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Pamela Fagan Hutchins | In the blink of one blue eye.

For the update, read Anaphylaxis Attacks Us.


Hug your babies. I know I am for sure hugging mine today. This one, above the post, especially. That’s “Susanne,” the 15-year old beauty who alternates between bane of my existence, beeyatch to the Nth degree, and mama’s baby — the master manipulator, my pet, the one who herds me like a sheepdog to keep me to herself.

Earlier this week, we nearly lost her.

That sounds fairly dramatic, I know, but I watched it happen with my own disbelieving eyes. The most resilient of our children — the one who puts up with me teasing her about Tim Tebow, cupcakes and crack, butt tattoos, Texas-shaped waffles, and “shrimp and placenta” — went into anaphylactic shock at the dinner table. And we had absolutely no idea what was happening.

I’d like to say that, in addtion to being intelligent and relatively well-prepared parents, we are aware and crisis-capable. Well, Eric, at least. He was the Incident Commander for a 500,000 barrel a day oil refinery. I am the emotionally-impaired one who lost her mind when our Boston terrier puppy Petey the Poo lost his eye. Hey, it was traumatic, OK?

Somehow, though, it is different with our kids. Especially with Susanne. We’ve learned to tune her out, and not just because she’s the 5th of our five kids. Suz specializes in very vocal hypochondria. She always needs an Excedrin, something for her tummy, something for her ear. She has fantasy conditions, like her dangerous lack of chest symmetry (we won’t take that one any further). She used to cover her body in bandaids, pretending she had cuts. She gets a nervous stomach over things like boys and swim races. And she always always always finds a way to get out of cleaning the kitchen after dinner, usually related to one of the above.

“Is it bleeding, Susanne?” we say. “Without vomiting, blood, or a temperature over 104, get your butt to the sink.”

Or, after she recovers from a mystery ailment, “Oh my goodness, and without even a visit to the emergency room?!”

She’s just always been pretty darn healthy, except for occasional asthma, and the little girl has cried wolf so much she has a furry tongue.

So we weren’t prepared for it to be the real thing. We were all gathered at the table — heck, we weren’t even all sitting down yet — and Suz took two bites of chorizo and eggs.

She put down her fork and said, “I don’t feel good.”

The responses were well-ingrained and immediate. Me: “Really, and we haven’t even asked you to do anything yet.” and Eric: “Must be too many cupcakes.”

“I itch all over,” she said.

“Well, we can put you in an oatmeal bath after dinner,” I told her.

“I feel like I can’t breathe.”

“Go get my phone and we’ll call Poppy [my dad, who is a doctor].”

Suz left the room. She was back 30 seconds later. “I can’t see, Mom.” She laid down on the floor, or rather, put herself onto the floor in a controlled collapse. I still suspected mental hysteria was the issue.

“Suz,” I said, and looked down into her eyes, and I didn’t say another word. They were blood red. Not like blood shot. Like they were bleeding, like zombie-eyes.

“Eric, come look. She’s red.” And she was. Her face, her neck. All of her.

Eric said, “You’ve got to calm down Susanne, you’ll make yourself hyperventilate, and than you really won’t be able to breathe.”

Automatically, I went for a paper bag. We’ve had a hyperventilator in the family before. **Liz, cough cough.**

“I’m trying,” she said. Something in her voice tugged at a different place in me.

“Do you want to go to the emergency room?” We had asked her this question a million times in her short life, just to call her bluff. Always she said, “Noooo-ooo-oo-o.”

“Yes,” she said. “Yes.”

Total elapsed time since Susanne ate her first bite: less than three minutes. I had on my PJs. I threw on a dress. My hair was wet and uncombed from the shower, but I just grabbed my purse and Eric and I headed for the door. Susanne walked behind us. Halfway to the car she said, “I really can’t see,” and she started weaving drunkenly. My pulse started to race. I put my arm under her shoulders and helped her in the car. Her lips were chalk white. Her feet were lobster claw red.

We started quizzing her on what was in her stomach. She had actually come home at noon that day because her stomach hurt, and she had slept all afternoon. So the list was short. A Mojo bar for breakfast. Cashews for lunch. And the chorizo, cheese and eggs — two bites — at dinner. Nothing for the six hours before.

