A few months after the first hospital dash, my sister threw a dinner party to celebrate moving into her new home. The evening had already descended into farce as her cooker had blown up before we’d arrived so she was forced to nip next door to prepare the main meal in her neighbour’s oven. Impressively, she managed to muddle through and all four of us had a good laugh about it as she served up the starter, which was a salad of green leaves, halloumi, pomegranate and balsamic vinegar.
I took one mouthful and became aware of an immediate itching – a sign of an allergic reaction – in my throat. I popped an antihistamine to be on the safe side. It seemed to do the trick. Except, a few hours’ later on the 15-minute drive home, my tongue began to expand at an alarming rate. Initially, it felt as though it were ‘in the way’, but by the time I reached my front door it had swollen to an enormous size and barely fitted inside my mouth.
I didn’t know it at the time but I was having what is known as a ‘secondary reaction’. As I opened the front door I felt dreadfully light-headed and dropped to the hallway floor; my blood pressure was plummeting. By now swallowing had become difficult; my breathing laboured. I grabbed the phone and dialled 999 but it took forever to get my words out.
“Was I about to suffocate to death on my own? It certainly felt that way.”
Somehow the very patient operator understood what was happening and urged me to use an auto-adrenaline injector (commonly known as an Epi-Pen). Except I hadn’t been prescribed one. “Is anyone with you?” she asked. “I – live – alone,” I replied in between gasps for air. “Open the front door now,” she instructed. “The ambulance is on its way.” Terrified, I started to cry. Is this what suffocation felt like? Was I about to die on my own? It certainly felt that way.
I counted every one of those ten minutes spent waiting for the medics to arrive. They set to work immediately, administering adrenaline before rushing me to the hospital. The conclusion was anaphylaxis.
Again, steroids were prescribed and I was told I’d need to see the immunologist again at a later date.
So I waited patiently for my appointment to come through. Eventually, I returned for another set of skin prick tests for suspected food allergens as doctors tried to pinpoint the cause of my attacks. Again, the results came back negative. Why could we not find the trigger? My immunologist explained it was like searching for a “needle in a haystack” before adding that weird reactions like these can often disappear as quickly as they start. I held onto this hope. It soon faded.
“Each episode would affect my airway: either my tongue would swell or my throat would close up.”
Just when I thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse, the allergic reactions began happening EVERY DAY. Each episode affected my airway: either my tongue would swell up, my throat would close or both. Occasionally the reactions would be accompanied by an intolerable itching all over my skin and they’d occur for no rhyme or reason; in my sleep, on an empty stomach, when I got hot, and, I eventually deduced, when I ate certain foods; namely fruit – which being a non-meat eater translated to half my diet – marmite, vinegar, mature cheese and alcohol. Yet again the skin prick tests returned negative.
A daily double dose of long-acting antihistamine was prescribed to try and calm my overactive immune system, alongside fast-acting tablets to take at the first sign of a reaction as well as an auto-injector adrenaline pen, which I was instructed to carry on me at all times. This was to be used if the other drugs failed to work and I was struggling to breathe or speak.
“I was instructed to carry an auto-injector adrenaline pen at all times.”
By now I’d become too scared to eat and operated in a state of constant drowsiness – a side effect of the medication. My GP told me to rest. I didn’t and pushed on. Being self-employed and with a mortgage to pay, I was forcing myself to work every spare minute to make up for all the time and money I’d lost through the revolving door of hospital appointments. I became a virtual recluse and felt utterly exhausted.
Questions whizzed around my head. Why was my previous good health falling apart at such an alarming speed? Why were the specialists unable to tell me what was going on? At least if I knew what I was reacting to I could regain a sense of control. Not knowing made me anxious.
Alongside this, I was also undergoing a number of MRI scans because between the first and second allergic reaction, my right foot mysteriously stopped working… Read here.