I am allergic to walnuts.

“If you’re tired of counting sheep at night, maybe a pre-bedtime snack of walnuts would help you get some shuteye.”
–Lee Zalben, seriouseats.com (01.17.10)

To those of you who aren’t aware or were aware but have since forgotten: I am allergic to walnuts. All nuts, actually, but definitely walnuts. As a result, a part of my life involves avoiding nut consumption (I can be around nuts, I just can’t eat them).

I accidentally ate some walnuts on Sunday night. I’ve accidentally eaten a peanut or two over the past decade, and my body responded with a bit of discomfort and little else, so I’d assumed I was outgrowing my nut allergy, just as I’d outgrown my childhood allergy to seafood. But peanuts aren’t nuts, in spite of the misleading name, and in terms of my allergies there is –– I now know –– a big difference.

The first symptom I had was an irritation in the back of my throat, which has always been the first sign that I’ve eaten something bad, so I started to look for the culprit, which ended up being a veggie burger that I had eaten about half of, so I quickly threw out the rest and rinsed out my mouth and drank some water. I wasn’t too concerned at this point, as the irritation in my throat disappeared after a few minutes, and I felt fine. Franny was still a bit worried, though, and kept offering to take me to the hospital, which I assured her wasn’t necessary.

A couple of hours later, I was at the checkout at CVS when I started to feel unpleasant. My breathing became a bit labored, the palms of my hands started to itch, and a general feeling of anxiety grabbed me. I walked home quickly, thinking that all I needed was a few hits of my inhaler and to lie down and wait for the reaction to subside. In the five minutes it took me to walk home, things got progressively worse, and when I got back to the apartment I dropped the CVS bag on the floor and ran to the bathroom to take a shower, which for some reason seemed like it would help. After a minute or so in the shower, I realized that it wasn’t helping, and that my condition was quickly getting worse –– my face was swelling up, I couldn’t catch my breath, and I was starting to panic. I got out of the shower and told Franny I had to go to the hospital, and she jumped into action and we were out the door in a minute.

The Methodist Hospital is only about three blocks from our apartment –– my father has been there twice, and Franny has been there once, so I guess it was my turn. As soon as we got out of our apartment, though, I realized I couldn’t walk there, as my breathing was quickly getting worse and I was finding it hard to do anything but crouch on the ground, trying to catch my breath. Franny ran over to 7th Avenue and got a taxi, which was great except the driver didn’t know how to get to the hospital, so I had to shout out directions between gasps. He ended up inadvertently letting us off at an entrance that was a long walk from the emergency room, and while I managed to get from the taxi into the hospital, I immediately crouched to the floor again and Franny ran to find someone with a wheelchair.

Side-note: At this point, I’m very scared –– my breathing is just getting worse, and I’m feeling very close to passing out. Franny told me that my face was so swollen and my skin so pale/blue that she had trouble recognizing me. Fortunately for her I was the only person crouched over on the floor by the door of the hospital gasping for breath.

A guy came with a wheelchair, and he pushed me up a bunch of ramps and into the emergency room, where there was little going on (it was a Sunday night). Franny was told to take me to triage, which she did, and after being strangely ignored by a few doctors, we finally found a doctor who recognized that my condition was not good and immediately jumped into action. I kept repeating that all I needed was a breathing treatment, as I didn’t understand that the reason I couldn’t breathe wasn’t because of my lungs being inflamed but because my throat was closing up. I also didn’t realize how bad I looked, or how low my blood pressure had gotten, or that I was (apparently) fairly close to going into cardiac arrest. So in spite of my protestations, and before I really knew what was happening, I had IV’s in both arms and a oxygen mask on my face, and a group of about six or seven doctors and nurses tending to me. It seemed very excessive to me at the time, but everyone seemed to be working urgently, and some of them looked worried, so I thought I’d best let them do what they thought needed to be done. I didn’t, however, let them rip my tee-shirt off, as it was a brand new tee-shirt and I was capable of taking it off the normal way, thank you very much.

new doc 1_1 copy

*I was told that I was in anaphylactic shock, although I’m not sure why they didn’t write it in my report.

**Diaphoresis means “the state of perspiring profusely,” which I actually don’t think is accurate. I think I was still a bit wet from the shower.

After being given all the drugs listed above, I started to feel better –– high, even, as evidenced by the photo below, which Franny took (note the thumbs-up).


There is absolutely no reason for me to be remotely positive in that situation, but that the drugs made it so. And perhaps being able to breathe normally again, which was a bit of a relief.

As I recovered, the attention I was getting from the doctors and nurses slowly declined until it was almost non-existent. Having a ton of attention from doctors and nurses in an emergency room is certainly not a good sign, but going from being the feature attraction to having to ask repeatedly for a glass of water is profoundly frustrating. I had to pee in a plastic jug because they wouldn’t let me walk to the bathroom, but nobody ever came to retrieve the jugs after I peed in them, so at one point there were three plastic jugs full of my urine sitting on the floor by the bed. I peed a lot because of the IV’s.

