My first visit to the circus was almost the last day of my life. I’d barely caught sight of the ringmaster when I started wheezing. Soon I couldn’t take a deep breath and was being wheeled on a stretcher backstage past the clowns. Who knew that the circus animals would give me a near-fatal allergy attack?
Anaphylactic shock, in which the whole body reacts to an allergen, is unforgettable: Your throat closes up; your lungs hunger for air; your fingernails turn blue. Medical personnel work at warp speed around you while your mind slows down. I remember noticing through the fog that they wrote my vitals in ink on the ER sheets just like on TV.
While I can avoid dander and confined spaces with animals, Sandra Beasley cannot do without her body’s worst enemy: food. Even a birthday party is a challenge. Eating ice cream could make her throat swell, and being kissed by someone who’s eaten cake could leave hives on her cheek. The refrain at young Sandra’s parties was the oddly cheerful “Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl” — the title of her honest and amusing medical memoir that’s also a patient-written primer on food allergies. This birthday girl doesn’t kvetch, though she has every right to. She doesn’t consider herself a victim, just someone who has to experience the world differently from the rest of us.
Beasley, an award-winning poet, is allergic to a full menu of foods: “dairy (including goat’s milk), egg, soy, beef, shrimp, pine nuts, cucumbers, cantaloupe, honeydew, mango, macadamias, pistachios, cashews, swordfish, and mustard.” There are 12 millionAmericans with food allergies, with reactions that range from an annoying itch to anaphylactic shock, the cause of death for 150 Americans each year. Beasley’s allergies are so severe that her parents could have sought broad protections for her at school under federal disability laws but chose not to.
Beasley diligently recounts the history and science of food allergies, but she’s most engaging when she weaves in her own story. Born in 1980, she didn’t benefit in early childhood from the increased awareness of food allergies that came in the 1990s — and she suffered frequent attacks. A mere taste of a food might make her vomit. “I grew up thinking in terms of not the reaction, but a reaction, perhaps as many as one a week,” she writes.
As a young girl in Northern Virginia, Sandra needed an adult-sized purse to schlep her medicines, including her asthma inhaler, her antihistamine and her EpiPen, a device that allowed her to self-inject a life-saving shot of epinephrine. “Picture a kid in thick-lensed glasses, indigo-dark jeans [and] . . . a beglittered T-shirt,” she writes. “Now add the purse of a thirty-two-year-old mother, complete with pills, tissues, safety pins, and too many pennies.”
When Beasley hit adolescence, she became neglectful of her condition and was even rude toward her doctors. “I ‘forgot’ to use my daily inhalers,” she writes. “When chided, I muttered, ‘It’s my body.’ . . . I was insufferable. I was a teenager.”
Food-allergic adults lead complicated lives. Getting ready to go out, Beasley applied makeup wondering if later in the evening an allergic reaction might make her eyes swell. “I coat my lips in Chapstick,” she writes, “not knowing if I’ll end up with a kiss or mouth-to-mouth from a fifty-three-year-old paramedic with halitosis.”
We root for Beasley when she is on a date with a sympathetic guy who waited outside the bathroom as she vomited from an allergy attack. “Sandra,” he told her, “You have to understand. I couldn’t picture explaining to your mom that I let you die alone — and on a toilet.”
Her memoir merely munches on the food allergen that has received entree-sized media and community attention: peanuts. Peanut-free zones abound in schools, baseball stadiums and airplanes. Peanut-sniffing dogs are available for the seriously allergic. Those of us with peanut-allergic relatives appreciate the concern. But Beasley isn’t a peanut-allergy advocate: She’s not allergic to them. Besides, peanuts are just one of the eight foods that cause more than 90 percent of U.S. allergies: The list also includes milk, eggs, tree nuts, fish, shellfish, soy and wheat.
And Beasley questions all the well-intentioned focus on peanuts: “But what if every one of the ‘big eight’ allergen contingents demanded the same courtesy, every time? . . . Why is a generation of children being raised under the belief that it takes a village to avoid a peanut?”
Despite all her challenges, Beasley lives with gusto, not fear. “My job is to center on staying safe in this world, but my job is also never to assume the world should revolve around keeping me safe,” she writes. “We have more important things to worry about. Don’t kill the birthday girl. The gifts are wrapped and the pinata waiting. We have a party to get to.”
Suzanne Allard Levingston is a freelance journalist based in Bethesda.