I risk my life every day because I want to live.
This might sound completely er, nuts, but anyone with a serious food allergy – and anaphylaxis reactions happen in one in a thousand of the population – can probably understand what I mean.
Every coffee shop trip, every restaurant visit, every packaged food, every finger food tasted, constitutes a risk to somebody like me because any food could potentially have been labelled incorrectly or lain in an environment where nuts existed.
So after I’ve checked the labels for allergens or asked staff to check the folders containing lists of allergens that often live behind the counter, I frequently risk my life with a chocolate muffin or a sandwich that may or may not contain traces of tree nuts or peanuts because if I didn’t my life would simply be miserable .
99 per cent of the time these warnings are simply to protect the manufacturer from possible legal action.
Every cereal, every biscuit, every jar of pasta sauce, every restaurant contains the qualifier even if the product(s) contain no nuts at all.
It’s hard to understand for those who – seeing me alive and well – don’t actually believe the allergy exists.
But it’s this attitude that makes me loathe to draw attention to myself.
I can’t bear having to ask the ‘nut’ question which sees shopkeepers, waiters and bartenders scurrying around and giving me sideways glances.
A process which often ends in the phrase ’well we can’t guarantee that any of our ingredients are completely nut-free , they may have been made in a factory…etc.’
Nobody, understandably, wants to take responsibility.
It’s an immensely complicated issue to navigate and a logistical nightmare for businesses, councils, airlines, schools..
So I shrink in my seat at the plane announcements asking people not to consume nuts.
Once when I did talk openly about it, a fellow passenger shoved an open bag of peanuts in my face on disembarking, asking if I was going to die yet?
My nut allergy journey has been a gradual process which has built up intensity over the years.
The question I’m often asked ‘How serious is your allergy?,’ I usually answer with ‘Well, I’m not dead yet.’
It started with a Christmas Eve reaction to marzipan (containing almonds) as a child – I didn’t actually eat the marzipan just a stolen piece of icing but I can remembers my mouth and lips swelling.
In those days allergies simply didn’t publicly exist and my parents were not of the sympathetic persuasion so I was sent to bed with a glass of water and had to wait out the uncomfortable process.
Over the years my allergies showed in other ways but it took a decade before it was actually formally diagnosed.
Playing with a nutcracker and some walnuts caused my arms, face and torso swell and become covered in a rash – but as a classic chronic eczema sufferer this was not particularly unusual.
Other allergies and intolerances showed their face including the classics – dogs, cats, horses, hay fever.
No rhyme, no reason, my siblings didn’t have any of it.
But nuts were different.
I soon learned that accidental eating of a nut ingredient caused the hard-to-describe, awful, painful, mouth and throat swelling and that a mouthful of anti-histamine usually, eventually, did the trick.
My worst reactions were to breads and curries containing traces of walnuts, almonds or other tree nuts. Peanuts in the air around me made my skin start to rash immediately.
Eventually I was issued with Epi-pens ( a brand name for instant, life-saving, shots of adrenaline) Irresponsibly, I rarely carried them around.
I’d never had a anaphylactic shock – so why would it happen to me?
The answer to this became clear on a trip to a posh restaurant in London a few years ago when I bit into a wholemeal bread roll that turned out to be walnut.
A tasty-looking bread roll almost killed me I spat it out – you can tell immediately – and sat out the meal, aware of a slight swelling in my mouth and waiting for it to recede.
An hour later, feeling OK, I stood up and walked around some shops with my friend feeling a little bit light-headed.
The last thing clear thing I can remember is my friend saying, ‘Nic, you are bright red.’
Then the burning skin began.
Staggering to the toilets, my body rejected everything inside it very rapidly while I blindly scratched skin off my burning, swelling, arms and body. I had no anti-histamine.
No Epipen. Meanwhile, my friend was desperately looking for help, eventually hunting down a bike paramedic who found me collapsed in the toilet.
While I was barely conscious and screaming in apparent severe abdominal pain, he administered adrenaline, antistamine and morphine intravenously – with my friend’s heroic help – saving my life in the process.
My body was in anaphylactic shock.
Moments later and my organs would have shut down, my brain would have been starved of oxygen and my heart would have stopped.
Instead, an hour later I was coming to in an ambulance, feeling faintly embarrassed – I remember the ambulance staff saying I was their first anaphylactic shock and querying the abdominal pain (actually quite a common symptom I found out later) and asking me to take a pregnancy test.
I was able to leave hospital hours later.
It all felt like a dream.
For my friend, it was a complete nightmare.
But I had learned my lesson and safe to say, always carry both anti-histamine and epipen with me.
I’ve avoided anaphylaxis ever since but I have had close-call nut ‘incidents’, it’s almost impossible to avoid.
The wrong spoon, wrong bowl of cereal.
It’s easier just not to eat dessert. But as the doctor warned me, now I’ve had one anaphylaxis incident, I am more likely to have another and I might not be so lucky.
But until entire factories and food processing plants become nut-free and food labelling is seriously and conclusively stepped up -something I entirely understand the difficulties of – I and all those millions of other people have to live in world which ‘may contain nuts’ and walk the tightrope of risk.
Issy and Ben’s Story – an anaphylaxis campaign film for those working or living with younger people
Take the Kit – an anaphylaxis campaign film to encourage young people to take their Adrenaline
auto injector/epi-pen with them wherever they go.
Online training for first aiders
Online training for school nurses
Allergy UK https://www.allergyuk.org
Whole school allergy and awareness management (Allergy UK)
This was first published across Johnston Press North West