Tuesday, May 27, 2008

In which I dare to make a scene...

For almost as long as I've had this blog, I've been struggling with an on-again-off-again cold/sore throat/sinus infection/earache that just doesn't seem to want to quit. (To be fair, I'm not the only person I know who has been... it's been that kind of winter around here...!!) It started last fall, in October, with the nagging sensation of food stuck in the back of my sore, scratchy throat, and a strange white pustule playing hide & seek on or near my left tonsil. Every time I went to my dr, it would disappear & he couldn't see anything. Finally, my dentist saw it at a routine visit & made an appointment for me at the oral health unit of a local hospital. By the time I got there it was gone again, but from my description, they diagnosed me with "tonsil stones" (!). I Googled it when I got home and yep, that was it!

The tonsil stones haven't made an appearance since then -- but I've continued to have scratchy/sore throats on & off, my left ear has felt congested, & for awhile there, my glands swelled up. I'm currently on my second round of antibiotics within a month, I stayed home last Thursday because I felt so crappy (& hadn't had a decent night's sleep in days). My dr even sent me for an ultrasound on my lymph nodes last week to allay my fears. It was clear, but my symptoms have continued, and now that it's late May/early June, my seasonal allergies are kicking in, & it's hard to tell what's allergy, what's cold & what's Lord knows what else.

Then, this past weekend, something new for me. I had an allergic reaction to something I ate. I was at a scrapbook store crop with a friend. For some reason, I was feeling a little stressed & unsettled all day, but I still managed to have a reasonably good time. We ordered takeout for dinner from the pub in the plaza. It arrived shortly after 7 & I was famished. It was good. I had a chicken ranch wrap, with chicken, lettuce, tomato, cheese & ranch dressing in a pita -- & I decided to be healthy & have a salad instead of fries. The salad was basically just iceberg lettuce, shredded carrots & cucumber slices (which I took off, because I hate cucumber). It came with a little plastic container full of dressing... I wasn't sure what it was, but upon tasting, it seemed to be a raspberry vinaigrette. I saved the salad for last.

Almost as soon as I finished eating, my lips started burning. I went into the washroom to wash my hands. They were all red & swollen, & the skin around my mouth was red too. Sometimes if I've eaten something spicy, my lips will sting like that, so I put some lip balm on them & went back to my table. I guess maybe I was in denial. Then I started feeling very hot & itchy, went back to the bathroom, & I was getting big red blotches on my chest & neck.

By now it was about 8, so I called dh to come get me & started packing up my stuff. I went to pay my bill, & the store owner said, "Are you having an allergic reaction?" All the girls started gathering around me & saying I looked red & puffy & how did I feel? I was already feeling stressed, & this scared the crap out of me. One girl offered to take me to the hospital, but I said my husband was on his way. As we stood there talking, I was already starting to feel better, they said they could see the redness starting to fade a little. Someone said I should get to a drugstore & get some Benadryl.

Dh arrived & I had to tell him what was going on. To his credit, he stayed pretty calm. We figured because it happened right after I ate, it was the food (as opposed to the amoxicillin), & I think the salad/dressing was probably the likely culprit, because I noticed my lips burning as soon as I finished my salad. (He said, "That will teach you to pass up french fries," lol.) My girlfriend, more familiar with the area than we were, drove ahead & guided us to the nearest drugstore, where I got some Benadryl & popped one as soon as we left the store, around 8:45, & that helped too.

When we got home, I called the Telehealth line. They agreed that it seemd to be food related. Since I was already feeling better, they didn't think it was necessary to go to emergency (I figured they'd probably just give me Benadryl there anyway.) I took another Benadryl (decided to skip the amoxicillin until I could speak with my dr, just in case) & went to bed, & when I woke up, the redness & swelling was completely gone. But the scratchy, sore throat was back. ARGH.

Called my family dr yesterday morning & talked to his nurse. She agreed it was something I ate & said I should carry some Benadryl with me, & if it ever happens again, take 2 & get to emergency right away, because a reaction like that often increases in severity over time. Greeeaaaaat.

I was feeling OK until late afternoon. It was a busy, stressful day, but when I went to the washroom before packing up, I noticed that my cheeks, neck & chest area were red again. Now, I often do turn red in those spots (ears too) whenever I am stressed or concentrating hard or listening intently… but of course, this sent me into a tizzy. I took a Benadryl & tried not to slide into an anxiety attack on the train ride home. Dh's patience was wearing thin by bedtime, I think.

