Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Road Less Swallowed: My Allergy Discovery Journey [Pt. I]

Here is how I first discovered that I had a food allergy.

About three years ago, I had a traumatic experience with food poisoning while at Walt Disney World that left me sick for most of a week (and missing much of our vacation). It was our fourth trip to the resort in about seven years, and while all three of our previous trips were great successes (except for the small part on the last trip where I briefly came down with the flu), this time we were staying at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. If you have not stayed there, I can tell you that it is a magnificent place and should not be missed, at least for a visit to the lobby interior and to visit one of the restaurants. 

I was truly fired up for this trip for a couple of reasons. There was a new Italian place in Epcot where I was going to get pizza (my favorite food... period) and we would be celebrating my birthday at that dinner as well. The best part is that I would have the opportunity to take as many pictures of African animals as I liked since the grounds of Animal Kingdom Lodge are surrounded by giraffes, zebras, warty pigs, antelopes of many varying species, and best of all, okapis. I was uber-excited to hang out all day with lovely okapis, my very favorite mammal.

For the first half of the trip, everything was beautiful. We hit all the Disney parks, we rode rides (because that's what you do with them), and we ate like kings. Or rather, ate like a king and three queens. Or just ate like people who really appreciate good food. We dined at many of the nicer restaurants in the hotels and in Downtown Disney, but we enjoyed our share of junk food too. The new Epcot pizza place turned out to be much louder than I wished, but the pizza was fine, and my birthday was swell. All was great... until the night after my birthday.

The most likely suspects were some bad mushrooms at the Canadian steakhouse in Epcot, where again, the food was just fine (though the service was a tad lacking). All seemed to be copacetic as we were preparing to leave dinner to return to our hotel room so we could get some sleep and power up for a full day inside the Magic Kingdom tomorrow. But, I was having some problems as I sat for the last half of my meal. My breathing became a bit labored for a couple of minutes, but then the problem died down as suddenly as it came. I finished my meal, but my throat was tensing up on me even though it felt like there was nothing blocking it. I was just thinking maybe I had eaten too fast. I had a brief bout of dizziness as we were getting up to leave, and I excused myself to go outside and get some fresh air, thinking that maybe it was all I needed since I quite regularly get a little claustrophobic inside rooms where there are a lot of people talking non-stop and I can't readily escape.

Even after getting some air, my throat was still tensing up. My significant other (then, and wife now, somehow) Jen retrieved me and we started to make our way to the Epcot exits. Standing in the middle of the crowd, I suddenly felt a great disturbance in the Force as if everything that I had ever eaten in my entire life cried out and wished to be voided from my body. I made my way to the edge of the crowd... and horror ensued. Everything from dinner met the air, and I am still greatly surprised that the license plate from the stomach of Jaws didn't show up as well, so disgusting was the scene. The torrent continued, but after a quick cleanup in the men's room of the Coca-Cola Club Cool building (so sorry about the rug I hit on the way inside), I managed to calm down enough to catch the shuttle back to the hotel.

By the time we made it back to our beautiful suite in the Animal Kingdom Lodge, I was still extremely nauseous and dizzy. I spent that entire evening in our massive bathroom doing what I still refer to as a "Randy Marsh". (If you don't know South Park, look it up.) I was up almost every twenty minutes through the night and therefore got very little sleep. The next morning, I felt like hell and my throat was raw from its setting getting switched to "reverse," but I still tried to see if something would settle my stomach. Water and toast for breakfast. Then a Sprite to see if the carbonation would help. I was also not the only one to have difficulties with dinner the previous night. Jen's mom, Sande, also ate the mushrooms -- it was the one item at dinner that we shared -- and had similar results. She certainly didn't have the spectacular theme park display that I did, but she was sick all the same.

After a late morning nap, mostly out of sheer exhaustion, our quartet (which also included Jen's aunt, Sue) endeavored to still carve out some hours at the Magic Kingdom. I made it almost two hours (but not quite) before I had to catch a monorail to a depot to then catch a shuttle back to Animal Kingdom Lodge to put myself to bed for the remainder of the day. And by "bed," I mean, living in the bathroom for most of the time, continuing to Randy Marsh like nobody's business. Here, I will spare you the more grisly details of my existence over the remainder of our vacation. Any strength I had left was spent taking pictures of okapis and other animals from the second floor balcony of our room (I took over 1400 photos that trip because of this), and physically, I was just miserable constantly.