“Nothing, Sami? This isn’t the time to pretend. You won’t be in trouble if you’ve had something you’re not supposed to. Any pills? Did you sniff anything?” All kidding about crack and cupcakes aside, I knew better than to pretend the possibility of substance abuse wasn’t there. Hell, I’d started drinking at 14. I did inhalants at 17. I wish I could say differently, but it’s true. So I knew good girls, smart girls, athletic girls did dumb stuff, all the time.

“Nothing,” she slurred.

I believed her. She wasn’t impaired before dinner. And, besides, I’d seen the other. This didn’t look like drugs. It looked awful, but in a new way I’d never experienced. Eric put on the flashers and blared the horn of our junker 2000 Suburban. He slammed the gas pedal to the floor and ran every red light between us and the ER five miles from our house. This is not a small deal in Houston, with two to three lanes of traffic each way in every direction.

I called Dr. Dad, and kept one hand on Susanne’s ankle. I wished I was in the back seat with her, but I couldn’t make it there now, with the SUV all over the road.

“Food allergy, bad one,” he said, confirming our suspicion. “Get her to the emergency room.”

“We’re trying,” I replied, and closed my eyes as Eric barrelled between moving lines of traffic through an intersection.

“I can’t breathe. I can’t see,” Susanne said again. She was getting weaker, hard to even understand or hear.

We jerked to a stop at the ER, by the entrance. Eric helped me get Suz out, and I propped her over me and we lurched to the desk. I told the desk clerk, “She feels like she can’t breathe, and like her tongue and throat are swollen. She’s bright red. She itches everywhere. We think it may be a food allergy.” I wanted to add, “Don’t waste our time on drugs or alcohol, people,” but I didn’t. Because I knew they couldn’t rule anything out just because the mama said so.

The staff had met me the week before. It’s a long story, but the short version is that Clark Kent and I made a trip there together, for a less life-threatening reason. They remembered me, and they were competent and concerned. They walked her straight to an examining chair while a doctor and nurse were summoned. In less than one minute, they had her in an exam room. By now, she couldn’t hold her head up, and she was really hard to understand. She looked like a tomato-head with zinc oxide lips. They took her blood pressure. When the 75/37 flashed on the screen, the doctor, who had already sent the nurse to get epinephrine, visibly blanched.

“I’ll put the IV in,” he told the attendant.

If you’ve ever had a situation where the doctor feels the emergency requires that he or she put in the IV instead of waiting for the nurse to do it, you know it’s bad, and you know that it doesn’t normally go well. This didn’t. It was painful, bloody, and he forgot the port. But he got the big needle in. And by the time the nurse returned with the epinephrine, they were able to also hook up the IV of steroids, pepcid, and benadryl at the same time as they injected the epi.

Slow seconds ticked by. Suz started to shake. “My head, my head,” she wailed. “It hurts so bad.”

“The epi,” the doctor said.

“Help me, Mom,” she said, and pulled her knees up, where they trembled violently.

I leaned over her and held her legs. That calmed her down.

Her blood pressure flashed on the screen. 91/48. Better. Eveyone exhaled half a breath.

Total elapsed time from bite of food until epinephrine: 20 minutes. Twenty terrifying minutes. Five minutes later, the present danger was past.

Our terror until now had been masked by a desperate calm, a need to get her to the hospital safely and taken care of. It was only when her pressure was back up to its normal 128/67 that we started to take it in. I still held Susanne’s hand, and Eric still cracked weak jokes, but the fear mounted. What the hell had just happened, and why? Could it happen again? Could it be even worse? What if we weren’t around? OMG, what if we hadn’t been with her this time? She’d gone on a two-week backpacking trip that summer. What if it had happened out there? Or when she was out with her friends?

The doctor laid it out sternly. “She has to carry an epi-pen at all times now. If it happens again, it will probably be more severe. It can kill her. And you don’t know what it was?”

We didn’t. We suspected the chorizo sausage, which she’d never had before, but it had lots of things in it. And, what if it were the cashews she’d eaten earlier, instead?

The doctor said, “Anaphylaxis food allergies are usually acute. You saw it happen. She’d just eaten whatever it was. There’s a lot of preservatives in sausage, especially chorizo. Some of them have been linked to anaphylaxis.”

