Remember the chapter in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas that starts, “We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold”? I was having a similar experience. Only it wasn’t the desert near Barstow, it was Highway 50 outside of Linn Missouri. And it wasn’t drugs. It was a chili-cheese-dog. And it was killing me.
At the time, my work as an adjunct at multiple community colleges had me driving about 500 miles a week. Coming back to Columbia from one of my teaching jobs, I had stopped in Linn at a Sonic-type diner where I ate a chili cheese dog and a chocolate malt before getting back on the road for home.
To be clear, I knew the chili-cheese dog was a risk, because at this point in my life I had been very ill for two and a half years, with a multitude of gross & painful symptoms – mostly after eating — and had spent a great deal of time and effort and money trying to find the cause. Initially, I had constant headaches that lasted all day long, but not the migraines that Doctor #3 attempted to diagnose. Different symptoms had started to pile up and I went through seven doctors in two years and got nine different diagnoses. One woman with a particularly prickly bedside manner had suggested, “Well blood tests are normal so at this point it’s either cancer or AIDS.” Neat. By the height of it I had been keeping a food journal for about a year and had created a spreadsheet of all of my symptoms. At the worst I was consuming about 500 cal per week and most of that was PBR. I lost 35 pounds in two months. (In case you were wondering, this is not a very healthy way to lose weight.)
After the suspect chili-cheese-dog, I got in the car and got back on the road. About the time I crossed the 63 bridge over the Missouri River, I started to feel a little weird.
My chest hurt.
Slowly at first, and in the center.
Then worse. Like a cinderblock on my ribs.
Then really bad. Sharp, shooting pain.
The chest pain moved over to the left side.
And then my left arm went numb.
I started freaking out, and then I started having trouble breathing.
My face began to go numb, my lips and eyelids seized uncontrollably, and my ears started ringing.
My field of vision narrowed until I had no peripheral vision at all.
I was driving 70 miles an hour down Highway 63 with quickly tightening tunnel vision.
I think it would be no surprise to anybody that I was, at this point, starting to panic. I was twenty seven years old, I was having a heart attack, and I was about to wreck my car.
I needed to get off the road.
I looked for a place to pull off, and, not finding one with limited sight, I pulled into a cornfield.
I shut off the car.
I was alone in a cornfield on Highway 63. And I was scared.
But we live in an age of technological wonders. I had Bluetooth on my phone. I called my significant other and when he picked up, I was like “Hey I don’t know what’s going on. I’m freaking out. I think I’m having a heart attack. I think I’m dying.”
We talked through my symptoms trying to decide if he should call an ambulance.
He asked, “Where are you?”
“I’m somewhere, north bound on Highway 63. I’m in a cornfield.”
That was all I could tell him. That I was in a cornfield.
And if you have spent any time at all driving highway 63, you know that ‘in a cornfield’ doesn’t exactly narrow things down.
Neither of us could figure out what to do.
So he talked to me while I waited.
My field of vision was narrowing like I was in a tunnel. It got completely dark all-around except for that tiny point at the very end where I could just see a little bit of what’s in front of me. And that little point was closing up.
I just sat there, with my partner on the other end of the phone and I waited.
After about half an hour symptoms slowly started lessening.
First the tunnel vision went away.
And then my ears stopped ringing.
I got some feeling back in my face and I could breathe easier.
But the shoulder pain and the numbness in my left arm held on.
At this point I could drive again, so I called my boss (at the time I also worked in a bakery) and said “Hey! Instead of coming in tonight to close, I’m going to the ER.”
Then I got back on the road and drove to Boone Hospital center.
When I got to the ER, because I was still presenting with heart attack like symptoms at the ripe old age of 27, I was triaged and taken in pretty quickly. I was given a tox-panel because, let’s face it, it looked like maybe I was on drugs. But everything came back clean and my EKG was normal and the doctor was like “I really have nothing to tell you, but if it happens again come back.” I asked them to test me for Celiac disease and then I went home, without answers to
That was the beginning of October 2009, and beginning of November I had my food allergy tests as a new patient at Dr. Fowler’s office. I brought in my food diary and my spreadsheet of 36 symptoms, and started testing for food & environmental allergens.
Over 100 sticks in the arm later, I ended up being severely allergic to crab, mollusks, and most shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, anchovy, cod, and most finned fish, baker’s yeast, wheat, rice, corn, garlic, malt, dairy, chocolate, pineapple and all peppers, and non-life-threateningly allergic to chicken, egg, potato, tomato, orange, apple, beef, pork and mushrooms. Most of my friends know how to use an EpiPen now, and that if I take mine out and put it on the table, to look out for signs of anaphylactic shock.
Because it turns out that was what was wrong with me on that lonely highway after eating the vengeful chili-cheese dog. Anaphylactic shock.
It wasn’t a panic attack as Doctor number four had told me. (“But it only happens when I eat!” “then don’t eat.”) It turns out I was allergic to EVERY ingredient of that fateful roadside meal.
He was right, that doctor. In a roundabout way. The answer WAS to not eat. But specifically not to eat THE THINGS I WAS ALLERGIC TO.
Once I made that difficult change, things got better.
All that is by way of saying this to my customers with allergies and food restrictions: I’ve been there.
I know what it’s like to feel like you’re taking your life in your hands every time you eat. I know what it’s like not to have your concerns taken seriously. I know the panic & fear of what anaphylactic shock feels like. And I know the trust it takes to allow me to bake for you.
I strive everyday to earn and deserve that trust, because eating without fear is fundamental to our world.