It’s almost lunch time, but not quite. I’ve got a bagel with cream cheese wrapped up inside a brown paper bag on my desk that’s waiting, too. I see Lauren in my peripheral holding a bag of something and look up at her. She offers me a kale chip. I’ve had homemade kale chips before, so I agree. She just finished up a 5 day juice cleanse, supposed to rid your body of all its toxins. After the first day she was sick of the juice. Maybe she feels good after having done it; maybe she wants to be healthier from now on. I don’t know. I lay out a napkin and lay the kale chip in front of my keyboard. I let it sit for a while before taking a bite. It’s disgusting. I’m reminded of these wasabi flavored soy beans I ate once: the wrong kind of spicy, the kind of oregano spicy that won’t leave your mouth even after you’ve swallowed it all down. I chew the piece in my mouth slowly, grimacing. She’s laughing at me and my disgust. I give her back the rest of the piece I took and run to get some water. After the second cup I notice something is wrong. I taste metal. It tastes like there’s a green penny in my mouth and my throat is already beginning to tighten. I come out of the kitchenette and walk quickly over to Lauren’s desk, asking to see the bag of chips. She pulls it out of the top drawer of her desk and hands it to me, saying she’s already checked the ingredients and there are no peanuts.
Peanut allergies, for whatever reason, are almost common these days. It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t have a relative, immediate or distant, with a peanut allergy. Always young people though, never older people. Most people can remember peanut allergies without too much effort, and that makes them feel good. But peanuts aren’t my only enemy. Second ingredient on the list: organic cashews. Fucking cashews. I explain the situation to her and she’s suddenly horrified. She’s already blaming herself. It’s unnecessary: my allergy, my responsibility.
I run to the bathroom. There are still little chunks of kale stuck in my teeth so I scrape them out with my fingernails and rinse my mouth vigorously with the tap water. When I return to my desk I seek my stash of Benadryl and take 3 pills, everything I have on me. I know what’s going to happen, at least I think I do. In a little while I’ll start to feel extremely tired, and once my body starts digesting the cashews I’ll feel sick to my stomach for a few hours. It’s not nausea, it’s a sharp ache that gnaws at the inside of your stomach and nothing satisfies it. I tell the manager what’s happened and explain that I need to go home because once the Benadryl really kicks in I’ll be useless. She understands. Her mother is severely allergic to shellfish. She wants me to go to the hospital, but I refuse. I’ve done this all before, too many times.
The drive home is fine. I’m panicking a little and my heart is racing slightly but other than that I’m fine. The first thing I do is brush my teeth. I lay in my bed and the stomach pain has already begun, sooner than expected. I won’t be able to sleep just yet. I go to the bathroom and try to force myself to throw up though I know it’s futile. I know it won’t happen, and it doesn’t. I spit up a small amount of bile, metallic spit. I sit back down on the bed and notice for the first time that my breathing has become labored. My asthma has been under control for years, but I know when there’s a problem. This has never happened before. This is not a part of the usual process. My panic escalates and I call my mother, a registered nurse. I ask her if I should go to the hospital. She says yes. I knew she would. So I go to an urgent care center close by.
The parking lot is jam packed. I drive around in circles cursing and hitting the steering wheel. My breathing is getting worse. I finally find a spot and squeeze into it in my little red sedan. I’m glad I don’t drive a big car. It’s only 10 degrees out. I walk briskly to the door of the building and am relieved that there are only a handful of people in the waiting room. I sit down until one of the women at the front desk calls me over. I say tell her I am having an allergic reaction to cashews and she tells me to sit down. She asks for my insurance card and driver’s license which I hand over. She looks at the two cards then types something in her computer. She looks at the cards again, and types some more. She gives me some papers to sign while she looks and types. She has no sense of urgency, she’s seen worse. I don’t look sick, aside from the expression on my face. But she can breathe, and the longer I sit there as she types and settles my payment, the harder it is for me to breathe. I can even hear it now. The wheezing has become audible, not a good sign. Finally we’re finished with the paper work, and I go sit down again in the waiting area. She assures me it won’t be long until I am called back. She’s not convincing me. My epipens are in my pocket and I wonder if I’ll have to use them on myself before I’m seen by anyone. I’ve never done it before. I know I have to stab it in my thigh, but that’s all I know. I sit restlessly until a young nurse calls my name.