I'm not sure why it happens, but I go through periods where I become totally paranoid about my health and get fixated on the latest thing that's bothering me. Both periods (June 2001 & March/April 2002) where I suffered bouts of anxiety & had to resort to taking Ativan were preceded by extreme stress on my part over health issues (my final, unsuccessful IUI & the lingering side effects -- I was convinced at one point that my swollen ankles were due to congestive heart failure caused by OHSS...!), and gastro-intestinal issues that were ultimately diagnosed as gallstones & mild reflux).

Dh wants to know if I was always like this. I think I always have been a bit of a hypochondriac, but these days, Dr. Google has made it far too easy to type symptoms into a search engine & come up with a worst case scenario that sends me into a tizzy.

When I was younger, I always had this image of myself as a healthy person. (And I am... really... I really do know that compared to many people, I have absolutely nothing to complain about.) But gradually, that image has eroded, been chipped away. Nothing major in itself, but one small problem or issue after another. First it was the bladder/kidney condition I was born with & was diagnosed with as child (which, as I later learned in adulthood, has a high co-relation with uterine abnormalities). Seasonal tree, pollen and grass allergies when I moved to southern Ontario. A mild heart murmur and the discovery of optic nerve head "drusen" in my eyes during my mid-20s. (The drusen interfere mildly with my peripheral vision, but have remained stable and not gotten any worse over the past 20+ years.) Hypothyroidism in my mid-30s (I will have to take thyroid medication for the rest of my life). A bicornuate uterus, stillbirth and infertility in my late 30s, followed by a mild bout of cervical dysplasia (that eventually reversed itself) and anxiety attacks. Gallstones and mild reflux in my early 40s. Most recently, borderline hypertension that I'm trying to resolve by cutting back on salt & exercising more. I also lived through the 2003 SARS outbreak in Toronto which, while blown way out of proportion by the media, was nevertheless unsettling and made those of us who lived through it hyperaware of the germs lurking everywhere -- especially working downtown, commuting on public transit, and crossing paths with thousands of people every single day. (Have I left anything out??)

It's not just what's happening to me as I age -- it's what I see happening around me to people I know and love. My husband's mother, aunt and two uncles all died of cancer between the ages of 50 and 60 (another also died of cancer, albeit one week short of his 80th birthday). My healthy-as-a-horse 85-year-old grandmother slipped, fell, complained about her knee (but not her head), and ultimately died several months later after seizures, the diagnosis of an undetected subdural hematoma, and unsuccessful brain surgery. My uncle (whom I am said by all to resemble closely, both in looks & personality) had a heart attack in his late 50s. Two male cousins, the son of family friends (listed as my first "boyfriend" in my baby book), and my high school best friend's brother, all died tragically in their very early 40s -- one in a house fire, one from a pulmonary embolism, one from a heart aneurysm and one from melanoma. A colleague, younger than I am, with a teenaged son, recently struggled with colon cancer (but happily returned to work earlier this year). A beloved friend of my mother's died of cancer.

It's what happens as you grow older. You come to realize that life is short, fragile and precious. You come to realize that you are not invincible, that nobody is. That someday, you're going to die. And that while most people do live to be a ripe old age, some lives are cut brutally, suddenly, unjustly short.

How to reconcile that knowledge, & the dread that fills you when you notice strange or unusual things happening to your body? You know that it's almost always normal -- but what if it's not? How do you know? Do those weird cramps & vague nausea indicate PMS, perimenopause or ovarian cancer? Is that another age spot on my skin, or the beginnings of melanoma? Is that pain in the side of my head a subdural hematoma like my grandmother's, leftover from the bang I took on the head last year, or is it just a headache? Is it just a really bad cold season, or lymphoma?

My family dr is a patient, stoic, unflappable man. Often he will humour me by prescribing a battery of tests to prove there's nothing wrong with me, but sometimes he will just give me a perfunctory examination & tell me I'm fine. I'm not always convinced. If I'm fine, why do I feel so crappy? Dh's patience with my anxiety ebbs & flows (along with his own health-related anxieties!) ; ) but he's made great strides lately & has been mostly supportive during this last round of angst on my part. Even so, the message to me is often clear: why am I being so silly? Why am I making such a fuss?

It's a message that women in particular are taught from a very early age -- and with both stoic Scandinavians and stiff-upper-lip Anglo-Saxons in my background, perhaps I absorbed that lesson even better than most. Little boys may be told "shh" but they are almost expected to be noisy and to draw attention to themselves.But little girls? It's not ladylike to be so loud. Suck it up. It's not that bad. Don't put up a fuss. Don't make a scene. (It must run in the family. My godmother recently crawled around the house for two days, feeling dizzy, before finally going to the hospital and being diagnosed with a mild stroke.)