Over 50% of anaphyctic reactions are due to seafood and nuts. Another healthy chunk goes to stinging winged creatures like bees. Preservatives? Uncommon. But documented. And, it turns out, the chorizo contained sodium nitrate (aka nitrite), the presrvative MOST commonly linked to anaphylaxis, and even more likely to cause anaphylaxis in someone with chemical sensitivity when mixed with other benzoate and sulfite preservatives. Check, check.

“She needs to wear a medic alert bracelet. And take her straight to the pharmacy from here. She could have a rebound attack in the next few days until this gets out of her system. You’ve got to convince her to take this seriously. Next time it could kill her. Her body has just told us in no uncertain terms it’s not having any of “this,” whatever this is.”

Shi-i-it, I thought, echoing Dr. Dad’s sentiments when I told him about Susanne’s blood pressure.

And a few hours later, they released her, and we were home. Drama over. Child tired, but alive. Her voice audible now but hoarse for days.

We kept her on a mattress on the floor next to our bed that night, and home from school the next day. We did tons of research on allergies, anaphylaxis, and preservatives. We’ve done a “search and destroy” mission in our refrigerator. No cured meats. Out with the bacon, ham, and pepperoni. We ordered a cute heart-shaped Medic Alert Pendant. We’ve learned how to use epi-pens. We set up an appointment for comprehensive allergy testing. We’ve monitored every bite of food she eats, and talked her ear off about eating whole foods, one at a time, until we are all absolutely sure what caused this.

So far, she’s paying attention. But she’s a teenager. How long will her commitment last? How long until she succumbs to the lure of pepperoni pizza? Or forgets to ask what’s in the breakfast casserole at a friend’s house and accidentally ingests bacon?

I can’t bear to think about it.

We’ve hugged Susanne. My eyes drink her in like never before. Where before I saw her as the strongest of our offspring, the one unbuffeted by life or emotions, now I see this new fragility, the breath of a kitten, the heartbeat of a hummingbird, that brings frantic tears to my eyes.

I’m not ready to lose my girl. Not now.

Not ever.

So, I’m hugging my baby today. How about you?


p.s. Here’s the update — post allergy testing — chronicling our food sleuthing and treatment, called Anaphylaxis Attacks Us.

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59 Responses to In the blink of one blue eye.

  1. Oh, my gosh, Pamela. When I read your updates on FB shortly after this happened, I was grateful everything turned out alright. But when reading this post, with everything spelled out so much more frighteningly clear – my mommy’s heart raced a little faster thinking of how terrifying it must have been for you.

    Two summers ago, Jami participated in a two week long community theater workshop. She called me one afternoon to say her hands were swelling – to the point she could not bend her fingers. Apparently, she’d been helping clean out the costume closet and came in contact with something her body did not like at all. We picked her up and took her to the doctor to get a cortisone shot and she was fine a few hours later. Thankfully, there were no respiratory symptoms, but we couldn’t help but wonder “What the heck did you TOUCH to have a reaction like that?” Just now I hugged my girl real tight and prayed that both our girls will never experience anything like that ever, ever again.

    • Pamela says:

      Chemicals. Nasty, nasty chemicals. We told her this is just her body’s way to telling her what her Health teacher already did: chemicals are bad. If it keeps something from rotting, it’s rotten.

      I am glad Jami’s ok. And that whatever got on her hands didnt get in her eyes or mouth!

  2. Dan says:

    Like Laura’s response above Pamela, I too enjoyed the happy ending, but your blog post explained how terrifying you and Eric must have been trying to get her to the emergency room. I’ve been fortunate all my life that my stomach acids are bullet proof, and at this (st)age I couldn’t imagine having to be careful and fearful of what I eat. We take it for granted in our over-regulated country that restaraunts, grocery stores, food processing plants, etc., are abiding by FDA/OSHA laws, but when you read stories like what you went through with your precious Mrs. Tebow, you realize no matter how safe it might be out there, we are all prone to food alergies, poisoning, etc., and how important it is to be ready for anaphylaxis whether it’s a loved one or a stranger. Wow…..really scary, but again, glad to hear Samantha is doing better and I’m sure between momma bear and papa bear (and Dr Grandpa Bear) that she will become knowledgeable and careful on how to move forward! There are a lot more restaraunts and grocery stores doing a better job with menus and food labels, gluten free, etc., so wish Sammy well for us….we’ve read enough about her we feel like she’s our daughter!

