’t want epi. I couldn’t talk normally. “Do you have your Auvi on you?” I pulled it out of my pocket. “Can you do it or do you need help?” I tried pulling the cover off. I couldn’t. Under normal conditions I can. But I was recovering from breaking both elbows 3 months prior and I don’t have full arm/hand strength all the time yet. This was one moment where I didn’t have it.
I moved over on the couch, and my friend used it for me. His friend watched me as she went to call 911. As she watched me, I started mumbling about how I tend to start using ASL when I can’t speak well. She signed back, “No problem, I sign too”. That was a relief. I didn’t have to try to talk. I could let my hands be my voice. The swelling went down for a few minutes. Then started to go right back up. I signed to her, “I feel like I’m choking.” She looked at her watch and contemplated with my friend about using a second dose. We pulled it out and she was about to use it when the EMS crew showed up. The captain walked around the corner, took one look at me and said, “We meet again.”
You have no idea how much of a relief it was to see her. She knew me. She knew my history. I didn’t have to explain anything. She asked if it was the same as last time. I nodded, unable to speak or make a sound. She put her bag on the ground, opened it, and pulled out epi and drew up a larger dose than usual to give to me. All eyes were on her as she drew the epinephrine into the syringe. As soon as it was in, they helped me over to the stretcher, and wheeled me straight out to the waiting ambulance. My friend hopped in next to the driver, and she told the driver to just go. Most EMTs waste 5-10 precious minutes trying to start and IV. She knew better. She knew that it’s next to impossible to start an IV right after epi. She got monitors on me, and as the epi kicked in I started to explain, my tongue less swollen just enough to be understood, how my bike helmet had been the cause of this anaphylaxis. Then the swelling came back. And fast. She decided to round up on the weight/epi dose ratio and gave me a higher dose than before. The whole time she had been so focused on getting epi in me that she forgot to call ahead to the ER and tell them we were coming.
She remembered the last time she transported me how long it took the ER to do anything. She was determined that wouldn’t happen this time. She almost gave me more epi from HER stock while I was in the ER, except that the ER doc showed up just as she was getting it out. I don’t know how, but they got and IV in, and got the Benadryl in. I was still rather swollen but somehow between me, the EMT and my EMR friend, we managed to explain to the ER doc that my allergist really does NOT want me on steroids. She would rather have me on an epi-drip than on steroids. So he said we would hold off on them for now. It wasn’t till after the next dose of IV Benadryl 4 hours later than I could finally speak normally again. By then I had been admitted to the PCU, a step down from the ICU.
Over the next 3 ½ days, we were puzzled why the swelling would go away overnight, and then in the morning it would come back really bad and kept coming back every time the Benadryl would wear off. Finally 3 days later we figured it out. I had refused to eat anything that was cooked in the hospital kitchen. And since I couldn’t get food from home, the one thing they had that I thought was safe was the little individual serving containers of Silk soy milk, very vanilla flavor. Every time I drank it, the swelling would come back. Overnight when I was sleeping, I wasn’t drinking it, and the reaction would stay away. I read the label and realized that it was processed on the same equipment as their almond milk. And then I thought back to this summer when they had the scary recall because they had accidentally mislabeled some of their almond milk as soy milk.
Gulp. I explained this to my nurse, expecting her to think I was crazy. She looked at the label, agreed with me. She took the ones that were on the table next to my bed and tossed them in the trash. She then called dietary and told them to not send any more. Still, I had a few more rebounds from the trace almonds in my body, but I finally went home that evening. We somehow avoided steroids, though it had resulted in me staying admitted for longer. But I’ll gladly take extra epi and Benadryl over steroids ever since I broke both elbows due to osteoporosis from having been on steroids so frequently from being in the hospital so often the last 3 years. Oh, and throw in adrenal insufficiency in the mix and you have a pretty good idea why my allergist loathes steroids so much.
I don’t tell this story to scare people necessarily, though I realize that this may very well scare many parents of kids with food allergies. Rather, I’m sharing this to make a point that food allergies can be life-threatening, and that even trace amounts of an allergen can cause a potentially fatal reaction. Something as simple as a helmet strap that had nut residue on it that accidentally got blown by the wind into my mouth. (for the record, I gave my helmet a bath the other day so that it won’t cause another reaction like last week… and it must really have had nut residue on it as I had a mild reaction as I washed it. I probably should’ve put on gloves and a mask)
Not everyone with a nut allergy would react like my body does. Each immune system is ever so slightly different and most people with nut allergies can be around them fine. I can’t. But I’m not everyone.
If you’re allergic to nuts, be careful. Know your limits and don’t push them. Stay on guard, but don’t totally freak out.
There are times when you go through something and you don’t even know how to process what you’ve gone through… like when your helmet, which is supposed to protect and keep you alive, ends up almost costing your life. Now don’t get me wrong. I ALWAYS wear a helmet when I ride my bike and ALWAYS will. It’s saved my brother’s life, two of my best friends’, and mine when we were kids. But sometimes, having something that’s supposed to save your life almost kill you… it comes as the thing you least expect and throws your brain for a loop as you try to process what happened.
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If you are interested in sharing your story, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org Than you -Tarah
Author: Tarah Jakubiak
After working for 20 years in the corporate world, Tarah Jakubiak founded Allergic Traveler. Jakubiak, president of Allergic Traveler has traveled the world since the age of two. She has been to 25 countries and 34 states. Jakubiak has been to all inclusives, gone on cruises, gone camping; backpacking through Europe, gone to the big cities, and little hidden gems. She has multiple food allergies but it does not stop her from seeing the world. Jakubiak is allergic to eggs, nuts, mushroom, soy, garlic, corn, sesame, potatoes, celery, shellfish, chicken, pork, peanuts, and many fruits. She is originally from Montreal, Quebec and now lives in Greensboro, NC with her husband.