I’m ushered into a room just outside the waiting area. They take everyone’s pulse, temperature and blood pressure before sending them back to a real exam room. Triage, I think it is. She doesn’t ask me what’s wrong. She doesn’t care yet. Right now she only cares about 3 numbers. I know my heart beat must be fast. Once the preliminary tests are complete, she walks with me to an exam room. There’s a computer on a rolling desk in the middle of the room. More questions. “What do you think is the matter?” As if I’m fine or I’m making it up. I suppose they must deal with people who enjoy embellishment, but I don’t like the way she said it. I answer her questions as well as I can, while the force crushing my chest increases. The longer I wait, the more nervous I get, the faster my heart beats. My faith in these people is waning. No sense of urgency. They can’t feel what I feel. She leaves and says she’ll be back soon. As I’m waiting I look at my arm and notice the skin is red and blotchy. I pull my sleeves up and see more bright red skin. I pull my shirt up to examine my abdomen. It looks like I have a bad sunburn. I can’t breathe and I’m fidgety. My mother is texting me, I’ve worried her. Without going into too much detail I tell her it’s getting worse. Most of the time she worries about silly, pointless things; at least this is legitimate.
A blonde nurse comes in the room. She looks concerned. She tells me I’ll be getting a shot of some steroid then leaves the room. Two more people, men this time, enter the room. They ask me what happened and tell them about the Kale chip. I’m asked multiple times if I have an epi pen and why I didn’t use it. I’m embarrassed to say I never have and don’t exactly know how. I was never told when to use it, I don’t know how to gauge the situation, don’t know what merits its use. Now I do, I guess.
A male nurse gives me a shot of epinephrine in my shoulder. It hurts when it goes right into the muscle like that. It’s easier to breathe almost instantly, and my heart begins to race. Epinephrine is essentially synthetic adrenaline. I feel dizzy, like I’m in a fast moving car with the threat of crashing, but I can breathe. They let me sit for a few minutes and relax before the shot of the steroid. This one goes in the fleshy part of my hip. It hurts too. I sit back on the bed, and the injection site is immediately sore. The nurses are commenting on their success, I’m less red, I can breathe again, mission accomplished.
My mother shows up and comes in the exam room. She’s trying to keep it together, but I know she’s a bit of a wreck over the whole thing. She tends to get emotional. I mentioned earlier that she was a nurse, so the doctor on call comes in the room and throws around some long words with her. She gets it better than most parents, and I get it better than most patients. He tells her that my breathing wasn’t that bad. I don’t know about that. It felt pretty bad to me. He says it more than once. I wonder if he’s ever had the luxury taken away before. I wonder if he’s ever struggled for air because of one simple little nut. I doubt it and wish he would stop saying that.
Before I’m discharged one of the nurses tells me I have to take a steroid for three days until the allergen is completely out of my system. It’s one I’ve been on before, my mother tells me once the nurse leaves. I remember. They put me on this same steroid when I was 4 years old and had to be rushed to the hospital for an asthma attack. My face was blue, my mother always says. The steroid made me incredibly moody, which she now associates with my inherent character. She says I sat under a table at a restaurant and screamed and cried while everyone else enjoyed their meals. She says it gave me growing pains. That I remember. It was always the ankles. At least I can make jokes at work about being on steroids; that could be fun.
I return home and let the 100mg of Benadryl I popped prior to going to urgent care take me away and sleep. The doctor told me next time it could be worse, and I shouldn’t hesitate to use my epi pen; after all I did pay $65 for it. Maybe I’ll be more careful, maybe I won’t. It’s hard to say. Sometimes I think about the fact that if I was born in a different time with my food allergies, I would never have live passed my childhood. But then I think if I was born in a different time, I most likely wouldn’t have food allergies at all. Must be nice.