At some point an hour or two after I’d arrived, a doctor came in and told me they were going to admit me for the night, which seemed excessive to me because I felt fine and really just wanted to go home. Also, my insurance has a $3500 deductible, which really shouldn’t be a factor in any medical decision, but this is the country we live in and that is the insurance plan I can afford. I asked the doctor why he thought I needed to be admitted, and he basically said that it was because of the severity of my condition when I arrived, which made sense, but I was for all intents and purposes back to normal at that point, and unless I accidentally ingested more walnuts in the emergency room it seemed to me that this insistence on me being admitted was mostly a case of erring on the side of caution, which also made sense, in a way. I explained to the doctor about my deductible issue, and he said that he understood, but that he wouldn’t sign off on releasing me that night, and he also added that some insurance companies won’t cover anything if you leave without a doctor’s authorization, which I said sounded like a catch-22, and he responded by saying that he doesn’t get involved in the financial stuff, even though he just had.

It was about 12:30 or 1 in the morning at this point, and they said they’d have a room ready for me in an hour or two, so Franny and I sat in my curtained off area in the emergency room, waiting. I tried to sleep, but there was an automated blood pressure monitor on my arm that would inflate and squeeze every five minutes, so that didn’t work. Franny was so tired she would be up and talking to me one minute, and less than a minute later I’d look over and she’d be out cold, right in the chair she was sitting in. I appreciated her being there, and I envied her ability to escape into the world of sleep, however briefly. There was a small television tuned to NBC with the volume off to entertain me –– I invented a game called “I wonder what the fuck they’re saying”, which was fun until I realized I’d never know if I was winning or losing.

At 3:30 in the morning I was still waiting for a room, and Franny had repositioned herself so her head was on the pillow next to me but her body was in her chair, which didn’t look more comfortable but apparently it was.

At about 5 or 6 I was still waiting for a room and I think Franny had given up trying to sleep, but was still nodding off haphazardly. After being fairly calm all night, the emergency room started to get crowded and exciting. An alarm sounded followed by an announcement that there was going to be a big intake in the ER, and soon after there were a bunch of arrivals and police officers and people who I assumed were friends and family of victims –– it was all very intense and real and happening all around us, although we could only see a bit. It was a nice distraction, at any rate, however morbid.

There was a shift change at about 7, and a new doctor (a senior doctor, I think) came in to talk to me. He was a soft spoken Indian man, and while he was talking to me, the patient in the bed next to me stopped breathing, triggering a loud alarm. Suddenly there were tons of doctors scrambling around right next to me (there was only a curtain separating us) trying to resuscitate this woman. The doctors are saying things like “MA’AM! CAN YOU HEAR ME? WE’RE TRYING TO STABILIZE YOUR BREATHING.” and meanwhile the Indian doctor just keeps talking to me as if nothing is going on. I’m trying to ignore what’s happening and answer his questions, but it’s getting more and more difficult, as part of the curtain separating our beds has accidentally been pulled halfway open, so I’m almost right next to this woman and all these frantic doctors. Eventually the Indian doctor finishes his check-up, but the chaos next to me is still going on, and it’s starting to intrude on my space, but I can’t go anywhere so I’m just exchanging awkward looks with Franny. All of a sudden, a nurse charges onto my side of the curtain and says “We need to move you, now!” I start panicking because I’m still connected to two IV’s and a bunch of other sensors and crap, but I sit up and ask where she wants me to go. She tells me to lie back down, and simply rolls my bed about a foot over. I’d forgotten my bed had wheels, you see. I’d been awake all night in the emergency room recovering from anaphylactic shock and waiting for a room that I’d been promised hours ago, peeing in plastic jugs and listening to people nearly die, and I’d forgotten that my bed had wheels. Silly me.

At about 9 or 10 in the morning I was finally taken to a room. My roommate was a Haitian man with a foot that was so infected they needed to put a line into his arm so he could directly administer a month of antibiotics to himself. They were also going to amputate one of his toes, according to Franny. He didn’t speak much English, he was on the phone all the time, and he kept asking for more food. He was an interesting roommate.

Two hours after I was brought to my room, a doctor who I hadn’t met before came in to tell me that I was being discharged. I was, of course, happy to hear this, as I was extremely tired and hungry, and I just wanted to go home and sleep. I was also a bit irritated, but I was too tired to be really irritated, and the bill that I was mostly irritated about didn’t exist yet, so I decided to save my irritation for later. After the doctor left, a nurse came in and I asked her if I could have something to eat, and she said she’d check with the doctor, and I think I fell asleep for a while.

image_2When I woke up, I was still starving, and I still didn’t have any food, when the nurse returned I asked for food again, and she said that the doctor hadn’t approved it. I explained that the doctor said I was being discharged after lunch, so it would seem like he would be okay with me eating lunch. Long story short: It took another hour or two for me to get something to eat, and about a minute or two to realize that the food (chicken and rice and an indeterminate green vegetable of some sort) was mostly inedible. I ate what I could and fell back asleep, assuming I’d be woken up to be discharged, but I woke up on my own an hour or two later. Long story short: It took another hour or two for me to get discharged, and when Franny and I finally left the hospital it was about 5 pm.

The few people I’ve told this story to usually ask me if I have an EpiPen, which is a portable Epinephrin shot to carry around in the event something like this happens again. I have a prescription for an EpiPen, but I’ve yet to get it filled, as they aren’t covered by my insurance and they retail for about $600-$800. They also only come in packs of two, and they expire after about a year, which sounds to me like a win-win for the pharmaceutical company (Mylan, in this case) and a lose-lose for the people like me. Once again, money shouldn’t be a factor when it comes to shit like this, but this is the country we live in.

But I digress.

It was an eventful night, and in spite of all the frustrations and the impending bill, I am grateful to the doctors and the hospital and the pharmaceutical companies because if it weren’t for them I would probably be dead. And not being dead is a good thing, it just shouldn’t be so expensive.