    • Pamela says:

      It is sooooo important to label food. Wow. I am now a believer, big time. What is safe for one person is not for another, necessarily. And some things, even if we don’t react to them, are poisons. Like preservatives. Internal mummification. We need it to get food to market now that we are not an agrarian economy…and they’re not good for any of us. For some of us? Deadly.

  3. wow. just wow.
    you and Eric did a GREAT job. kudos to your clear headed thinking.
    hugs to all of you.
    i just can’t imagine…

    • Pamela says:

      Nothing worse than when something happens to one of your kids. Nothing.

      So, Susanne has to start clean living, clean eating, a la Sobileski. Which I just spelled wrong. Woopsie.

  4. Wow. Great narrative, and I really appreciate you sharing it. Best wishes for long happy and healthy lives to all of you!

  5. Jennifer says:

    Oh Pamela! I had goosebumps! Thank you so much for sharing that so we can all be aware and learn. I’m SO thankful she is ok!!

  6. Thanks, Kevin. I hope it makes people think. You need to recognize the signs, and be ready, because you really don’t have much time when this happens.

  7. Oh man, I’m really feeling for you guys right now. I’m definitely giving my kids extra hugs and loving tonight. I’m saving some up for you guys as well and wish I could give you one great big hug right now.
    I hope it’s all good from here on out.

    Love to all of you,


  8. Sandy Webb says:

    Holy Hell! I am so glad everything turned out okay. TJ’s boy had a Grand Mal seizure at the dinner table. It was terrifying. We are rual so I had to call 911 & they put me on hold!! Keep an eye on her as I know you both will.

    • Pamela says:

      Oh God, that’s scary! I worry about that, with us moving out rural, if we have a problem. We have to be self sufficient. And I think Suz is melting from the heat of all the eyes boring into her 😉 We sure will keep at it. Ugh. Scary stuff.

  9. Vidya Sury says:

    Oh, Pamela, that scared the shit out of me. I found I was holding my breath, too as I read this. How scary! Reminded me of the time my Mom went blue and we had to rush her to the hospital to discover one of her lungs had collapsed. Shudder!

    I’ll be praying for Suz especially now, every morning.

    Oh gosh, I just burst out crying, visualizing what you wrote. Even a scratch on my almost 15 year old baby freaks me out. I can only imagine how y’all felt. I am amazed how you guys took action. God bless Susanne. She’s precious!

    Food labels – am I glad I am vegetarian, but I’ll now double check. Why, that damn yam makes me break out in hives and it is only a veg!

    Hugs to you both – phew!

    • Pamela says:

      It’s amazing: biology. We are all different, and things affect us in different ways. And in differnt ways OVER TIME. You can become violently reactive to something that has never bothered you before. Scary.

  10. Wow I’m so glad she came out OK. I bet she’ll never forget and will always be careful. She’s a very bright young woman. I know when we got off chemicals / preservatives a few years back, it shocked us how sick and awful we felt if we indulged in a restuarant meal, even within a couple of weeks of getting off. Once the stuff was out of our systems, it was like swift retribution if we did eat something with a lot of preservatives in it. It may make eating a wee bit harder, and mean having to cook more, but we feel so much better, lost a lot of aches and pains we had NO idea were inflammation caused by chemicals, and will never go back. Mind fog disappeared, headaches, joint pain, high blood pressure, indigestion, and more – all gone. Preservatives are poison, pure and simple.

  11. Wow. Terrifying. Conner has been the hypochondriac in our family. I had a small ignorance with him and sulfa drugs once. I let him take them after he had a bad reaction. It was nothing like this though!

    Praying for all of you.

  12. Oh. my. God. My heart was in my throat reading this — so freaking scary. God was watching over her for sure… praying that she will fully accept this new reality. And that you, mama, can have a little peace. xoxo

    • Pamela says:

      Thank you Heidi. I hate her being out of my sight now. I want to control everything she puts in her mouth :( but all I have is influence with a 15 yo and not a heck of a lot of that. She’s still taking it seriously, for now.

