My husband, Cary, is the hard-working rugged type and a self-described carnivore who loves the great outdoors. He works hard and he plays hard. He grew up on the typical American diet of processed food and whatever was available in the drive thru. The four most basic canned veggies are the quintessential cornerstone of his meat and potatoes diet. At least they were, until alpha-gal entered our relationship back in August of 2018 and turned our world upside down.
My daughter and I were enjoying a typical late summer afternoon, taking note of the few dead leaves that had started to fall. We were goofing off, just spending some quality time together waiting for her father to get home from work. Dinner was on the stove getting cold when we finally heard the door open and looked to the hallway in search of his large silhouette.
He was a tall, bearded man, about 260 pounds of pure testosterone. At the time we had a small house with eight-foot ceilings which made him appear massive in the afternoon shadows. While he always bent a little in the knees stepping up into the kitchen, something was different this time. He was moving slowly, and his distinctive lofty stature was compromised. It seemed difficult for him to drag himself up into the kitchen where he leaned against the counter like he’d just finished a marathon.
I sensed there was a problem but couldn’t imagine what it might be. As I got up to greet him my mother’s eyes quickly scanned for the sight of blood, and I was quietly reassured by the lack of its presence. I wondered if perhaps he’d been in an accident on the way home? Maybe he’d hit his head; could he just be dazed? I quickly dismissed the notion since he’d driven himself home and he wasn’t that late.
His odd behavior coupled with the apparent absence of major injury befuddled me and my momma senses went into overdrive. He said he didn’t feel good, and I could tell by his strange demeanor that he wasn’t exaggerating. Then my eyes suddenly fixed on his lower legs. There were large oddly shapen welts covering his meaty calves. They seemed to appear in an instant. Faint at first, then darker and more pronounced as they wrapped around his legs and climbed up under his shorts. I was offended and bewildered at the same time.
I pulled his shirt from his pants to find more on his back. They seemed to be mutating before my eyes, almost reaching for each other as they threatened to completely cover what was left of his tan skin. I knew he could see the concern in my eyes as I gave him the Benadryl, but I made it a point to stay calm. His face and his ears were unusually dark red, and I suspected his blood pressure was probably through the roof. As we anxiously waited for signs the antihistamine was working, my husband said the words that struck fear deep down in the pit of my soul. “I can’t breathe.”
Life Threatening Reaction
At first, I was dumbfounded. I wasn’t quite sure what to do but I wanted someone else to take over. I stared at him for a moment, watching his slow labored breathing as my brain interpreted the words he said. I knew something was very wrong and I didn’t know how to fix it. I froze in fear at the sound of those words. Then it occurred to me that I was scared but he must be terrified. He was struggling for every breath.
Luckily, we lived just over five miles from the nearest hospital. In a fraction of a second, I decided that I would drive him there myself. No calling 9-1-1 and waiting for someone to put down their cup of coffee before trying to find our house. It wasn’t clearly marked anyway. What if he passed out before they got there? I couldn’t take that chance. Besides, I’d never be able to keep him calm long enough to wait on an ambulance as his last little bit of air slipped away. So, he mustered his last bit of strength, which was probably pure adrenaline, and we made it out to the car together.
It took us approximately 8 minutes to get to the hospital, running almost all six stoplights and crossing the Georgia state line. The ER attendant attempted to have us sit down and fill out paperwork even though my husband was quite obviously dizzy and not well on his feet. Fortunately, she got her ass in gear when I explained that he couldn’t breathe. They calmly escorted us into the triage area to examine him and before we knew it there were people buzzing everywhere.
My husband was sprawled across the exam table with nurses and doctors going to and fro, speaking quietly amongst themselves. There were sensors hooked up to his fingertips and the bright white light seemed to shine straight down into his eyes as they put the oxygen mask over his face.
He was pale and sweaty when they started giving him shots, measuring his pulse for signs of positive change. They pulled the thick hospital curtain shut to shield the other patients from his possible demise. Our little girl was ten at the time, standing there watching quietly. She stood frozen, staring as they worked on her father. Words were useless in that moment.
At the end of it all there was a battery of tests. They seemed to drag on for hours before the doctor on duty came to talk with us. He was perplexed and stoic as he explained that Cary had suffered a violent allergic reaction. It was so violent, in fact, that it had sent his body into anaphylactic shock.
We discussed the food he’d eaten which wasn’t much and nothing out of the ordinary. We talked about colognes and shampoos and laundry detergent, none of which had been changed from the usual brands. We talked about anything that may have been ingested or absorbed into the skin throughout the day which may have possibly caused such a violent reaction. There was nothing – nothing that we could pinpoint and nothing more we could possibly do. We were at a loss.
