"...This is how I'm going to die, isn't it?"
Two Saturdays ago I had just finished eating half of a pomelo in my mom's kitchen in New Jersey when I felt the beginnings of a severe allergic reaction.
It was day six of a two-week restricted food allergy diet as recommended by my allergist about...nine months ago. Yup. I waited a while on that one. I kept putting it off since it was hard to find a two-week period where I could easily abstain from eating herbs, spices, seafood, onions, chocolate, nuts, and garlic, among a few other things that I had no problem cutting out because I rarely ingested them in the first place (caffeine and alcohol). The other reason I didn't try it earlier was because after months of recording my allergic reactions to food, I couldn't tell exactly what I was allergic to. I had scratch tests for just about everything; positive results were all environmental-related (dust mites, cats, seemingly every tree pollen), with nothing conclusive related to food.(I've been getting regular allergy shots since last spring for pollen.) There were some food-related patterns—spicy food, fried food, pizza (PIZZA?!)—but these foods didn't trigger reactions every time I ate them.
I finally got down to it because about two weeks ago I had an allergic reaction from eating spicy instant noodles (yeah, dumb choice)—not a severe reaction, but an asthma-triggering one that made me want to curl into a ball on my bed for a few minutes—and I realized there would never be a two-week period where I could easily follow my doctor's diet.
And so about three weeks ago, I followed it. I messed up a few times when I ate out with my mom, but by cooking most of my own food it was easy to avoid everything on the "do not eat" list. If I didn't have any allergic reactions during those two weeks, then...great! Sort of. And if I did, it would be much easier to pin down the cause than if I weren't on the diet.
When I reacted to the pomelo, the cause was obvious. I had eaten nothing else that day. It was definitely you, Pomelo. After finishing half the pomelo, my throat started feeling itchy. The area under my tongue got a bit swollen. My breathing became a bit more labored. I went to my room to get my inhaler even though I learned from previous experience it wouldn't help.
I sat at the edge of my bed. My breaths became more wheeze-laden, rapid, and labored. My body temperature rose—I took off my pants and sweater and continued sweating. I coughed up mucus. I wheezed harder. Every cough made each breath harder to take. Repeat [x] a blagillion.
I decided this would be the time to try those pricey Epi-pens that had been sitting in my bag for months. I'd been carrying two Epi-pens with me since I used one in Norway last February, when I had a severe allergic reaction to a hot dog. That hot dog was the third time I had had a severe allergic reaction. The pomelo was the ninth time. I hadn't used the Epi-pens at all during the reactions in between because I always felt, perhaps foolishly, that I had things under control. I got used to the reactions and could tell when it was just shy of "really bad" or beyond.
The pomelo reaction felt like it was approaching beyond. I wasn't surprised; my asthma was at an all time worst and I had never before had a severe allergic reaction when my lungs were that unwell. I wasn't in great shape at my mom's place—I was coughing more than I should've, my body trying its best to get mucus out of my lungs despite the consequence of asthma. My asthma starting getting worse during my vacation in Norway. Shortly before my trip, I unsuccessfully tried to refill my prescription of Symbicort (asthma management medication), which was when I found out that my insurance company limits how many refills of Symbicort they'll cover in order to make you switch to a cheaper brand, but also limits how much of the medication you can buy at a pharmacy so that you'll buy it from a mail-order pharmaceuticals company instead.
...Yeah, I shouldn't be complaining about health insurance. I'm really glad I have it, trust me. I just wish it hadn't taken me a few weeks to sort out the medication order.
I brought an Epi-pen to the bathroom. Before sitting down I looked in the mirror for the first time since the onset of lungfail—the color seemed to be draining from my lips a bit. I gingerly removed the Epi-pen from its plastic tube and mulled over the instructions much longer than necessary. They're incredibly easy: Remove blue tab. Position over side of thigh. STABBOS! Even though the needle-in-your-thigh thing is nothing compared to the barely-breathing thing, I still had to psych myself up for it.
And then...dammit, nothing happened. I rolled the Epi-pen around in my hands and noticed a key bit of information; it had expired last November. FFFFFUUUUUU.
My lung construction didn't let up. If anything, it seemed to get worse. It was around this time I had that, "This is how I'm going to die, isn't it?" thought. I mean, I didn't really think I was going to die, but it was the worst reaction I had ever had and the most scared I had ever been by a reaction—scared like, "What if I don't live long enough to have my own family? Will I see Kåre again? What if I die before my mom dies? AHHHHH." For some reason the other eight reactions didn't properly whip up my fear of death.*
I broke out Epi-pen number two—this one didn't expire until March. Thank the lord. Time to stabbos again. (Not on purpose, I picked a spot less than an inch from the first stab; soon after I found out if you jab yourself really hard with a blunt—I mean, blunt with a small needle at the end—plastic rod two times in nearly the same spot, you will end up an especially aching, stinging bruise.)
And then...dammit, nothing happened again. WHY, POMELO, WHY? When I had my reaction in Norway I thought I may have used the pen wrong, but this time I was sure I used it correctly.
After that, all I could do was wait. Wait while each inhalation felt like a steamroller squeezing the dregs of life from every meager air molecule my feeble lungs could carry. As usual, the reaction ran its course after about 40 minutes. (I look at my watch constantly during these reactions—it makes me feel better.) I didn't return to normal right away after the 40 minutes ran out, but I could at least talk in between wheezy breaths.
If you're wondering what my mom was doing this whole time, I suspect she was silently freaking out. This was the second time she had ever seen me have a severe reaction (she's also seen a few mild ones), and in these situations you have two options: Let it runs its course, or go to the hospital. If I felt like I had to go to the hospital, I would've told her. Later she told me she felt helpless. :C
After the reaction, my brother came over and we all went out for dinner. I felt fine by this point and, dammit, I wanted to have a nice dinner with my family.