  13. Ann says:

    Holy Crap Pamela. I cannot imagine. I sat here with tears rolling down my cheeks knowing that you wouldn’t be writing this if she was not okay but still scared to death and sending you speedy thoughts to get your to the hospital. Thank God she is okay. I am so sorry that all of you went through it.

    • Pamela says:

      It was a huge wake up call. You think you’re prepared for emergencies. But I didn’t grab the benadryl, even tho food allergy was our first thought. I could have put two of those in her and helped, but my mind went BLANK.

  14. Paul J. Fagan says:

    I heard about this last night from your parents, but it is still a heart grabber reading your words. So glad for the outcome. I hope she is able to avoid the chemical laden food supply we have developed for consumption. That’s tough in our culture, but possible.
    This reinforces a decision I made and instills greater energy in seeing the fruit of the decision. I am in the planning, scheming, figure this thing out stage of hosting “eat this and why” retreats. It will focus on live and raw food that is grown in the home or apartment. A daily regime of self sustinence, honoring life and love.I’ll show folks how they can grow their own food, indoors.
    Good luck with the changes in food. We can change the world… one decision at a time.

  15. Jen says:

    If you get a chance, you may want to check out Lots of good practical fa management info and support. I’ve been a volunteer there for yrs (username Jen)

  16. Pamela says:

    Thanks Double Uncle Paul, and I love your idea! I have a cousin on mom’s side here in Houston that has a company called “Edible Organics” and helps Houstonites grow their own food, in whatever space they have — flower beds, for instance, food that looks good and tastes good.

  17. Eric says:

    My father was one of those guys that had very very little sympathy for any type of injury or illness. Basically if you were not missing a limb, it was not a big deal, and even if you were there was a good chance it could be reattached, so quit whining. I have a lot of that lack of sensitivity in me :) . An event like this makes you go over and over in your head the little things you said, and the delays that you took before taking action. And yes, there is a balance, and yes kids fake A LOT of stuff. But be aware, look for the real signs closely, you just cannot imagine how little time you have when things really go bad.
    I will never forget the look on the face of the doctor when they got Samantha’s first blood pressure readings. HE knew that there was not a lot of time for messing around, and we were grateful for that.
    I have a lot of really good (well maybe pretty good) joke lines running around in my head about how to end this comment. But I just can’t do it right now, maybe in a while.

    • Pamela says:

      I know. We do tend to balance terror with humor in our house, but it feels pretty flat right now. Not to say it might not have been the cupcakes … :-)

  18. Jennifer says:

    Held my breath reading your post. So glad she’s ok. What a scary, scary experience. I pray it is a one time event. XO

  19. —Pamela,
    sooooo glad everything is Okay. Anything w/ my kids FREAKS me out.

    Your daughter is GORGEOUS. She looks EXACTLY like you. Xxx

  20. Bill Dorman says:

    Wow, how scary was that? Thank goodness it turned out ok…

    However, don’t be too hasty on the bacon, I’m pretty sure that couldn’t be the problem……….not bacon………

  21. oh my goodness, i can only imagine how horribly frightening that was!! i don’t have children but i was 9 when my mom had my little sister and i had a large part in helping raise/watch her growing up and count her like a sort of sister/child. and when i read things like this, i think wat it would feel like to watch my sister go thru that…and it would terrify me!! i’m sooo happy things worked out okay!

    • Pamela says:

      Cait, it sounds like you have a really special relationship with your little sister, and that love is probably close enough to feel the fear. It was soooo scary. I am just praying it doesn’t happen again.

  22. Tracie says:

    OH my goodness. How very scary. I can’t even imagine. I don’t want to imagine.

    I’m so happy she is okay, and you were there with her when it happened.

  23. Ally says:

    This – this brought tears to my eyes. How unbelievable scary. Makes me want to go hug my boy right now. I’m so, so glad she is okay. I hope she never has a repeat, but I’m glad she’s got an epi pen now.

    • Pamela says:

      It was awful. And, as someone into natural health and wellness, you will understand what I mean when I tell you she is on the mother of all elimination diets for the next 3 months. We are all doing it in solidarity with her, because it is so hard. It’s like an elim diet, minus about 6 other foods, because she had them on the day she had the reaction. We start in 2 weeks. Hold me. Hold us.