The Tick That Gave Him Alpha-Gal
Suddenly, I remembered I had pulled a tick off my husband about two weeks prior to ‘the hospital incident.’ There was something strange about it. I couldn’t say what it was, but I was compelled to take a picture of the little critter that had invaded our space. I’m not sure why really, call it intuition. It was quite unusual. Lightbulbs went off in my head as I relayed this info to the doctor. It was the only thing that had been different in our relatively structured lives.
As I told the doctor about it, he chuckled and patted me on the head as if to say, “you foolish child.” He assured me that the day’s events had absolutely nothing to do with some tick and we were probably looking for a food item. I was really quite offended at the way I was dismissed but I was also grateful we were all going home together.
We were given a prescription for an EpiPen and sent on our way. Our instructions were to follow up with an allergist. The EpiPen itself was of little comfort. Neither of us had ever used one and we still didn’t have any idea what had caused my husband’s anaphylaxis. We were fearful it would happen again but at least the EpiPen would buy us a little time to get to the hospital. My husband and I were left dumbfounded and vulnerable. To say the experience was nerve-wracking was an understatement.
It took a couple of weeks to get in to see an allergist, but it was progress. In the meantime, we needed answers. What caused his body to start shutting down so suddenly? Could it happen again? Would it happen again and was there any way to stop it? We needed answers, not only for safety’s sake but as a matter of life and death. So, I did what every red-blooded American does when they need information. I took to the internet.
Boy, did I find some answers. The thing is that it took a lot of digging. I poured hundreds of hours into research. I took notes, printed stuff out and cross-referenced material until I couldn’t see straight. I read through medical journals, clinical trials, and personal stories. Every little bit of significant information retrieved was organized and set aside like pieces of a puzzle waiting to click quietly into place. The picture that emerged was one of the Alpha-Gal allergy leading to an extreme overhaul of Cary’s diet.
At the allergist he endured extensive skin prick tests, breathing tests, oxygen saturation tests, and eventually a blood test which confirmed our fears. Cary had developed the Alpha-Gal allergy, which even the doctor knew little about. It was a sad parting gift left behind by the strange tick I had pulled off my husband weeks before. The bite that triggers the Alpha-Gal allergy comes from a specific species of tick known as Amblyomma Americanum.
It is commonly called the Lone Star tick because of the white ‘star-like’ dot on the back of the female. This little parasite is indigenous to the East, Southeast and Midwestern United States, as far as they know, but it’s also found in other parts of the world. It’s an aggressive feeder with a painless bite and it feeds on any unsuspecting host that crosses its path. For people, this often means a sudden onset of seemingly crazy symptoms. If anaphylactic shock doesn’t kill them, they’re later diagnosed with the Alpha-Gal allergy. My husband had visited the brink of death and peered over the edge of the cliff.
Cary had an extreme case. The Alpha-Gal allergy is commonly known as the red meat allergy but it’s so much more than that. Those afflicted with the allergy can’t have any food item from any animal that nurses its young, including dairy. For unknown reasons, people with Alpha-Gal also tend to develop a sudden allergy to peanuts and cats. It’s very weird. The really difficult part is that symptoms don’t manifest immediately. If Cary were to eat a hamburger, it would be at least six to eight hours before he showed signs of anaphylactic shock.
Alpha-Gal Changed Everything
We had to analyze everything that went into his mouth. For the first six weeks he lived on fish, rice, and vegetables losing more than 50lbs. Depression was knocking on his door, beating louder and louder every day. Eventually I put my culinary skills to real use, creating everything from scratch so we knew exactly what was in it. Creating recipes and learning to cook without the use of dairy, beef, fat, bacon, pork, butter, etc. was no easy feat.
Eventually I created recipes that actually tasted good. Meatloaf, cinnamon rolls, cookies, and so much more. I created an entire book of alpha-gal recipes. I even started making cashew butter with cashews and olive oil so he could have peanut butter and jelly (as long as the jelly is made with pectin). Of course, he can’t have gelatin because that’s a pork derivative that sends his body over the edge.
This new gal in our relationship is harsh and she is strict. She has no compassion and refuses to compromise. Any meal was a very big deal for a long time, especially during the holidays, but again I have created special recipes. I wasn’t going to let her win. I am a protective wife who did not welcome this gal into our relationship.
We fought for our marriage in the face of a gal who tried to destroy it. Now she is still there, and she must be acknowledged. She demands attention and we give her what she’s due but not one iota more. Alpha-gal is an unwelcome third wheel in our relationship and we treat her that way. So, next time you’re outside in thick brush – be careful. You could bring home the new gal in your relationship!