A bread roll nearly killed me

Nicola, right, with Emilie on her trip to London.
Nicola, right, with Emilie on her trip to London.

It all started one Christmas when a naughty young girl aged around 10 snuck her hand into a cake tin and broke off a piece of icing.

Taking a bite, she soon realised her mouth was feeling off and her tongue was feeling grainy and swollen.

Disgusted she threw the icing away and sat down quietly and told to stop fussing by her parents. Eventually the sensation went away.

This was me, 30 years ago, experiencing my first reaction to nuts. What I had reacted to was the marzipan residue on the icing. It was made of almonds.

Of course, nobody had heard of nut allergies back then.

With even hayfever dubbed a ‘summer cold, food allergies were unacknowledged by doctors or scientists.

In fact I had many years of being told to stop making a fuss before it was realised I was in fact allergic to nuts with a sideline in intolerance to bananas.

Fortunately I neverbefore found myself in a life-threatening situation but I have lost count of the times my mouth or tongue swelled or my skin flared up in reaction to contact to Walnuts, Almonds, Peanuts.. the list goes on.

I would experience wheeziness, shortness of breath, but never so serious I was admitted to hospital.

I remember another miserable Christmas when I tried out a novelty nutcracker. I didn’t, of course, eat any of the mixed nuts but touching the shells saw my face swell up and my eyes almost close as I blew up like a balloon into a red, itchy mess.

Of course, it helped a little that I was the world’s fussiest eater in my younger years.

Unlikely to even try many of the foods associated with nuts, it kept my exposure to a minimum.

As other sufferers will tell you, you instinctively know what to avoid but accidents will and do happen.

And complacency can kill.

With most of my reactions relatively minor and solved with antihistamine dosing and steroid creams for skin inflammation, (I also have eczema, which is a common combination of ailments), I admit I considered myself a low-risk case.

Prescribed with epi-pens by GPs for years,

I left the lifesaving shots of adrenaline in a drawer at home, where they sat – woefully out of date and gathering dust.

I was always loathe to make a fuss. Who wants to be singled out first for dull food on a plane or be constantly questioning waiters? Or carrying a needle everywhere they go? Not me.

I got away with this - until a few weeks ago when I realised my allergy was not just a pesky condition – but in fact a possible killer.

After biting accidentally into a walnut bread roll at a fancy champagne restaurant in London’s St Pancras station (I thought it was wholemeal), my mouth, throat and lips started to itch and swell up.

Spitting out the bread, I sat quietly and waited over the course of the meal for it to ease. Which it did.

My friend Emilie Mercer, a PR executive and a former newspaper colleague (now my hero) was unimpressed by the reaction of the restaurant’s staff. Taking the maitre’d aside, she advised him quietly to tell people the contents of mixed bread rolls at the table.

His reaction was rude and condescending. Apparently I should have announced my allergy at the door.

His famous last words; ‘She looks alright’.

But I wasn’t.

However with me feeling OK, we left the restaurant and started to look round the shops.

Some time later, I suddenly felt odd, my brain confused and unable to compute what was wrong.

Five minutes later I was sick, burning up and red and itching from head to toe. Burning, wheezing and vomiting is the last sensation I really remember.

Five minutes after that I couldn’t walk and didn’t know where I was. I was in anaphylactic shock, apparently clutching my stomach in pain and screaming in agony.

My life was probably saved by Emilie’s quick reactions in flagging down a motorbike paramedic called Ben who had only popped in the station to use the loo.

Right there in St Pancras Station he put a drip in me – it took two of them to keep me still enough - administering adrenaline, antihistamine, steroids, then liquid paracetemol and as I was still in agony – an entire unit of morphine. If I’d had to wait another 15 minutes for the ambulance, the story may have been very different.

By the time I got to hospital, I was coming round, talking and feeling a bit stupid.

The next day I was fine, if drowsy.

Doing some long overdue homework, I soon learned I had suffered classic symptoms of anaphylaxis; faintness, confusion, vomiting, abdominal pain, shortness of breath, itchy, red, raised skin.

Fortunately, I was treated before I became completely unconscious.

The delay in my reaction was due to sitting down then walking around – anaphylactic shock can come in waves and can return.

A course of antihistamine and steroids after recovery is a must. There is no doubt I have an awful lot to thank Emilie and Ben the paramedic for.

But all of this could potentially have been avoided if the restaurant had let us know what bread they were serving with our soup. Not rocket science – but potentially lifesaving.

Which is why the new regulations, which were valid from Saturday December 13, are such a crucial breakthrough.

I certainly didn’t want to meet my maker on the floor of St Pancras station, but I should be able to go for a meal without risking my life.

Now Lancashire Trading Standards is reminding businesses they will be required to provide detailed information on 14 allergens – from eggs to nuts – they use in their ingredients.

The EU Food Information for Consumers regulations will apply to pre-packed or loose food. Catering outlets, deli counters, bakeries and sandwich bars will have to provide clear allergy information to customers.

There are also changes to existing legislation on labelling allergenic ingredients in pre-packed foods.

Rachel Wilcock from Lancashire Trading Standards Service explains more than two million people in the UK have allergies to ingredients like eggs, fish and peanuts.

“These include 2 per cent of adults and 8 per cent of children” she says. “In severe cases, their conditions can be life threatening and can sometimes result in death.

“Food allergens cannot be removed by cooking so these new regulations will provide people with much-needed protection.

“To avoid falling foul of the new rules, people who work in the food industry will need to make sure they practice good kitchen hygiene, as well as careful separation, storage and labelling of ingredients when preparing food.”

I, for one, will be glued to my epi-pen from now on and adding bread to my list of food avoidance.

It took intravenous adrenaline, antihistamine and a large amount of morphine before I came round enough to be able even to speak.

Emilie’s actions and access to timely treatment saved my life. In the ambulance I was beginning to see through the fog enough to be slightly embarrassed.

I had a very lucky escape and was well enough to be discharged that night after steroid treatment. It could have been so much worse.

And I have to thank Emilie and the staff of London University Hospitals. They were fantastic.

For some food businesses this will be a lot of work – but I urge them to take action and take the issue seriously.

It may seem like a sledgehammer to crack a nut. But it may save a life.