  24. OMG I totally cried when I read this. I am NOT a crier, Pamela. Terrifying. Dude. I’m so glad she’s ok and you were super close to a hospital!

  25. Anje W says:

    Pamela – I had no idea when you posted about this on FB that it got to this extreme!!! Thank you for sharing this with us. Information you gave was valuable and something I did not realize. Thank you for always sharing with your heart. I am so thankful Suzanne is ok!!!! I carry an epi because I am allergic to bees. So I can relate. Y’all take care and I hope you figure out exactly what caused this!

  26. Heidi Dorey says:

    I can relate to this.
    As you mentioned…what if Suzanne had been alone?
    That’s the part that really scares me about this story.

    My husband almost choked to death while home alone.
    No air in or out – clawing-at-his-throat choking.
    I cried for a week after he told me.
    He said he wouldn’t have said anything if
    he knew I was going to be so sad about it.
    I just kept imagining me walking in from work and finding him dead.
    I pray God never tests me like that.

    I’m saddened by all the ‘what ifs’ of her story.
    But I’m really happy she pulled through it.

    • Pamela says:

      Isn’t it terrifying? I can’t imagine what you would do if you were alone and something like that happened (choking or shock). I’m so glad Kim was ok too.

  27. Empathetically Relieved says:

    Dear P,E,S and family,
    A belated sigh of relief goes out past my trembling lips over my tear moistened face, finally getting to the end of that story that I had not been able to read yet.
    It took me like thirty seconds to gulp your every word with twitching wide eyes so I could get to the end and be reminded S is ok.
    Challenged yes but I am glad our little she wolf is out of the woods.
    Even days after your terrifying family experience, allergic reaction and recovering well I hope and pray … this story gripped and dragged me onto the floor with S at home, stumbling sick to my stomach down the driveway, into the car, shaking in my seat into the ER, to the bedside with you, seeing the doctor blanch and I am still very shaken up.
    Calming down now… being an empath is not easy.
    Damn you write well!
    Even knowing that S is ok did not help my reaction as I read.
    So honest. So vulnerable. So there girl!
    You are super, you listened, you reacted quickly and I send fondest regards to you Momma, E and a big bear hug to S.
    Thank you, thank you Pamela, for educating me (need to know more) and for sharing your brilliantly, bluntly told tale of what it takes to get the job done even when it is totally unexpected.
    Epi kits and defibrillators should be required for public and domestic safety as fire extinguishers and emergency telephones.
    Food for thought.

    • Pamela says:

      Oh gnat, thank you so much. It was awful. It helped to write it out, and let it go. I try not to worry, but we are working hard to id the cause and help avoid something worse.

  28. […] order for this post to be of interest to you, you have to first read In the blink of one blue eye. That will bring you up to speed on the battle to figure out how to prevent our 15-year old […]

  29. Alexandra says:

    Thank you, Pam.

    Though I didn’t like reading this, I forced myself to.

    My 3 children have had anaphylactic reactions, and I have become complacent.

    Sometimes going places without my epi pen.

    No more.

    Thank you for the tough love.

    Glad your girl is Ok.

  30. Nicole says:

    Well I had the benefit of reading your follow up post first so I knew she was ok, but this was still terrifying. I’m a nurse – I should totally know what to do, but when my baby is sick my mind goes blank as well. It’s a sickening, paralyzing fear to think you might lose your child.

    I’m so glad she made it through this awful experience, and I pray she doesn’t ever have another. Big big hugs to you all! {And I’ll be hugging my baby girl again before I go to bed!}

  31. […] the last year, we have faced down death with our youngest daughter twice. I can’t describe to you the crippling fear it brings on me, but you know it if you’ve […]

  32. […] recall our anaphylaxis terrors with her obscure leaky gut condition, I suggest you read and In the Blink of One Blue Eye, and Anaphylaxis Attacks Us. My daughter’s condition meant our whole household had to change […]

  33. Game On says:

    […] became her poison, and she had to comply with strict rules for every bite she put in her mouth, just to stay alive, thus increasing her need to oppose and rebel in every fashion she could […]

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