As a safety and loss control consultant I have a confession to make…I have had a total of five workers’ compensation claims in my lifetime. Yes five. One minor laceration that required three stitches during my teenage years at McDonalds, a twisted ankle at UPS, and one broken rib from an altercation trying to stop a shoplifter.
The other two were nearly fatal; one with my previous employer and the other with my current employer. According to the paramedic who was sitting on my chest one sunny afternoon when I awoke in the back of an ambulance in Alexandria, VA, he said it could have been fatal as he asked me if I actually saw the bright white light.
To be exact, I have had one near-death experience and two very close near-death experiences from an allergic reaction to peanuts that resulted in anaphylactic shock from accidently ingesting something that wasn’t supposed to have nuts in it. If anybody has ever experienced anaphylactic shock from an allergic reaction, then you know that it can be one of the scariest experiences you could ever go through. I equate it to having an elephant park himself on your chest, or better yet, running a mile as fast as you can and then be given a coffee stirrer to breathe through while you pinch your nose for the next 10 minutes.
The initial reaction from an allergic reaction is disbelief as you suddenly experience an abrupt sensation that something just isn’t right. Then within seconds, you begin to feel your heart-rate jump from 75 to180 beats per minute as your body begins to go into self- defense mode to fight off the allergens that have invaded it. As all your senses begin to magnify, you realize that within minutes you will be dead if you don’t act quickly. As you pray to your heavenly father above for relief, you realize that you probably will never again get a chance to go home and hug your wife and children but you are willing to fight with everything you have to get that opportunity.
In each of my instances as I awaited medical attention, just out of reach of the EpiPen (epinephrine), I try to take with me everywhere I go, I was cognitive of everything around me but just couldn’t breathe. As the allergic reaction begins to take its toll, you begin to sweat profusely from every pore within your body, drenching your clothing as you begin to lose the use of muscles in your neck, arms and legs due to the lack of oxygen in your blood stream. Just holding your head up starts to become strenuous. Your only focus in the world at that very moment is that very next breath. Then it becomes that very next breath and so forth with that much more intensity each time.
While your limbs begin to turn to jello, you realize you are inhaling a little less oxygen with each struggling breath and you feel your lungs slowly closing off. As your body slowly succumbs to the allergic reaction, you continue to pray that medical help arrives before you lose the ability to breathe, and you begin to stare at the sidewalk or floor realizing that this is the very place you will die. Everything begins to feel cold and you feel alone even though the people around you are trying to do whatever they can. Then you begin to hear a distant siren from an ambulance growing closer and you realize there is hope.
In the one situation in downtown Alexandria, VA just outside one of our insured’s offices, one of the most comical yet horrifying situations occurred. As the fire truck arrived, it accidentally crashed into the parked vehicle just a few feet away from where I was trying to stand. As the rest of the firefighters hopped out to give the driver a hard time my program manager, Carol Anderson from Fireman’s Fund Insurance Company a take charge kind of person, snapped at them and one finally came to my aid as I pleaded for an EpiPen. He informed me that they didn’t carry an EpiPen on their truck and to hang on as the ambulance was just a few blocks away. With my co-workers standing
around helplessly, I blacked out.
Once arriving at the hospital in all of my severe episodes, each time it felt like an out of body experience as if I was thrusted into an old NBC E.R. rerun, mixed in with a horrible remake to the movie Groundhog Day. There is nothing more helpless an emotion than the feeling being unable to move with of 10-12 medical personnel hovering over you, cutting off your shirt, sticking you everywhere and doctors barking out orders as they warm up the crash cart.
Luckily, I lived through each of these experiences and countless less severe incidents over the years. I have spent 48 gracious years being allergic to peanuts and I don’t take any day for granted. I know I am on borrowed time. Each day that I awake, I know that this could be my last day on earth, as I truly believe this is how I will leave this earth some day.
I didn’t always have such a severe reaction to peanuts, but as I became more and more exposed to them over the years, I grew to become hyper-sensitive to them to the point where I am now deathly allergic to them. This is why you now see mothers freaking-out whenever peanuts are exposed to their children at schools as I am a walking example of what can occur once you grow up if you continue to be exposed. Up to 20% of all children today can successfully outgrow this terrible allergy if they are successfully unexposed to them during their childhood.
Today there are approximately 12 million people living with a food allergy in the United States and every year approximately 200 people will die from it. There are another estimated 30,000 anaphylactic reactions to foods treated in emergency departments every year. The common allergens that account for 90% of all reactions are from milk, eggs, peanuts, tree nuts (such as walnuts and cashews), fish, shellfish (such as shrimp), soy, wheat, and sesame seeds.
Those of you who know me know I really don’t like sharing my allergic reaction stories. However, it always comes up whenever I go out to eat with a group of people at a new restaurant because I have to ask the waitress to make sure that the dish I ordered is nut-free. This allergy has altered many phases of my life, as I never indulge in any desserts as many include nuts that are well hidden. I usually eat at the same restaurants and order the same meals, as I have had to become a creature of habit to preserve my life.
When I eat out in a restaurant my greatest fear is cross-contamination from allergens that come into contact with my meal from a contaminated knife or preparation area. When I eat a meal in an unfamiliar area while traveling, I always Google the nearest hospital and distance while waiting for my food, making a mental note in the event I need to drive there in a rush or if I have to give directions. I keep an EpiPen in my briefcase and at home, but because they are temperature sensitive, I cannot keep them in my car.
How To Address Food Allergies At Work:
• Take an accounting of those employees at work who have a food allergy and know if they carry an EpiPen and where they keep it in the event you need to retrieve it.
• Train somebody on your staff on how to administer epinephrine EpiPen if there is a person with a food allergy.
• When bringing pastries or donuts to the office, order some that are peanut-free and ask to have them packaged separately, away from those with nuts.
• When having a pot-luck luncheon or catered meal, have those that prepared the food identify the dishes that can have the common allergens.
• Avoid cross contamination with dishes or desserts by using separate knives and serving spoons.
• Know where the nearest hospital is when traveling with co-workers as it is sometimes quicker to drive them to the hospital than to wait for an ambulance.
• When handling and eating foods such as peanut butter sandwiches in the break room, wash your hands and take the time to thoroughly clean surfaces, like tables, to eliminate all residue.
• If you bring snacks to the break room for others to eat, bring them in the original package so that labels can be cross-referenced for allergens.
To conclude, I learned several weeks after my incident in Alexandria, VA that summer of 2000 that an underwriter in our Chicago office started to experience a slower but similar feeling after eating seafood in a restaurant. After hearing of my story, but not aware that he was allergic to seafood, he decided at that instant that he should probably get checked out. By the time he got to the hospital he was in full-fledged anaphylactic shock and claimed that he would have never made it if he had not acted when he did.
So, I share my story with the hopes that this will save another life somewhere, somehow and to make people more aware of the severity of food allergies at work. Be safe, my friends.
Keven Moore is director of Risk Management Services for Roeding Insurance (www.roedinginsurance.com). He has a bachelor’s degree from University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both the Lexington and Northern Kentucky offices. Keven can be reached at email@example.com.