I drove into one of those industrial parks that sit out beyond the suburbs. Buildings lined the street in various stages of construction, off-white concrete, nondescript. Gravel parking lots surrounded by ten-inch-high curbs still awaited macadam and white lines. Yellow construction vehicles, all types—backhoes, dump trucks, bull dozers, steam rollers—scattered throughout the complex. Wide, desolate streets, void of customers, branched out at traffic lights into road-stubs, ending nowhere at the edge of a brown and green field. A scene of promise, or sprawl.
At the end of the street stood a building surrounded by cars. Not many, but some, a half-rented building.
Friday afternoon, a necessary allergist appointment, trying to get a handle on what ailed me. Spring ended; it was hell. Sneezing, hocking, blowing, and that scratchy noise people make behind their sinuses. The only relief for itchy post nasal drip. The doctor planned a scratch test, a dozen allergens to scrape under my skin and see if I reacted. Pollens, molds, pet dander, dust mites, foods and grass. He scraped the substances over my forearms in neat lines, a couple inches apart. Over each scratch, a bubble formed—some miniscule like a BB, some the size of a dime or a quarter. With these sizes, he could gauge the severity of each allergy.
In the center of my left arm, one scratch bubble grew and grew. “Ho boy, are you ever allergic to grass!” The bubble began to take over the other scratches; it swelled and itched. The doctor left the office and returned with a syringe. “We’re just going to give you a shot of Benadryl to stop the reaction. Before I left the office, my entire forearm bloated an extra twenty to thirty percent into an itchy mess that lasted throughout the weekend. This happened thirty years ago.
Yesterday, I went for a run. My favorite destination for running is the horse trails on the Gettysburg Battlefield. These trails pass through woods and across historic farms. I rarely see anyone, and I get a quiet meditative dose of solitude.
Last week, I put together a new loop. It’s a bit shorter than my regular loop, more appropriate for a work night. A drawback of this run is that thigh-high flowering grass hangs over the trail in places. As you might expect from my ancient allergy test, contact with this grass causes a breakout. When I finished my run last week, hives covered my legs. It’s a mild annoyance and easily fixed with a dab of cortisone cream after my shower.
I repeated that loop last night. I hoped the park crew might have mowed the edges of the trail, I sent them an email last week pointing out that all that grass probably harbors ticks. No luck, same grass. I developed identical hives as last week. But yesterday, after my shower, my eyes began to swell up.
Twenty minutes later, my right eye swelled shut, my lips and cheek puffed up and loosened, and breathing and swallowing became labored. I couldn’t pronounce words. My voice had an echo-y quality to it. “Dad, why does stuff like this always happen to you?” Eli has a point. An appendectomy on a family beach vacation; an obstructed bowel one night after dinner; a jaw infection that caused a large flat piece of bone to work its way out through my gums; a bike crash that damaged my leg; a bike crash that bruised my ribs; a bike crash that dislocated my shoulder; a bike crash that scrambled my brain… you get the idea.
Susan ran to the store to buy Benadryl. I took two pills, and we sat on the couch waiting for my symptoms to clear up. Instead, my eyes closed, my lips grew, breathing became a chore and I had to really concentrate to swallow. I made the call “OK, let’s go.”
When Susan got stung by twenty-five bees, we didn’t spend more than ninety minutes in the emergency room. They gave her a shot of steroids, they gave her a shot of antihistamine, and they sent us home. Last night, after ten minutes of intake questions, the nurse said “We’re going to admit you.”
Now I carry an EpiPen®. It’s essentially a rugged syringe with a dose of epinephrine loaded and ready to go. According to the ER nurse, the EpiPen is an emergency medication measure to keep your airway from swelling shut until you can get a doctor’s care. Escaping from the emergency room this morning took far longer than I expected. My uvula enlarged considerably and they didn’t want to release me in case it grew more and cut off my breathing.
As he finally discharged me from the ER, my doctor sat me down and told me how dangerous my event was. He thinks I could have gone into anaphylactic* shock. “Keep that EpiPen with you always. Don’t go anywhere without it.”
Some of the kids on my mountain bike team ride with EpiPens in their packs. I never gave that much thought. It’s just something that the kids with bee allergies do. Suddenly I understand the seriousness of a potential allergic reaction in the wilderness. It seems unlikely that a kid will ride a few miles out of the woods with their eyes swollen shut and their breathing constricted by an enlarged uvula. I intend to learn more about allergic reactions—mine and the kids’ on my team so we can mitigate the risk. And unfortunately, it now looks like I’m trail running and mountain biking through those brutal summer months in long pants.
* Anaphylactic shock an extreme, often life-threatening allergic reaction to an antigen to which the body has become hypersensitive.