Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Danger at the Hotsprings Retreat -Surviving a Deadly Organic Vegetarian Feast

I went on vacation about six weeks ago.  Which was weird for me. Normally I just work. But I needed to Ctrl+Alt+Delete my stress, my brain, and my awareness. So I booked a three day, four night stay at Breitenbush Hot Springs in Oregon. Novelty and vacation is good for your brain like that.  The kitchen provides three delicious vegetarian meals a day.

I told them about my anaphylactic peanut allergy when I booked the trip. I told the people at the front desk when I checked in. Before dinner that night, I knocked at the door of the kitchen, and I introduced myself and explained about cross contamination and my peanut allergy. I tried to be as friendly and cute as I possibly could. I realize my allergy is inconvenient and being super nice and cute makes people like you. Most of all: it helps win people over, get them on your side. Being cute and nice helps you survive.

Living for over 33 years with an extremely severe food allergy I have consciously made the choice not to be demanding, insisting, nasty, or rude when I am explaining to people about the extreme severity of my peanut allergy. I am down to Earth. I am compassionate and sweet and I smile a lot. I sometimes show the cooks my Epipen and tell them about the time I was in the hospital for two days because I accidentally ingested a crumb of peanut protein so small I couldn't even see it.

I didn't choose to have peanut allergy and I'd really rather not have it. I hate it when I inconvenience others. I try to be really, really nice about it. I am really old and so far this strategy has been extremely effective.

I was having a great relaxing time on the retreat. I discovered a cool trick: at 9 at night, floating in the pool on my back looking up at the billions of stars. The air was so clear I could see the milky way galaxy stretch all the way across the sky in splattered white paint like a Jackson Pollack painting. Totally zen and completely beautiful. I was floating and looking up at the night sky. Not touching anything. Felt like I was floating through outer space! It really did. Awesome feeling. Great soak.

The next day, after breakfast, I went on a two and a half mile hike. Uphill and downhill and uneven terrain on frozen ground. I turned back at the river. The bridge over the fast flowing river was frozen with a thick layer of frost. And the rickety bridge only had one rail. I decided not to risk crossing the bridge. I could slip and fall into the fast flowing rapids below. If anything, my allergy has taught me caution, and I've tried to live mindfully and make wise choices, rather than living in constant fear.

When I returned to Breitenbush for lunch, I was starving. I was ravenous. I was hungry. And I wanted hot food. The springs are located in the mountains and the warmest it got on the hike was probably 20 degrees.

I went to the meal hall in the main lodge and I got in line. While in line, I leisurely grabbed the ingredients binder and started reading the ingredients. Then I read one word and my heart skipped a beat. The worst word I have ever read: peanuts. There were peanuts in the buffet food. There would be people eating peanuts at all the tables. I threw the binder on the table and got the fuck out of there. Relaxation and my sense of safety disappeared. I was kind of upset. I told everybody about this, and yet I am still in danger, I thought to myself.

It was too dangerous for me to be in the dining room. Little kids with peanut crumbs on their hands touching everything. And the peanuts were stir fried. That awful smell of cooked peanuts. I have smelled people who have died, and honestly I'd rather smell dead people than peanuts.

When I smell peanuts, I do not want to breathe. I quickly put on my warm clothes and I left the dining room and walked to the kitchen building. I knocked and then when I was inside, I told them about my allergy. Again. The lady cook was like, it should be fine, the peanuts are only in one dish. I started crying. This was a buffet dish that the peanuts were in. Deadly peanuts were in a tray next to every other food. All kinds of cross contamination hazards right there. Had I listened to the cook, who was trying to be nice to me I would be dead. This kitchen did not understand anaphylactic food allergies. This was so ironic, here they were serving organic vegetarian food to people because it was healthier and they didn't even get that they could kill people with cross contamination of an allergenic food.

I realized that I was not going to be eating with other people for this meal, and I started crying even harder. I was starving. I was not going to be able to eat. The main chef took me into the back cooler and she made me a big salad out of the separated ingredients in airtight plastic trays. She explained that this food was in sealed containers in the refrigerator while the peanut stir fry was cooking. This salad was going to be safe for me to eat. She was nice.

I took the salad and I carried it to a picnic table outside. I was not risking going into the peanut infested dining room. The temperature had climbed to about 25 degrees Fahrenheit (-5 degrees Celcius.) I was wearing insulated gloves, but it was so cold my fingers went dead. After three minutes of eating I could not feel them. They were white to the touch and numb. After lunch, my fingers eventually came back to life after a later soak in the hot springs, but it was painful. Needles and pins. I was very cold.

I was looking forward to a hot meal. I was looking forward to eating in community. I was kind of hoping to feel a little safe. I felt a little betrayed and hurt.

Although I wanted hot food and to be warm, above all else, I wanted to stay alive. To get my primary need of survival met, I was going to have to suffer. A lot. And I did. The good news is that I lived.

But the good news does not end at my mere survival. It keeps getting better: a nice lady from Bend, Oregon saw me sitting outside in the cold, and she took her lunch outside and sat next to me and talked to me while we ate lunch. Her name was Kiya, and she was so nice to me. When we were done eating, after I told her about my allergy, she took my salad bowl to the dish tray inside the dining room. She was a school teacher, and I am very grateful for her kindness. She made me feel better and kept me company when I was so very cold and alone.

The rest of the day, in the lodge, in the dining room, I was going to have to be extra careful. Extra mindful. I washed my hands after touching any surface in the building, and made an effort not to touch my eyes, face, or mouth. Peanut protein can cause anaphylaxis via contact allergy at these points. My relaxing retreat had turned into trying to avoid death by cross contamination.

Even with my extreme caution, and drastic measures, I could not sleep the night. My skin was so itchy. I woke up from bad sleep the next morning with eczema. Extremely tired.  I could not sleep well because I felt like I was covered with mosquito bites. That was the only symptom though, no asthma, no wheezing, no throat closing up feeling, it was definitely not anaphylaxis. Just a mild reaction. I am lucky. I guess I should have left the resort after the peanuts and drove home, but I didn't. I get eczema all over my body from skin contact with peanut protein. It hurts a lot.

So this is my tale: of lethal danger, of survival, of kindness and compassion. I hoped you liked it. If you or someone you love is affected by peanut allergy, please share this on every social media site that you frequent. My goal is to help other people survive this.

There is an extreme amount of suffering that comes with this allergy. Isolation. Loneliness. The feeling of having your trust betrayed by people who thought it was okay to put your deadly allergen on the buffet line.

My hope is that one day every state in the USA would require everybody that has a 'Food Handler's' permit to be educated about food allergies and the dangers of cross contamination. Thanks for reading, and please subscribe to my blog for more fascinating stories from the front lines of peanut allergy survival.