My weekend along the Delaware River had started out beautifully. A friend and I had rented a secluded house along a calm bend, and filled our time with saunas, walks and meals of oysters and wine. After one such meal, we made a roaring fire, sat on the couch in the darkness that was illuminated only by the crackling logs, and chatted and laughed the evening away. This post should be a destination piece, filled with notes about where we stayed, how we got there, and useful tips on how to arrange such a trip…
Instead, something happened that took my lovely weekend and turned it into a nightmare.
We sat watching the fire, wine glasses in hand. I folded my legs beneath me, Indian-style, and sank deeper into the couch. I felt something on my ankle and brushed my hand against it…
My God, I thought, it’s a spider. A huge spider.
My friend was talking, and I didn’t want to make a scene, so I quickly brushed the spider from my lap. I felt a sharp pinch on my finger. That’s when I knew that the *thing* I had felt wasn’t a spider…
“I was just stung by a bee!” I shouted.
“A bee?” my friend laughed. We were, after all, indoors. People don’t get stung by bees when they’re inside, right?
Sure enough, however, after the lights were turned on, the offending, fat, yellow and black striped bee sat there. I stared at it, my heart racing. Great, I thought, there goes the weekend. Panic started to set in.
For most people, insect stings are a minor annoyance. For me, bee stings can be deadly. See, I’m allergic. Really allergic. That’s why it would’ve been wise to carry an Epi-Pen along with me to our secluded house on the river, which could’ve delivered an injection of epinephrine (adrenaline) to combat the bee venom. Of course, because it had been about 15 years since I had last been stung, and because I sort of felt, I don’t know, like I would never be stung again, I had stopped carrying my Epi-Pen.
In my mind, my allergy to bees had become something of mythological proportions. My name- Melissa- derived from Apis mellifera, which is Latin for honey-bearing bee, has become a strange, ironical metaphor for my life. I’ve always felt like a sort of walking time-bomb; my life both sweet and dangerous. I’ve even written about my name and allergy before on this blog. Because of the story I had created for myself, the reality that I could ever really get stung again seemed almost a fiction.
But I was stung. Indoors. In front of a beautiful, roaring fire. Miles from any town, and many more miles away from a hospital, on the shore of a beautiful, secluded spot on the river.
Luckily, as the seconds went by, the symptoms I had in the past didn’t appear. My throat didn’t start to swell, and I didn’t have any problem breathing, both of which would’ve been symptoms of a serious reaction.
“Let’s go to the hospital!” my friend suggested.
“Give it another minute,” I said, “I think I’m fine.”
I mentally ticked off my symptoms. My heart was racing, and I was having a hard time controlling the shaking in my hands. My friend said that my voice sounded a little funny, and I was wheezing just a bit.
“I’m just stressed out!” I self-diagnosed. “I’m having none of the dangerous symptoms I had in the past! My finger isn’t even swelling!”
My friend wasn’t so sure, but, as I waved my non-swelling finger in the air, I was insistent: there was no need for a hospital.
I still felt shaky, but oddly reassured that nothing was wrong with me when I felt more annoyance than panic when my friend tried to comfort me by singing the “Soft Kitty” song from the TV show, the Big Bang Theory. [Note: if anyone has seen the Big Bang Theory and knows the song I'm talking about, you'll understand why I thought it so __________ (Strange? Weird? Cold? Insert-your-word-here?) that my friend was trying to console me in this manner.]
Soon, I went to sleep. There didn’t seem, after all, any reason to stay awake since I was POSITIVE I wasn’t having an allergic reaction. “Wow,” I thought. “It sure is nice that I’ve outgrown my allergy to bee stings.”
I woke up a couple hours later more sick to my stomach than I had ever been in my life. More sick than if I had the flu… More vilely ill than if I had cholera. Not to be too graphic, but a river, literally, ran through me. To make things worse, I was completely out of it. As I ran for the bathroom, I wondered who had tilted the floor onto its side. I felt as though I were on a ship at sea, and had to use the wall to guide me. Had someone slipped acid into my wine the night before, I briefly thought? What the hell was happening? The room was spinning… I felt as though I was going to pass out.
In the bathroom, I glanced into the mirror. “My God,” I whispered to myself. I was white as a sheet, and my lips looked slightly blue. I looked like… a ghost.
A strange feeling… Impending doom. Not for myself, necessarily, but for the world. I thought of my daughter. Was she safe? I thought, also, of my parents. Were they also OK? Terrible images filled my head… Tsunamis cascading into lower Manhattan, a sinkhole taking my entire apartment building. A metallic taste filled my mouth.
What was happening? I reviewed the evening… One thing I was sure of: it couldn’t be the bee that was affecting me, right? My symptoms were too different- my stomach ailments had nothing to do with a bee sting, right? It dawned on me…
The oysters! It had to be the oysters. Just my luck. A bee sting AND food poisoning.
It was a long night. It was also a long morning. By then, my joints ached. Extreme fatigue had affected my legs, making it difficult to walk. In my morning, my friend looked at me as though I was nuts when I told him I had been sick all night. Somehow, he had slept through all my bathroom drama.
