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.
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.