And this cannot be stressed enough, because it will later be one of those "Aha!" moments for the reader, because it was for me as well... For the remainder of the trip, all I ate was crackers and wheat toast. A little bit of peanut butter on the toast at one point for some flavor, and sometimes the wheat toast would be a toasted bagel instead, but otherwise, I was just pounding crackers and bread for the last few days. Somewhere in there, I started to develop a small cough. I thought it was from the relentless vomiting, because my throat was scratchy and sore all the time. The small cough would turn into a long series of coughs, and then progressed into a awful rattle that would cause me to wretch even more.

On the other side of things, Jen's mom was still not feeling well either, but was not coughing and carrying on as long as I was. Sande was not coughing at all, in fact. On the morning that Jen and I flew back to Southern California, I was unsure as to whether I would break my string of never stepping into a bathroom on an airplane (I have gone for many years without having to do so), and I was taking copious amounts of Imodium A-D before we left for the airport. Luckily, while my stomach continued to turn loops on me, I contained things well enough that I didn't break my streak. I was even able to eat (and keep down) a breakfast sandwich at the airport to try and get a little protein in me, since I had eaten very little outside of crackers and bread the past few days. But that mysterious cough continued unabated. I coughed through the whole flight, definitely annoying the hell out of everyone onboard. I must say that when you feel as sick as I did at that moment, you really don't give a crack about anyone else around you.

When I returned home to Anaheim, I immediately went to my doctor, who treated me for food poisoning. Some antibiotics and I rebounded from that quite quickly. The cough was another matter. Chest x-rays showed my lungs were clear, but they treated me for bronchitis anyway and prescribed to me a codeine-laced cough syrup. I returned to work and drove my office mates crazy for the next month, continuing to cough endlessly to the point where I started working from home as much as possible (luckily, I was then in a situation where I could do that on certain days). There was another problem related to the coughing that cropped up. The cough would sometimes get so tense that I would eventually throw up whatever I had eaten most recently.

After a month, I had enough and went back to my doctor. She decided to send me to a specialist, who then scheduled me for an endoscopy. They discovered that I had developed eosinophilic esophagitis. My esophagus and upper intestine were covered in tiny red blotches called eosinophils, and it was quite likely that their rather rude and unsolicited appearance there was due to a food allergy. But first... a colonoscopy! Mostly to make sure that the little buggers hadn't infiltrated my lower GI area, but I think the doctors just wanted to have fun with my back end. The weirdest part is that I woke up from the anesthesia halfway through the colonoscopy, and made small talk and jokes with the doctors (one male and one female) the rest of the way. (I do remember asking the docs if they had seen my keys back there, because I thought that I had lost them.)

I was given the "all clear" on the colonoscopy, which allowed my doctors to focus in on the upper GI. I was told that the next step would be to determine if one of the major food allergen groups was the cause of my distress. I was put on an elimination diet, where I first had to cut out all foods in my diet from these eight groups: eggs, milk (dairy), peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, shellfish, fish, and soybeans. For a two-week period, I was to not eat anything from these groups, and then after the period was over, each week I was supposed to add one of the groups back into my diet to see what effect they had on me.

It's not as easy as it sounds at first, because some dishes have a little bit of everything or many things in them. Most of my favorite foods had to be dead for me for a fortnight. I couldn't have a cheeseburger for lunch because of the bread and the cheese. I couldn't have burritos because of the flour tortilla and the cheese. Pad Thai was out because of the eggs, peanuts, and fish sauce. In fact, most Asian was out anyway because of soy sauce. Pizza? Fuhgeddabouit. And fast food overall was pretty much a goner.

Looking back now, after a few years of learning about food alternatives and which restaurants and grocery stores cater more readily to such choices, it is easy to forget just how daunting it was to ask me to cut all of this out of his diet at once. My doctors had it all over the Brave Little Tailor. Forget seven in one blow; the sawbones had amped that killer blow up to eight. (Though really, shellfish and fish were rarely a thing with me anyway. Not foods I sought out, then or now. Especially now, but more on that at a later date... foreshadowing!)

For those two weeks of preparation for my elimination diet, I pretty much ate chicken, rice, and vegetables. I brought carrot and celery sticks to work for lunch -- in fact, walked around the office munching whole carrots with greens in the Bugs Bunny way that I enjoy, and even talking like him most of the day. I would get the occasional rice bowl if I went with my team for lunch, but basically had what I was eating at home: chicken, rice, and vegetables. Without at least bread and cheese being involved, it was a pretty dull time, but I did lose a bit of weight eating that way. The most positive side effect: my cough totally stopped.

And then came time to start adding the major food allergen groups back into my diet, one by one...

[To be continued in Part II. Read it by clicking here.]

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