A Matter of Life and Death

food allergies

Jan. 22, 2014 was the last time I cheated death.

I was out to lunch with some friends at a restaurant I’ve been to several dozen times. I considered it “safe” for this reason.

But that particular day, something was different, and it almost cost me my life. While there, I had a life-threatening allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) due to cross-contamination of the food I ate with an item I’m allergic to. Although I am very diligent in reading menus and talking to my servers, cross-contamination remains out of my control. I have to rely on the knowledge and training of employees, and it is a risk I take every time I eat in a restaurant. 

Anaphylaxis is a severe and sudden allergic reaction. It occurs within minutes of exposure to an allergen. If not treated appropriately, anaphylaxis can turn deadly within 15 minutes. Basically, your body releases a lot of chemicals intended to combat the allergen, which sets off a chain reaction of symptoms.

These initial symptoms – and I experienced all of them -- include:

  • Chest tightness or discomfort.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Cough.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Difficulty swallowing.
  • Skin redness.
  • Itchiness.
  • Slurred speech.
  • Mental confusion.

I injected myself with an EpiPen (I always carry two in my purse) to counteract the anaphylactic reaction. Someone called 911, and I spent the next several hours in the emergency room. Along with my EpiPen, I received anti-nausea meds, steroids, a nebulizer treatment to help get my breathing under control and oxygen. The after-effects are very unpleasant, and each reaction I have is worse than the last.

Growing up with these food allergies was difficult, and it still is today. My mom could not cook fish for fear I’d have a reaction. There were no nuts in our house.  I will never go to a Red Lobster, and visiting countries where fish is a main staple is out of the question. I’ve had to leave restaurants where the odor of fish was prevalent because I would start having a reaction.

I do a lot of label reading, and due to legislation that passed several years ago, all food products are required to have allergen labeling on them. The next time you buy something, read the label. You’d be surprised at what is in there. There is a beef au jus product that actually contains fish.  Who would ever think beef au jus would have fish in it?

My co-workers in Commercial/Farm Ranch have been great when it comes to my allergies. They have asked a lot of great questions. a staff meeting I demonstrated how to use an EpiPen correctly in the event I have a reaction at work and cannot use it myself. They are becoming very allergy-aware, and I appreciate all their efforts so I can come to work in a safe environment.

Learning about food allergies is a lifelong process, and it affects more and more people every year. If you have a co-worker who has a severe food allergy, take it seriously and take the time to learn about how to help have a safe work environment.  Learn to read labels when bringing treats from home so everyone can have a taste. Be aware of cross-contamination in your own kitchen when bringing in homemade treats.

I’d love to hear what experiences you’ve had with people who have life-threatening allergies. Do you have allergies yourself? What precautions do you take?

Each day I wake up is a gift that I’ve been given … even Mondays! Carpe diem!

by Gwen Plein on Tue, Aug 05 2014 9:04 am
Posted by Gwen Plein on Tue, Aug 05 2014 9:04 amGwen Plein is a Performance Analytics and Reporting Analyst for American Family Insurance.


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