When I was about 2 or 3, I was shopping with my mother and, as children sometimes do, I started whining & then making an even bigger fuss, until the whole store was watching. My mother did something that would probably get her arrested today. She promptly marched me outside to the car & spanked me soundly. "Don't you EVER do that again," she said. Don't make a scene. And I didn't. And I often still don't. Even when, maybe, I really should.

When I had all four of my wisdom teeth out at once, I took the painkillers my dentist prescribed. I started throwing up, but kept on taking the pills -- because, after all, he had told me to. Until we finally called him and he told me to stop. I almost wound up in the hospital from dehydration because I didn't want to be a bad girl and not follow instructions to the letter.

When I was ttc, and time was passing, I would go to my doctor, & he would reassure me, "It will happen." And I would leave his office, trying to believe his words, instead of insisting he send me for some tests to see why I wasn't getting pregnant. Don't make a scene.

When I was (finally) pregnant and started spotting and feared I was miscarrying, everyone told me spotting was normal. Don't make a scene. So I swallowed my concerns. And lost my baby at 26 weeks. And I did most of my crying in private. If anyone has the right to shed tears in public, it's the mother of a dead baby, but I didn't do it. Don't make a scene.

When I banged my head on a towel rack while vacuuming a few years back, it hurt like hell. I probably should have asked dh to take me to the hospital to get checked out. But he was already so upset, and -- I didn't want to make a scene. (Not to mention sit in an emergency waiting room for hours & hours.) So I took Tylenol & held an ice pack to my head and sucked it up for the next several weeks it took for the aching to subside. I did go the doctor a day or so later (& of course, he told me I'd be fine).

My first instinct when I noticed those red swollen lips & blotches on my skin on Saturday night was to hope that it would go away before anyone would notice, before dh arrived. To pretend that everything was fine. Don't draw attention to yourself. Don't make a scene.

There has to be a balance somewhere between making a scene & being a doormat. I hope I find it some day soon. (Does hitting the "publish" button on this whine, er, post, constitute making a scene in public??)


  1. I think I am cut from the same cloth you are.
    I always wait for health issues "to go away"
    Of course, I lost my baby.

    Now I found a really good doctor. Looks at me, ME, during exam. Notes things about my posture, my movement, my health. She actually told me I looked tired. She did some tests, sent me to another excellent dr. He sent me to another specialist. It's like I am in the circle of cool kids.

    I feel like I am now dealing with some health problems.

    Maybe you need to find the right doctor, that has the right intuition and asks the right questions.

    I have learned the hard way to pay attention to my health and to follow thru and get it taken care of.

    (try cleaning you tonsils out with a q-tip)

  2. Just a few things off the top of my head. If you have spring allergies, you might have allergies to mold. And if you have allergies to mold, I'm wondering if you came into contact with some in the salad or the dressing. Eww, I know, but not unheard of.

    As to not making a scene. That's the story of my life. It was a little different in my life, it was don't make a scene and take away from your mother, who has to be the sickest, et. al. person in the family.

    Women are, more often than not, told to be silent in so many areas of our life. I think that when I am stressed, my health seems worse.

    Hoping that both the worry and the ill health go away.

  3. ah, aging. I agree if you're not feeling well maybe a good doctor could help get to the bottom of the malaise with the right diagnostics. but it could just be the body slowing down a bit as we get older.

    sometimes, though, it is time to make a scene.

  4. Urrrgggghhhh - sounds like this tonsil stone (?) is like the stone in your shoe that just gets you down. I hope it will go away and never come back.

    As you know food allergy is part of my life - it's not something to mess with. We go to an amazing, wonderful allergist in Burlington - if your family doc refers you it will probably be 1-2 months wait. (of course you may already have an allergist for your seasonal allergies). I don't know if it's worth testing for food allergy or not but if it would set your mind at ease it might be an idea. Of course the reaction could be a one-off - stress, medications, etc. However do please go to emerg right away if you end up with another food reaction, just to be on the safe side. Don't worry about making a scene if that were to happen again, please!!

    Hang in there - summer appears to (finally) be coming ...

  5. Sounds like a scary incident. I've always been aware of the fragility of life since I was diagnosed with asthma in my late teens. When you realize how close you are to not breathing it makes you very aware of your body and your environment. Infertility stoked that awareness further -- especially on the body front. I detect every minor change, cramp, swelling etc., even today and wonder, could it be? Now I even get annoyed at being tricked into that thought loop.

    p.s. loved your dh's comment about the french fries...