The pomelo reaction made me type up a document of all my allergic reactions up until that point. I had written my reactions down in two notebooks, but never compiled them. Yesss, I should've done it earlier—point that wagging finger right at me. I brought my three-page list of reactions to the allergist's office last Friday, showed them to a new doctor (just because my original one wasn't there that day), and after taking a quick look at them she asked me if anyone told me I may have acid reflux.
Well...no, no one did. I suppose because I had never brought in a descriptive list of reactions, but I did tell my original doctor about some of my reactions, and they did test me for allergies with no conclusive results. So, honestly, I think someone could've brought up acid reflux earlier, even though the acid reflux I might have isn't the kind that feels like acid reflux.
The doctor gave me a list of foods to avoid:
- I haz discontent.
Apparently, the list was ripped out of My First Coloring Book of Dietary Restrictions.
The doctor told me Epi-pens don't work with acid reflux-triggered actions. Welllll, ain't that exactly what I didn't want to hear. I had seen that as my only safety net. She prescribed me acid reflux medication along with a prescription for Epi-pens, just in case I have a food-related allergic reaction.
But I've gotten to the point where I'm fed up with being this unhealthy, with being so at risk of having a fatal allergic reaction, with having to rely on drugs that I'm not confident I can rely on (nor do I want to rely on them). I'm thankful (and surprised) I'm not in worse shape, but I want to be better than this, and I know I can get better. It just requires a shift in habits.
...Okay, a big shift.
...Okay, a big dietary shift.
I'm not sure how many times I've mentioned this on my blog, but the reason I got into food was because for a short time during my teenage years I followed a raw food diet and was obsessed with nutrition. ...Yeah, quite the opposite of where I ended up. I started the raw food diet in the beginning of 2003 (second semester of 12th grade) and did it for one and a half years (until the end of freshman year of college). I wasn't a better person then, nor a happier person, but I have no doubt I was a healthier person.
If you think a raw food diet is crazy, I don't blame you. I'm not a nutritionist, obviously, so I can't sway you with facts and figures, and I wouldn't suggest that a raw food diet is for everyone—it's not. But it did help me during those one and a half years, if my results are any sort of proof: I didn't have asthma for the first time since I was a kid, I didn't have perpetually clogged sinuses, and I actually had a modicum of physical endurance. (This isn't to say I didn't still have some health issues, but whatever they were, they weren't nearly as bad as the problems I had lost.) I could run a mile on a treadmill without much problem; these days I get winded just walking up a flight of stairs. I'm not trying to make it sound like a miracle diet—it shouldn't be a miracle to have a fairly healthy body that does what it's supposed to— but some of the stuff I could do then would be unimaginable to me now.
Anyhoo, despite what I just said, I don't plan on doing a raw food diet again. There was always a cloud of stress hanging over me as I obsessed over whether or not I was doing the diet "right" (and I probably wasn't; I found I wasn't much of a fan of raw vegetables so I mostly ate fruits and nuts), and, as I said, that diet didn't make me the happiest person. I rarely ate with other people, and during my first semester of college I preferred spending my weekends in New Jersey with my mom instead of staying on campus and attempting to become friends with my classmates—you know, what normal freshmen are supposed to do. Easy to say, I didn't have a typical freshman experience. (I was much less hermit-like during my second semester when I got a job in campus.)
But I'm glad I did it or else I wouldn't have transferred to NYU for food studies and eventually end up working at Serious Eats. Even if the Serious Eats view (well, not just Serious Eats) that you should be able to eat whatever you want in moderation doesn't seem to be working for me. Or maybe I'm not doing the "moderation" thing correctly. Probably not.
So if I'm not going the extreme raw food route, what am I doing? I'm starting by cutting out spicy food, fried food, pizza, and wheat products, cutting down on anything too greasy or fatty, non-wheat grains, and refined sugar, and eating more fruits and vegetables. These changes are based on previous foods that have triggered allergic reactions, my doctor's suggestions, and nutritional advice for people with asthma. I'm okay cutting out most cookie and cake-like desserts, but I don't plan on totally cutting out ice cream and chocolate just because I already eat them sparingly and they pack a whoooole lotta joy into every calorie. ...I need to hold on to something.
So for the time being, I'm definitely not the girl who eats everything. :( (But I ate everything already, right? Eh? Uh?) I'll make exceptions for special occasions and vacations, but I'd like to keep on track for the next few months and see how it goes. That means eating out less often (I'd feel better preparing my own food) and not eating the tons of random foodstuffs at work. (I mean, aside from the 20 flavors of Jeni's ice cream we tasted the other day. Um. Yeah I ate those.)
On the bright side, I'm cooking way more than I ever have before! So far my favorite cooking method is "chop up a bunch of vegetables and shove 'em in the oven." ...Yes, I plan on learning more than that. Methinks I'll get better acquainted with 101 Cookbooks.
And...that's...the end. I'll definitely keep blogging—I have a big backlog of posts from last year I still have to write. (AW YEAH I KNEW THAT WOULD COME IN HANDY not really like this but whatever.) I'm sorry if I'm letting down people with this change in diet from, "Yay, I eat everything!" to, "Now my eating habits are super boring," but I really like breathing and not having to rely on drugs to do it, and I'd really like to not worry that my lungs are going to poop out before I turn 30. Hope y'all understand.
To lighten the mood, here's a doodle I drew today for the always-worthy-of-a-doodle Bravetart:
- That bunny is propelled by the power of rad.