It could be any night, but this time it’s Sunday night. I wake with a start, wondering why, but not for long. Then it begins; first the gnawing in the pit of the stomach followed by the shortness of breath, then the waiting. The waiting is bad – very bad – but it’s not the worst part; not even close.

I understand if you think you’ve experienced this. It sounds an awful lot like anxiety, or a mild panic attack. Granted, anxiety and panic are both part of the package, but they’re effect, not cause. Anxiety comes with wondering how long it will last and how exhausted I’ll be the next morning. Panic accompanies the unanswerable (at least in the initial stages) question of severity. How bad will this one be? What caused it? What did I unwittingly eat this time? Will this be the one; the one that finally forces me to reach for one of the expired Epi Pens strategically placed in the bedroom, truck, dry bag, backpack; whatever I might find myself living out of at any given moment?

It’s been long enough. There’s no denying it. Up and at ‘em! The next two hours will feature a very large allergy pill, random moments of profanity, an extended session on the throne punctuated by intermittent bouts of browsing Facebook and clawing at hives – maybe an ice bath if shit gets real – but what about the Epi Pen? We’ll get to that………eventually; sort of.

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I proffer apologies to the server then try to explain with a straight but not too straight face that if my chicken sandwich contains any traces of cow or pig I could die a few hours later. It’s gallows humor, but it’s true. Once the nervous chuckles subside I do my best to make sense for her of something that doesn’t really make much sense. Occasionally I get lucky.

“Oh, is that the tick bite thing?”

“Yes ma’am!”

“Yeah, my cousin got that. It’s crazy.”

“Great, then you know it’s legit.”

In those moments of blessed recognition I breathe a sigh of relief. The rest of the time (which is most of the time) I place my fate in the hands of another human who’s just trying to make a living and didn’t ask for the burden of saving a stranger from a potential night of misery or worse. Then I wink and tell her to Google tick bite allergy.

That’s usually when the conversation at the table turns to the uncle who has Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever or the brother who contracted Lyme Disease in the deer woods. I utter thanks that it’s neither of those things, then I tell the tale and wait for the inevitable questions.

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What has become known in my little gong show of a world as either the affliction or the tick bite allergy doesn’t, strictly speaking, have a name. Its cause does though; galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose, or alpha-gal as we carriers affectionately call it. It’s just a little old carbohydrate, but it doesn’t belong in my blood (or yours unless you happen to be a literate four legged mammal). Scientists believe it’s delivered via tick bite, specifically from the Lone Star tick, but however it arrives it just sits there dormant, causing no trouble unless the body’s immune system is triggered by an ill-advised bite of red meat. That’s right, friends. Thanks to a random tick encounter at some point in the last 48 years I choose daily between red meat and misery free nights. I’ll just let that sink in for a moment.

I am okay with this. I can drink beer. I can eat chicken, fish, veggies and legumes (when they’re not cooked with meat from land mammals) and many other tasty things. I’m told I could eat possum but have not felt compelled to test that assertion. I have friends who face far more difficult choices than avoiding a bacon cheeseburger, and let’s be honest. Not consuming four-legged critter is a pretty healthy decision to make, tick bite allergy or not. So why the whining?

This: turning down country ham or a chicken fried steak is simple enough. The tick in the ointment is the miscellany of nights I experience anaphylaxis without knowing why. Occasionally I’ll ferret out the source afterward. Beef fat and tallow in Twinkies? Really guys? Brown gravy on the turkey after a long day on the trail? Okay, that one’s on me, but there have been reactions for which I never discovered the trigger.

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So, about that Epi Pen… It’s 2:00. Or 3:00. I don’t know; a.m. of course. With me in the hotel room are my daughter and her mother. Having finally accepted the fact that I’m in the beginning stages of a reaction I find my way to the bathroom. My wife (now ex and friend) does too as soon as she realizes I’m in the throes of another one. I assure her I’ll be fine. She reluctantly acquiesces and returns to bed, after which I finally do the same and try to convince myself. Eventually I decide that while I’m unable to swallow I am able to breathe and thus resolve to wait it out.The culprit? A bratwurst. I was finally confronted with the truth I had known but refused to acknowledge for years. Whatever the reason, what I had doggedly insisted was a beef allergy was clearly something more.

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Like so many epiphanies this one did not reveal itself immediately. Rather, some months later I finally found myself in the exam room of a crackerjack allergist. She asked me about my symptoms, then she asked me how long I typically waited before deploying my Epi Pen.

“Epi Pen?”

“Yeah”, she said. “Any time you have more than one symptom concurrently you should use one. “Also, you’ve got alpha-gal”.

“Are you sure?”

“Oh yeah. We’ll run a blood test, but that’s what it is”.

I happen to know her outside the confines of the office so I felt emboldened to question her diagnosis.

“What if it comes back negative?” I asked. She peered at me over her glasses and we locked eyes just long enough for her to say…

“It won’t.”

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Alpha-gal Diagnosis:

  1. Several hours after consuming meat, broth or byproduct from a cow, pig, lamb, bison – any four legged land mammal – you may experience an allergic reaction including but not limited to shortness of breath, gastric distress, diarrhea, swollen throat, difficulty breathing and hives. What differentiates an alpha-gal reaction is the delayed onset compared to other allergic reactions.
  2. If you experience any of these symptoms see an allergist pronto for a definitive diagnosis and if necessary advice for living with Alpha-gal. It is not something to take lightly.

If you have specific questions please drop me a line.

See you out there!

Deuce

Deuce

CAO (Chief Adventure Officer) at Arkansas Adventuregram
Luke "Deuce" Coop is a lover of adventure and the written word. He's paddled, rowed, camped, fished and hiked across the map but his favorite outdoor adventure playground is his own back yard. Whether he's fishing and camping on the White, float camping or running the entire Buffalo, paddling the Mulberry, Little Missouri or Big Piney creek or hiking the Ouachita or Buffalo River trails he's right at home adventuring in Arkansas, and he created Arkansas Adventuregram so you can join him. He looks forward to seeing you out there!
Deuce

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