  6. GET TESTED! Food allergy kills! I am not exaggerating.

    You need to know what caused the reaction because it can and will get worse if you continue to expose yourself to the allergen. This is no joke. The only fully accepted treatment for food allergy is total avoidance of the offending food. (Food intolerance is something different.)

    One of the main reasons food allergy kills is because people do not treat it properly. The allergist recommended emergency treatment is epinephrine + H1 & H2 inhibitor and observation by professional. Unfortunately, most ER doctors are clueless about this.

    In all seriousness, you are endangering yourself needlessly if you don't get a proper diagnosis from a trained board certified allergist. Do not trust a GP or gastroenterologist to do this.

    Yes, I am extreme about this because I am way too familiar with it.

  7. I've learned the hard way to pay attention to my body - I've known it longer than my doctor has. I have noticed though, that the more I work out, the less problems (aching muscles excluded) I have.

    I am a little senstive though when I forget things (appointments in particular). That really send me over the edge, cause I don't want to end up with dementia.

  8. I have been tested in the past for allergies, & while I recall some sensitivities, there were no big red flags as far as food was concerned. Of course, this was 20 years ago, & I realize you can develop allergies at any time in your life. I'll bring up the subject of retesting with my dr.

  9. Hi Loribeth -

    What a scary experience! And I have never heard of "tonsil stones."

    I agree with pp who said that you need to pinpoint this allergy. And beyond benedryl, you should think about carrying an epipen, because allergic reactions can get stronger with each exposure.

    Given that the reaction reoccurred, I am suspicious of the Amoxicillin. Though I am NOT allergic to penicillin, I cannot take Amox. because I get a major trunk rash from it. There is a particular additive in the Amox formula, and though I am told it is rare, I am definitely allergic to it.

    I am on antibiotics right now too, and there was no problem until the 6th or 7th day when I noticed that a short while after taking a dose, my skin started feeling itchy, and a couple of little bumps came up - again on my trunk. So you can definitely build up sensitivity. Also perhaps it is a combination of something you ate and the meds.

    I don't know, but I hope you get some answers, and don't have to repeat that experience.

    You make a very good point about how women are often marginalized in terms of health complaints. It is well documented that medical professionals tend to discount womens' reports of symptoms or illness. Starting with the ancient diagnosis of "hysteria" in which it was said that in some women, the uterus traveled around the body causing women all kinds of problems.

    Anyway, each of us has to be our own advocate in terms of our health. Luckily, so much more information is available to us, which gives us more power.

    Hang in there. No, don't just hang in there, Make a Scene!!!


  10. I am right there with you. I don't want to call the dr. for anything. I recently broke my toe - tripping over a laundry basket, I like to say extreme housekeeping! I spent two days on Advil and limping around before I gave in and went to the dr. Yep, it was broken and doc had never seen a break quite like it. He thought I might need surgery but it seems to be healing better than expected! Ugh!

  11. It's not so much that I don't want to call or see the dr... Overall, I would rather see a dr & get tests done, etc., & get an "all clear" than sit in the dark & wonder what the heck is going on with my body. I think I just fear being dismissed & told that it's all in my head. I don't want to "bother" people unnecessarily (even thought it's the dr that's working for ME, right??) or (worse) wait endless hours in a crowded hospital emergency waiting room (been there, done that, bought the T-shirt, & it's not fun). I keep thinking that it's really not that bad, & why am I being so paranoid. So whatever is bothering me builds & builds in my mind until I get totally overwrought & it get totally blown out of proportion. It doesn't help when stuff drags on & on, like my neverending cold, or happens one after another (the cold followed by Saturday's incident). *sigh*

  12. Scary - having to wonder now what the heck it was that caused the reaction. A certain spice? preservative type ingredient? a dye?

    Oh yes - young ladies like ourselves were taught to dress nicely when we went out in public and make sure our hair was combed. Manners intact and never never cause a fuss or ruckus.

    And I also try and "ride it out" - thinking, hoping it will go away. Fear maybe? The doctor who took my gall bladder out told my dh in amazement he was surprised I wasn't in a lot more pain given the state of it. Dh told me that and I thought "yeah, how would he know?" That thing hurt like the dickens and I was glad to see it go and wished I had gone and taken it out a lot sooner!

  13. I too am of the "wait until it goes away" variety.

    I didn't develop food allergies until adulthood either. It began during grad school--I was in my early 20s. Stuff I had eaten forever suddenly gave me an allergic reaction.

  14. Yeah, see, I wouldn't call the doctor. I'd hide at home and assume everything would go away. Famous last words.

    What a scary thing to have happen, I'm so sorry! I've been lucky to avoid food allergies, but I know people with terrible ones. Good luck getting to the bottom of this.