Cucumber: The first Epi Adventure

Summer of 2013 I finally broke down and bought myself a SPI belt. Working summer camps around many small children had made me suddenly aware that maybe having my epipen in my locker was a bad idea. For a little bit in the Spring I’d left it at the front desk, but after forgetting it overnight a few times… Putting it into a belt seemed prudent.

For all my friends out there who have kids with allergies… The reluctance to wear a belt is not just pre-teen rebellion against you. I HATED my belt. In spite of making all the decisions around it, something about it made me feel tethered- a ball & chain constantly reminding me of my allergies, my inability to conquer them, my brokenness.

After a few months though, I got used to it. By the end of the summer we’d perfected a spray bottle technique to keep hoards of children from touching anything before going inside. One bottle had soapy water. One had clean, and we asked kids to line up. I felt like a cowboy, as I learned a little flair with the bottles- spinning them in place before spraying in one fluid motion.

One week though, late in the summer, I had a bit of trouble with my environmental allergies. We had been launching model rockets, and most of my Thursday was spent wading through chest high ragweed to try and find those the exceptional few that really flew. My sister was also away at the cottage, so I was taking care of the garden- which at the time was being overrun by cucumbers. I gave them away to any neighbours I could find, made two or three jars of pickles, and ate the rest.

Unfortunately cucumbers and ragweed are cross-reactive… And I had no idea. Thursday afternoon I ate a cucumber for snack, as was my habit that week… I chalked the weird feeling in my mouth up to my body just being weird, and feeling hot & itchy was probably just a mild reaction to the ragweed I’d been swimming in all day. When my colleagues stopped me and asked if I was reacting… I said “no way! I haven’t eaten traces of any of my allergens.” Besides, who could be allergic to cucumber?!?

Fact was, I expected all my allergens to be related to birch, and having collected all the typical ones in my family, I thought I was done. Apparently not.

The next day (Friday) was long. I arrived early to make one last stab at finding the lost rockets, worked the day, and stayed quite late cleaning up. By the time I came home I was too tired to cook, so.. I just decided to veg, munching on a cucumber while I watched Star Wars.

Somewhere in there I noticed my mouth feeling odd. Tingly, even. My hands felt tight- but surely I couldn’t be reacting… Then my asthma started up. I called Telehealth, trying to figure out at what point I should be concerned. Sure, I was wheezing, but I wasn’t having trouble breathing, I said. I mostly answered yes to her list of symptoms, but mitigated them by insisting they weren’t that bad. When she figured out that I was ALSO feeling dizzy, in addition to having already admitted being red, blotchy, itchy, hives, tight hands, tight lips, puffy cheeks, and wheezy… She told me to take my epi and call 911.

I *really* didn’t want to follow that advice, but I was getting a little concerned. So I stalled. I went downstairs, and opened the door so the paramedics could get in. Then I went back UPstairs to get my epi. Somehow, in my confused state of mind, the one attached to me was insufficient. I wanted the least recently bought one. Then I went DOWNstairs again to call (still hadn’t actually taken the epi), and the computer based phone did something weird and didn’t let me through. Finally back UPstairs my phone worked, and I explained to the operator that the Telehealth nurse had told me to take my epi. “Have you taken it?” They asked. “No….” I admitted, and burst into tears. This was the moment where 12 years of first aid training had gone out the window. I knew what to do, how to do it, but couldn’t bring myself to do it alone. How many times had someone explained to me that the needle was big enough to go through jeans?!? They talked me through it though, and as I succeeded in injecting myself… the paramedics walked in the house. I was pretty surprised: 20 seconds later, by the time they had come upstairs, I was fine. No symptoms at all aside from shaking like a leaf (hello, adrenaline!).

Immediately I thought I must have overreacted. Maybe I had just panicked. Maybe the Telehealth nurse had been covering her bases. It didn’t help that the main paramedic I had was a bit snarky. I’m not sure if they didn’t realize it was my first epipen… probably they were just hungry: in the ER as we waited they switched into French and started discussing where they would go to eat. Apparently I had interrupted their dinner break. Part of me wanted to snap at them, make them realize that it’s rude to talk about how a patient has disrupted your day in front of them! But I wasn’t feeling well enough to go on a tirade in my second language. Instead I mentioned it to the nurse, apologizing profusely for being there when maybe it wasn’t necessary… and she set me straight. I think it took the nurse, the ER doc, my family doc, and my allergist all telling me I’d followed the right procedure before I actually believed it.

A few things I learned after that:

  1. Not thinking properly (confusion) can be a physiological part of anaphylaxis.
  2. Feeling guilt over the reaction is normal, but unnecessary. There was nothing I could have done differently, and once it happened… Asking for help in an emergency is a good idea.
  3. Epipens don’t hurt! I didn’t realize it until using it- it’s a long needle, yes, but super thin. Better than a vaccination. And pretty much instantaneous relief!

Later that year (I don’t remember when), I added avocado to the list, but it was mild. There were still a few unexplained mild reactions here and there, and pretty constant hives during allergy season, but nothing too crazy until this year.

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