I stayed in bed all morning, then made my way to the couch. I felt so sick, at one point, I even cried. I didn’t really know what else to do. Eventually, however, around lunch time, I took a Tylenol and, after yet another nap, started to feel a touch better. My friend and I made a little lunch, which I somehow managed to eat, then we packed up the car and drove back to New York City. While I still felt pretty ill, and wondered how I’d be on the road for a couple of hours without a bathroom, I put on a brave smile. After all, I reasoned, no use bitching about being sick when my friend couldn’t do anything about it.
A day passed… I still felt pretty sick to my stomach, my entire abdominal ached, and the muscle fatigue was overwhelming. On top of it, I developed a little fever, and had a series of strange bruises along my arms and legs. It was around this time I started to think: a bee sting, a bad oyster AND the flu? And, because of the bruising, I wondered: who the heck beat me up when I was sleeping? I mean, I’m clumsy, but so clumsy to have bruises all over my body? I think not.
Finally, I had the brilliant idea to look up bee sting allergies, just on the off-chance I had missed something. I learned:
That there are two kinds of reactions are usually associated with bee stings and those of other stinging insects as well: (1) local or (2) systemic, allergic or life-threatening.
LOCAL REACTION: A local reaction is generally characterized by: pain, swelling, redness, itching and a wheel surrounding the wound made by the stinging apparatus. This is the reaction of the vast majority of people and those suffering it are considered to be at little risk of death, unless the mouth or throat is affected so that the respiratory tract is obstructed. Nevertheless, many in the general population continue to believe that because they “swell up,” they are at risk of losing their life when stung by bees. Ironically, those are the people who are generally fine, and it may in fact be the reverse. Those far more at risk may show no reactions to stings at all.
SYSTEMIC, ALLERGIC OR LIFE-THREATENING: In 1982, a book called “Hypersensitivity to Bee Venom” was published by harry R.C. Riches. This book was to become the authoritative text for beekeepers around the world. Dr. Riches classified bee venom hypersensitivity into two categories: Type I is the usual reaction resulting from venom components affecting mast cells which then release histamine (associated with pain and swelling) and other chemicals. Type III reactions are delayed responses to stings, produced by a substance called precipitin. They are considered extremely rare.
Type III bee venom hypersentivity reactions were grouped as arthus type, serum sickness and others. Arthus reaction becomes apparent 8-12 hours after a sting and could persist two to three days. It is associated with an excess of percipitins and often causes tissue damage, blistering and bruising. Serum sickness is more likely after an episode of multiple stings (malaise, fever, joint pains, skin rashes, swelling of lymph glands, kidney disturbances) and may develop three to ten days after a sting. Finally, very rare medical disorders such as encephalitis, polyneuritis and renal failure have followed insect stings.
With a sinking feeling, I took a pen and paper and wrote down all the symptoms I had previously ignored:
- Flushed AND pale face (at different moments)
- Runny nose
- *Light* wheezing
- SEVERE stomach cramping, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
- Lightheadedness/feeling that I might pass out/dizziness
- Inability to think straight
- Fast heart rate
- Rapid, but shallow pulse
- Sense of impending doom, ALSO denial of symptoms
- Metallic taste in mouth
- Muscle fatigue
- Exhaustion, need to sleep
- Joint pain
- Painful-to-the-touch abdominal area
- Blue lips
OK. I know what you’re all thinking. That I’m an idiot. But here are the facts: I’m a single mom who isn’t often afforded the luxury of feeling sick. In the past, when I worked in an office, I went in with the flu. On the morning the World Trade Center fell, I drove myself and my infant daughter to the hospital while I had a 104 fever (and a bad case of mastitis). I’ve broken bones and had to grit my teeth as I made my kid dinner, because, quite simply, there wasn’t anyone else there to help me. Being a mom- especially a single mom- has often meant that I’ve had to suck it up, shut up, deal with the pain, and get on with things. I save asking friends and family for favors for the times I really, really need them. ‘Going it alone’ has become my modus operandi. After all, I’ve seen it in my friends’ eyes- the annoyance when I’ve asked one to many times for childcare or some other sort of necessary help. Even the most well-intentioned, sweet friend, doesn’t understand what it’s like to be a single mom- and what it’s like to have to ask for help- unless she is, of course, a single mom.
I hung my head in shame. Tears filled my eyes. Thoughts of my daughter clouded my vision. “I refused to go to the hospital,” I said. “I’m an idiot.”
- Ask for help.
- Don’t be scared to inconvenience people.
- Carry my damn Epi-Pen. I have a brand new prescription, and it’ll be in my bag wherever I go.
- Inform the people in my life of what to do should I get stung by a bee. Tell them how to use an Epi-Pen (in case my reaction rendered me incapable of giving it myself), and tell them to call 911.
- When traveling, find out in advance where the closest hospital or medical center is. If there isn’t one nearby (we do, after all, travel to off-the-beaten path destinations in the jungle and mountains, after all), tell our guides about our allergies, and come up with plans in case I’m stung. Rethink how far away from civilization I want to be when I travel. This last one is tough for me. Being off-the-beaten path is something I enjoy. But do I really want to put my kid in the situation of watching me die in the middle of a jungle somewhere just because I’m not able to get medical assistance? I’m learning more about my options before I make a firm decision on this…
- I’ve ordered a temporary medical bracelet (the fancy gold, pretty one I want from Medic Alert is $1300, so I’ll have to make due for awhile with the ugly chrome and red one… Boo hoo, cry me a river, right?