Food Matters – The One Where Don Had To Go To The Hospital

Food allergies seem to be much more common these days, and they can be deadly. Peanut allergies have become so severe airlines no longer serve them on flights and many schools have instituted peanut-free policies, some even have dairy-free policies. When an adult gets suddenly stricken with a severe food allergy, though, it often comes as a complete surprise. That’s what happened to me and I’m finally ready to tell you about what happened.

I haven’t discussed my sudden allergic attack here on my blog or on my All Points West column since it happened last spring, since the source of the food allergy was a mystery then, and it’s still somewhat of a mystery, but after some testing and consulting with an allergist I have enough information to have sort of an eating plan to make sure it doesn’t happen again…

The day after my attack. Still 'stuck' with hook-ups for the heart monitors. That's my sister beside me.

It was the Saturday before Easter Sunday, so the end of last March. I had purchased some chunks of halibut on Friday. I made some skewers that I grilled that night, and for lunch the next day I made another skewer and then some ceviche with the leftover pieces. So, lime juice, fish sauce, chilli pepper, probably some garlic or green onion. Not too long after lunch the trouble started. I felt dizzy. Went to the bathroom, had the dry heaves for a couple of minutes, then felt better. 15 minutes later I was back in the bathroom. I was burning up, had a metallic taste in my mouth, and started to get dizzy again. Told my wife I was going to faint…and I did. She found me sitting on the toilet, unconscious. Called 9-1-1. She said my lips were blue and swollen. The first responders didn’t know whether I was suffering from heart attack or allergic reaction. I came to in the ambulance, on the way to the hospital in Duncan. I was probably out for 15 minutes or so.

At Cowichan District Hospital they worked on me for hours. Hives, swollen lips, low blood pressure, but a racing heartbeat. I kept asking for water, because my throat seemed so dry. That was actually because it was closing up, I guess! Finally they got me stabilized, and kept me overnight for observation of my heart and blood pressure. The ER doctor said I had an anaphylactic reaction to something I ate, that it was not food poisoning of any sort.

I have never had any kind of reaction like this before, and certainly not to halibut, which is one of my favourite fishes to eat. So I got a referral to an allergist in Victoria. This is where you discover the strain on our health care system. I had my attack on March 30th. I had to wait until October 31st to get an appointment with the allergist. In the meantime I avoided ALL seafood, and started carry around an epipen. During my first appointment he did some scratch testing, all negative. And he sent me for a blood test that would specifically test if I were allergic to halibut. Negative. He cleared me to eat shellfish, so shrimp, crab, clams, squid, octopus. But he said make sure I carry not just one epipen, but two. He asked me to come back on January 14th, so another two and a half months in between appointments, and bring some raw and cooked halibut with me. I did, he did scratch tests again with the raw and the cooked, no reaction, then I stayed in his office for nearly three hours, eating a few more bites of halibut every 20 minutes or so. No reaction.

Anisakis Simplex, a parasitic worm found in halibut

So my allergist is stumped for the time being. He says I can eat fish again, but to avoid fresh, raw fish. So sushi from a reputable restaurant is okay, because the raw fish has to be frozen before serving. Keep carrying the epipens. There is one other possibility he will investigate for me. There may have been a parasitic worm in the halibut I ate that day. It’s called Anisakis Simplex and you can be allergic to that parasite, to the point of the kind of attack I had. But there’s no simple test he can do for it. If I can get my hands on a piece of halibut with a worm in it, he can mush it up and do some more skin testing on me. At the same time, he advised me that in adults, some 30 percent of the cause of these anaphylactic attacks is never found.

I promised my wife that I would try to never submit her to that kind of experience again. She was so upset by the whole thing, since she was there for the whole experience while I was drifting in and out of consciousness. They had the crash cart there, a big team of people working on me, right out of a TV show, I guess. But I have gone back to eating shellfish, but I will avoid any kind of fish that might have that parasite in it. At the same time I feel challenged to solve the mystery, and my allergist is committed to helping me test for the parasite. I have to tell you it will be a while before I feel comfortable eating fish again…even though the tests show I don’t have an allergy to it. And the whole incident and process has given me a lot more understanding of what children and adults with food allergies go through and why they have to be so careful. And if I ever figure out what caused my attack, I’ll be sure to let you know.

***Update*** Thanks to those of you who emailed me or All Points West after hearing the show. Some of you thought I might have had a reaction to MSG in one of the sauces I used in the ceviche. Nope. I have been using fish sauce and soya sauce, no reactions.  Others thought the symptoms resembled scombroid poisoning. They did, except scombroid poisoning is not usually linked to a fish such as halibut. It is more common in fishes like tuna, mackerel, sardines and anchovies. Could there have been cross-contamination from other fish being stored in the same cooler as the halibut? Perhaps, but neither my wife, who also ate the halibut, or any other customers of the fishmonger reported any signs of illness.

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2 Responses to Food Matters – The One Where Don Had To Go To The Hospital

  1. cat dillon says:

    Hi Don! Thank God you are alive and well…. I was in one of your Food and Travel Writing classes at UBC years ago. You were very gracious and fun…. Thanks!
    Well, I too am an allergy sufferer. I cannot go anywhere near tree nuts…. Anaphalaxis to the max. In fact, my Pastry Course at Pacific Culinary Arts was 1/2 a write off. While everyone was molding with marzipan, I was in a corner piping merengue. Ha!
    I wanted to ask you if you had any other occurances with other fish or if you had thought perhaps it was due to the nature of halibut being a bottom feeder?? Curious…
    I’m in San Diego now…. Take care,


    • Don Genova says:

      Hi Cat, no other occurrences with other fish and it all still remains a mystery. Am building up my courage to start eating sushi again!

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