A few years ago, at a lovely wedding, I met a girl who reinforced some key food allergy lessons I’d only recently begun to understand.
Let’s call her Sue. Sue and I were seated together and quickly got talking about food allergies after the waiter went through great lengths to ensure that I knew my meal was made safely. It was lovely to have that experience after months of planning and preparation, but I was still nervous, and kept my auto-injector on the table as a result. “I have allergies too!”, she confided, and went on to explain how she had been diagnosed with a shellfish allergy. “…But only to the shells”, she went on to explain.
I hope a red flag just went up in your head, as it did in mine. Shellfish is a very common allergen, and I’d never met someone who deliberately ate the shells… but I’m not a doctor, nor an expert, so I asked her for a few more details instead. Sue admitted that she wasn’t entirely sure she understood what her allergist had told her, but that she was sure she was only allergic to the shells because when she ate shellfish (without the shells) she didn’t always react.
Another red flag went up. Was she just testing out what her body would do without checking with her doctor? I mean, if I’m being honest… when I was new to my allergens, I was so completely in denial that I mistakenly did the same thing. I began to think that she might be in a similar place when she told me that sometimes when she ate shellfish her throat would swell, she’d feel really unwell, and she’d get headaches. “That sounds an awful lot like an anaphylactic reaction”, I explained, but Sue insisted it was mild. As she kept describing experiences that sounded like systemic reactions, I tried my best to encourage her to get some clarification from her allergist.
Thinking back now, I wish I’d said something more. I wish I’d expressed my concerns about those red flags. Later in the evening there was a seafood bar, and Sue decided it looked and smelled delicious and just had to try something “with the shell removed.” I was dancing at the time, but later found out that she immediately started vomiting severely (all over the gorgeous venue), had difficulty breathing, her throat was swelling, and she had a terrible headache. Staff at the facility recognized it as anaphylaxis, and called an ambulance, while someone else was sent to try and find me because they knew I had an epinephrine auto-injector. Before they found me and brought me to Sue, the ambulance had arrived and she was taken to a hospital in short order. I followed up the next day, and was very relieved to hear that Sue was okay… and officially diagnosed as at-risk for anaphylaxis to shellfish.
Overall it really shook me though, to know that we had talked about it, and yet she had still decided to take that risk. I was so grateful that I had my medicine, that the paramedics were close by, and that she was ultimately okay, but it really reiterated to me the importance of carrying two epinephrine auto-injectors, as well as checking with an allergist to assess whether you have any changing symptoms or aren’t sure whether your reactions are severe. It put a damper on an otherwise perfect evening, and it really wasn’t worth the risk.
– Janice H.