I suffer from probably one of the most vexing allergies known to man – the peanut allergy.
Recently, while eating at a local pizzeria, I learned two valuable lessons: once an allergy sufferer, always an allergy sufferer, and, my peanut allergy is as bad today as it ever was.
I first learned I have this condition when I was young, say two or three years old. This was in the early 1970s, when peanut allergies were not as commonly known, or widely feared, as they are today. Back then, the allergy basically turned you into a freak show. “No peanut butter?! What kind of extraterrestrial kid is this? Everybody eats peanut butter!”
The popular, protein-filled snack was certainly a staple in our house. My dad could eat peanut butter for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He loved everything from the “gourmet” peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich to the rare and somewhat frowned-upon sardine-and-peanut-butter sandwich. He would have spread Peter Pan on a steak if there hadn’t been at least a 3% chance of Mom divorcing him over it. So, for me to turn up with an allergy to his favorite food did not exactly contribute to warm-and-fuzzy feelings. In fact, I’m sure it only added to his general dislike of me.
I had various skin tests conducted when I was little, and this was how my reaction to the product was discovered. Peanut butter then became the enemy of the household (Dad’s addiction notwithstanding.) No one could have it anywhere near me, elsewise I would contract one, or all, of the following symptoms:
Asthma; shortness of breath; rash; vomiting (if ingested); swelling of the mucus-membrane areas such as mouth and eyes; itchy skin; throat constriction; redness, and, quite possibly, if untreated, death. Obviously I never died, but as a child I did suffer from most of these, depending on the level of exposure. For me, peanut butter equaled a dire emergency. I’ve never even tasted the stuff. People tell me it’s to die for; I take that quite literally.
Attending public schools was not easy for me thanks to peanut butter. The cafeteria regularly made peanut butter cookies and other forbidden goodies. Of course, I was the only kid in school with a life-threatening allergy of any kind; this just happened to be the worst one imaginable. On peanut-butter cookie day, which was at least three times a month, I would be culled out of the lunch line and made to eat with the teachers. Why? So that “peanut breath or touch” would not accidentally send me to the hospital. Third graders, you see, are not as conscientious about people with allergies as (most) adults are. The only solution to the problem was to segregate me by putting me with the grownups. This, as you might imagine, made me something of an oddity among my peers. Why the hell’s Dan sitting with Mrs. Gordon? I got plenty of weird looks. Trying to explain to your fellow 9-year-olds that “it’s only a peanut allergy” is not the most effective means of deflecting unwanted attention. The teachers certainly made no effort to help me; they talked and gossiped as if nothing at the end of the table were amiss. Hell, they ate peanut butter cookies, too. I guess the only upside was that the decision to separate me from my fellow diners did prevent accidents from happening.
And, yes, my allergy was exactly that sensitive. I could blow up from the slightest contact. The school was only doing what it could in an age when allergies were paid less attention by state and federal overseers. I mean, God forbid, anyone should ask the cafeteria to stop with the cookies, already!
Fortunately, I never had a truly problematic episode with peanut butter, only a few minor incidents here and there. As I got older, I was able to take more control over my surroundings and food choices, and peanut butter became less of an issue. By the time I graduated high school, it was no bother at all.
As the decades have gone by, I began to suspect I might have have outgrown the allergy. After all, I’d been surrounded by family members who loved the stuff, and my daughter has no aversion to peanut butter whatsoever – she loves it as much as my dad ever did.
Yesterday, I got a rude awakening.
The waitress came by and offered me and my wife a slice of chocolate dessert pie. They generally do a good job at this place of making the distinction between “chocolate” and “peanut butter,” and since she made no mention of PB, I said, sure, why not. She dropped a slice on my plate and my wife and I went on about our conversation. I took a bite of pie.
The pie bit back.
My mouth suddenly felt loaded with fire ants. I knew something horrible was wrong – some mistake had been made. I took a good look at the pie and saw the light-brown/orangey tinge of … you guessed it … Jif or Reese’s or whatever they use. It was pure peanut butter with only a thin layer of chocolate.
I indicated the problem to my wife, and instant panic hit our table. I had a mouthful of killer peanut butter. It was no joke and definitely for real. The reaction was happening. I quickly expectorated the bite into a napkin, but some had inexorably gone down my throat. Now what?
“Epi-pen!” you say. Well, I have one of those … I’m looking at it as I type this … but I did not have it on me at lunch yesterday. What the hell good is it, then? Well, that’s a great question, but not one I was prepared to argue about yesterday.
My first thought was, mouth rinse, so I hurried to the men’s room. Of course, it was occupied. So I had to wait about twenty seconds. The manager himself finally emerged. Unwilling and, really, unable to speak, I hurried in after him and held my mouth under the cold tap. Bits of nasty peanut butter ran out. The feeling of fire ants remained. Oh, shit.
We had a brief conversation with the manager at our table. He was understandably concerned, but really, it was nobody’s fault but mine. I should have exercised reasonable suspicion about the pie. Our waitress did admit that she said chocolate and not peanut butter, but at that moment, what were we going to do? I had to get some antihistamine into me, pronto.
I took a Benadryl in the car, but my mucus membranes were by then feeling the impact. I was constantly expectorating, and my throat felt scratchy, like it had an ant in it. I knew that was a sign of constriction. We would go right past the hospital on our drive home; I made the decision to stop at the ER.
They got me into a nurse’s station fairly quickly, and after the usual 1,001 questions about my medical history, moved me into an examination room. In short order, I received a second Benadryl and a steroid injection. I normally sleep like a baby after just one Benadryl, but two will knock me out, no questions asked. After about twenty minutes, I felt a lessening of the symptoms … and an unmistakable drowsiness.
My wife found it pretty amusing that I would fall asleep so easily, but the nursing staff wanted me to stay awhile for observation, and I rolled right over on the examining table and went to sleep. It was a hard, dreamless sleep, the kind that leaves you wanting only more sleep. They finally discharged me around 3:00 p.m.; I showed no more symptoms. I do not remember the trip home. I staggered to the recliner, fell in, and awoke around 9:30 p.m. Christa had cleaned the house, cooked dinner and brought the kids home. I was aware of none of it.
Fortunately, I’m at work today, feeling fine, and very appreciative of the prompt medical care and expertise that saved us from having a really bad day. The takeaway here is that I am as sensitive as ever to this allergy. I’ll be enjoying mac and cheese and mashed potatoes for the next few days, just to keep it safe. Oh, and I’ll keep the epi-pen just a little handier from now on.