An Allergic Reaction in a Room Full of Allergists

During the course of my research, I’ve had the privilege of attending several educational lectures given by allergists to other allergists. Many of these lectures have been held in the early evening. Event organizers, anticipating correctly that many of the physicians would be rushing over after a long day of practicing medicine, provided catered dinners at the evening lectures I attended, and I was invited to dig in.

As anyone who is familiar with food allergies knows, catered meals can be a field of landmines if there are foods you need to avoid.

The first time I had a run in with food allergies in a room full of allergists, wraps and salad were provided buffet-style. I looked at the order receipt to get an idea of what sandwich options there were, so I could dodge the ones that I knew would be bad for me. I watch out for two foods in particular when sandwiches are on the menu: certain fish, which is one of my more serious adult-onset allergens, and eggplant, which has been off-limits since I was a preteen. Of course, tuna salad is a staple sandwich option, and eggplant is a common meat substitute. Sandwich plates are not my friends.

I found a sandwich that seemed like it would work for me: ham and cheese with mustard, mayo, and limp deli tomatoes. But it must have gotten contaminated with one of my allergens during sandwich prep and transport, because fifteen minutes later I started clearing mucus from my throat and my sinuses began feeling clogged. My stomach rumbled angrily. Fortunately, that’s as far as it went (and where, to date, most of my reactions to foods have stopped). Twenty minutes later, my throat felt clear, my sinuses opened back up, and my stomach began to settle. Another forty-five minutes of lectures went by before it was time for my hour-long trip home. By then, I felt fine again and left without mentioning what had happened to anyone who was there.

The next time I was in this kind of situation, I had been more vigilant. Rather than a sandwich buffet that I felt comfortable navigating, this dinner was cooked by staff chefs at a private conference facility. The registration form for the event had a place to indicate food allergies, and I jotted down the foods I could think of when I registered. We sat down for dinner and the first course was served: caprese salad with a stripe of green powder on top that looked an awful lot like crushed pistachios.

Only days before, my tongue had unexpectedly become swollen and numb after eating a cookie with pistachios in it. I had been eating pistachios my whole life, but that was the third or fourth time in the past couple years that something like that had happened, and I was resigned to being more cautious about pistachios and other nuts. For some reason, the message hadn’t made it to the kitchen. At least, it hadn’t made it to the kitchen for me; I had noticed that two other attendees had specially wrapped meals that I suspected were allergy-friendly.

So I flagged down a server and asked what it was, politely but firmly clarifying for them that I needed to avoid pistachios and that I had indicated nut allergy on the online registration form. A new salad came out quickly, sans nuts, and it was delicious: soft, sweet tomatoes, fatty mozzarella, fresh, liquorice-y basil, and a generous dose of sea salt.

But then came the main course: chicken baked in artichokes. Or maybe it was quail, or Cornish hen, the bones were so small and tender-looking and perfectly browned in the oven, and it was the kind of place that would serve specialty poultry… But wait! Artichokes sometimes make my mouth itch, so to be on the safe side I avoid them altogether. The staff’s first suggestion was to prepare a salmon filet – also a no-no, given my fish sensitivities. Luckily, they had a back up vegetarian option: mushroom ravioli with sauteed vegetables, all of which were safe for me. It was tasty enough, the staff and my allergist tablemates were gracious and matter-of-fact about my accommodations, and it got me through the evening. But I did miss the poultry.

My research is a wonderful thing. I meet so many encouraging, supportive people who are eager to teach me more about allergies. Navigating food in these situations, though, requires me to be on my toes. I’m used to it, and I don’t mind being assertive, so it doesn’t bother me. These situations were a reminder to me that even among people who are in the know, allergies are incredibly individual and requires individual knowledge and vigilance to stay safe without going hungry.

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