My food allergies almost killed me as a child, but taught me to love my body as an adult
“I thought you died in my arms…” as the words came out of my mother’s mouth, it sent chills down my spine. I can’t even remember how and why the subject came up, but as she recounted her horrific memories of the first time I had an allergic reaction, I felt terrible. More for her, than for me.
She had just brought me home from the hospital, the latest addition to the Ro family household, and like any mother would do with their newborn, she fed me. Unfortunately, whatever I was fed had milk in it (to be clear, cow’s milk).
A few minutes later, I went into anaphylactic shock. I stopped breathing. When my parents got me to the hospital, the doctor immediately gave me an epipen shot and it knocked me out, as they do. However, my mother, not knowing what exactly was going on, thought I had just died. Of course, I don’t remember any moment of this life-altering event, but you can bet your ass my mother does.
That day would mark the first “emergency” I ever had, but certainly not the last.
Before I could even walk there were more ambulance rides to the ER. By the time I was a toddler, I had spent countless birthday parties with a roll of Life Savers in my hand instead of a piece of cake. And I didn’t have my first slice of pizza until I was 23 (more on that later).
In the ‘80s, food allergies were not a well known, if even acknowledged, thing. And luxuries like “gluten-free” menu options were decades away. If my parents wanted to find specially made dairy-free food, we had to make a trip out of town to a small health food store about a half hour away. Unfortunately, as it turned out, even that store wasn’t totally safe for me.
I actually remember this incident. I was eleven or so when we bought a “dairy-free” cheese from that health food store. I was SO excited to finally try cheese, or at least something that was supposed to taste like it. My mind wandered, “Finally! I can have grilled cheese sandwiches or even, OMG, pizza!” Oh…if I could go back and save my younger-self the heartbreak now.
It turned out this “dairy-free” cheese contained something called caseinate, a milk-derivative we were not familiar with, and I spent another miserable night in an ER instead of fulfilling my grilled cheese sandwich dreams.
Today, it’s pretty easy to find out if allergens exist in foods. All you have to do is take a quick glance at any label in the grocery store and there’s an easy-to-find “contains: milk”, or whatever other allergen might be in said food, note. Not that I’m complaining. It’s just amazing how something so small and so simple means nothing to most people, while to me (and others like me) it’s the greatest thing.
But don’t cry for me yet, because remember how I mentioned that I had my first slice of pizza at 23? Well, at some point in my life (probably when I hit puberty – I have no idea when exactly this change happened) I grew out of my dairy food allergy. And when I was finally ready to test this change, the place I called was Dominos. That was maybe the best pizza I’ve had in my life.
Ironically, I still read food labels today. It’s ingrained in me.
I think you never really forget how serious food allergies can be even when you grow out of them…IF you’re lucky to grow out of them. And as I’ve gotten older and grown to love my body – food allergies and all – I’ve become more and more aware of how important it is to protect it.