“I’ll have the banana breakfast smoothie and toast,” I smiled at the young guy behind the counter at a hole in the wall cafe in Dublin. Little did I know how much I would come to regret those words.
I had been in Europe for 10 months, studying abroad in Salamanca, Spain and I was on my way home to America for the summer. I caught a flight deal with a layover in Ireland, so my best friend N, her brother and her cousin and I decided to check out Dublin for a week.
Settling down in a booth in the back, N and I started gabbing about what we were going to do for the day in Dublin. Like many under-twenty-one year old Americans abroad, it didn’t take long for us to decide on the Guinness and Jameson factories as our hot spots for the day.
As the waiter brought our food over, I slipped my Ireland guidebook back in my messenger bag and prepared to tuck in. I was hungry! I took a bite of my toast and then grabbed my smoothie. I took a couple big chugs of my drink, swallowing everything before a look of complete horror passed over my face.
“F***! This smoothie has peanut butter in it!”
This may not sound like a big deal to most people, but I am violently allergic to peanuts. And not get a rash, swell up and take a Benadryl kind of allergic, I’m talking head to foot hives, my throat closes up and I go into anaphylactic shock and could DIE kind of allergic.
Ever since I found out I had a peanut allergy in kindergarten when my class made peanut butter and oat dog biscuits for Clifford the Big Red Dog and I ended up in the ER, peanuts have been the bane of my existence.
I am not exactly innocent when it comes to my allergy. In fact, I am rather lazy about have a life-threatening illness. I am very adventurous when it comes to trying new food, and (until Dublin) I almost never ask if it a dish contains peanuts.
In the States I usually don’t have to worry because every restaurant and food provider is so afraid of getting smacked with a lawsuit, they label everything. In Spain I didn’t really have to worry either because peanuts (cacahuetes) are a very uncommon ingredient. I know what foods are known to have peanuts, like Asian noodles, Thai restaurants, Reese’s pieces and unlabeled cookies. I carry Benadryl and an Epi-pen with me wherever I go. Unfortunately my live-saving Epi-pen expired when I was in Spain and I never bothered to get a new one since I was coming home.
For those of you who haven’t seen Pulp Fiction, an Epi-pen is a shot of epinephrine (adrenaline) that people like me carry around with them in case a peanut sneaks up on them unaware, like in a smoothie. SERIOUSLY, WHO PUTS PEANUT BUTTER IN A BANANA SMOOTHIE? You have to pull the cap off and stick it in your leg for 10 seconds to prevent death. It’s like magic.
Now normally I have the nose of a bloodhound when it comes to peanuts. I can smell them from fifty yards away, even cooked in food, so I almost always catch the little buggers before consumption. If the stray peanut does get by my nose, I can usually taste it and spit it out immediately before swallowing, leaving me with hives and welts in my mouth, which SUCKS but it could be worse. What is truly dangerous is when a peanut goes down my throat.
Now I drank AND swallowed a good quarter of that smoothie before realizing it had peanut butter in it. And I didn’t have an Epi-pen. As my southern relatives are fond of saying, I was up the proverbial shit creek without a paddle.
Tears welled in my eyes and I started cursing, shaking my hands around yelling “what do I do? what do I do?!” (poor N, V, and C, I owe them a dinner just thinking about this story and what they had to put up with)! Grabbing a napkin, I tried to scrub out any peanut smoothie residue from my mouth before grabbing a glass of water and running to the bathroom.
If you don’t have a food allergy, it is really hard to describe the feeling you experience after eating something like a peanut. Your mouth and throat burns and itches, it gets tight and you can’t breath, it literally feels like someone is shoving a spiky pillow down your throat to suffocate you. It is the most horrible, scariest feeling I have ever experienced.
It doesn’t help that I am completely irrational and my first reaction is that I am going to die, usually leading to me having a panic attack in addition to an allergy attack. Wonderful.
Now, I don’t want to gross out my more delicate readers, but basically I drank as much water as I could and stuck my fingers down my throat. Better out than in. Unfortunately it didn’t really help. I think consuming peanut butter (which is very concentrated) and as a liquid it went to work much faster on my body than I anticipated. N was trying to get me to go to the hospital, but I stubbornly insisted I would be fine. The tail end of a trip from a year in Europe? I was church mouse poor. I couldn’t afford an ER visit with no health insurance. I made N scamper off to a pharmacy for meds while I tried to get it together in a dingy little diner bathroom.
At this point, I could barely breathe. The room was spinning and my whole body hurt. The last coherent thought that passed through my mind was that I didn’t want to die on the floor of a diner bathroom. Then I passed out cold. In retrospect, it’s the only time in my life I have passed out in a bathroom stone-cold sober, rather ironic, no?
Not one of my finer moments.
I would faint two more times that day and it took nearly 24 hours for my body to recover. I couldn’t keep down any medicine, food or water for a day, and I can’t remember ever being in so much pain in my life; it retrospect it was incredibly stupid for me not to go to the hospital. I was lucky I didn’t die.
But you know what I felt the worst about? I felt both guilty and humiliated.
There is nothing worse than having no control over your body. I should have asked if that smoothie had nuts in it (in my defense, it did have the ingredients listed, just not peanut butter) but I should have known better. Being in Europe people don’t have the same issues with food allergies and labeling like we do in the US. It was humiliating for my friends to see me so sick and so unable to take care of myself. I hate getting ill in public. And I felt guilty that my food allergy ruined our day in Dublin and that N and her family had to nurse me back to health. No Jameson factory for us, though maybe if we had gone, a shot of whiskey might have cleared all the peanut proteins from my system. They would have had to carry me though, I could barely walk.
This was something I never wanted to experience again.
What to take away from this?
For me, travel and food are invariably linked. I will never sacrifice traveling because of a peanut allergy. One of the best ways to get to know a country and it’s culture is through its food. I believe the two can coexist in relative peace, if you are careful and plan accordingly. I even believe that one day I can travel safely around such peanut-infested places like Thailand (oh snap! Did I just give away one of my upcoming trips?!)
Talking with Jodie from Legal Nomads at TBEX in Girona about her experiences traveling gluten-free inadvertently encouraged and inspired me to evaluate my own trips and I how I prepare and deal with roaming the world with a potential life-threatening illness.
Apart from simply being more careful in the future, I’ll always make damn sure I’m covered for health and travel insurance. I recently discovered World Nomads Travel Insurance which, when compared with other insurance companies I’ve used before, seems unbeatable. They have customizable and affordable policies that fit with any travel style. Each policy is flexible, can be changed at any time and covers ALL the adventure sports!
This post is the first in a series I am developing about how to travel with a food allergy. From my own traumatizing experience in Dublin, I am going to show you how to travel the world safely with a food allergy, like peanuts.
Get excited allergy people!
I learned a valuable lesson that day on the bathroom floor in Dublin: how to be a cautious and aware food traveler. Not to mention, I now have an irrational fear of banana smoothies, which sucks because I love bananas and I love smoothies, just not together. Shudder.
I’m excited to revisit Dublin for TBEX Europe 2013 and see what food curveballs this city has in store for me!
Do you have a food allergy? How do you cope with it while traveling? Have you ever had a scary food incident abroad?