When I was a toddler my mom had a button that she would pin on my shirt that said: “Don’t Feed Me, I’m Allergic.” I had given my parents a few good scares that ended up with me in the hospital. As I grew older, my food allergies became a matter of course, reactions became less severe and I stopped taking them so seriously.
I can practically hear parents of allergic kids take a deep breath right now. What you are about to read next, you won’t like either.
By the time I was in my late 20s, I had let my epinephrine auto-injector expire. I had stopped carrying antihistamines at all times and I had stopped listing every one of my allergies to restaurant servers.
Careless With Order
I learned how foolish I was in the fall of 2014. My boyfriend and I went out for dinner ahead of my shift bartending at a corporate dinner. I ordered tacos, letting the server know about my dairy allergy, since I presumed that would be the only concern about my order. I asked to have the dish made without cheese.
The tacos arrived with cheese. Not a big deal, they replaced them with a fresh order. I credited the spice of the tacos with the tingling sensation in my throat and the burning feeling on my lips.
A thought crossed my mind, “this reminds me of when I was little and I would eat something I was allergic to.” Foolishly, I pushed that worry aside. It had easily been two decades since I’d last had a severe reaction. In my denial, I kept eating my tacos.
After we left the restaurant, I felt unwell, but soldiered on, blaming my symptoms on the spiciness of the tacos. I got to the venue and began to put my things away in the change room.
As I leaned over to change my shoes, everything shifted. I couldn’t breathe. My body felt flushed, my eyes were watering and itching like mad, my ears felt as though they were blocked.
I grabbed my asthma inhaler out of my bag and took a puff. As I dug through my purse, I realized that I didn’t have any antihistamines, and my auto-injector was long expired. I went to my supervisor and told her I needed to go to the nearest store for allergy medication.
Friend Drove Me to ER
The cashier at the store looked slightly panicked as I wheezed out my request for Claritin. I took the medication and returned to the venue, but it didn’t seem to make a difference. Every inch of my skin became uncontrollably itchy. I went into the women’s bathroom, lifted my shirt and was horrified to see that my entire torso was covered in hives.
Trying not to panic, I went and sat in the staff kitchen. I will always remember turning my hands over and noting that, in a completely new symptom for me, my palms were a flaming red color. It was this sign that finally spurred me into action. I had dealt with hives, asthma attacks, itchy eyes and stomach aches, but this was uncharted territory for me.
All of you will groan when I admit that I did not call an ambulance. Foolish, right? Instead I had a co-worker drive me to the emergency room, where I was quickly rushed to a bed. I had electrodes attached to my chest and an IV of Benadryl. Eight plus hours and much IV later, I was allowed to leave the hospital.
Foolish But So Lucky
My boyfriend had called the restaurant, convinced the kitchen had simply scraped the cheese of my tacos. I had my doubts about that. We decided to look at the list of ingredients the restaurant sent over and there, nestled in the list, was one word: peanuts.
I had never actually eaten peanuts before. My parents had taken for an allergy test as a child and peanuts had shown up on the test. Yet, I had managed to avoid peanuts all my life, until this night.
I was incredibly lucky. The emergency room doctor told me in no uncertain terms that I need to have an auto-injector on my person at all times, and that epinephrine, not an antihistamine, was the drug to reach for with multiple symptoms. And so now, I carry not one, but two auto-injectors.
I’ve come to realize that I am not in fact invincible. These days, I always inform servers of all my allergies, since you never know about the ingredients or food cross-contact. Where I was foolish before with my allergies, now I think it’s better to be overly thorough than to wind up in the hospital.
Sarah White is an actor and writer based in Toronto, Canada.