The Devil’s Arithmetic

When I was in grad school, I took immunology. I still have my textbook and refer to it sometimes, my crowded notes in the margins. The chapter on allergy and anaphylaxis is highlighted in green, somehow aggressively bright after eleven years.

It’s kind of amusing to recall this time in my life, before every mast cell activation pathway had been hammered into my brain. There’s also some black humor in reading about how IgE activation is the allergy pathway. You know, THE allergy pathway. This book doesn’t cover any other pathways. As if you cannot possibly be allergic to something without IgE.

That’s the problem, of course. This is what most healthcare providers or science majors learn in school. They learn about allergy and anaphylaxis, but they learn about the textbook description which invariably refers to IgE mediated food anaphylaxis. They learn about peanut allergy.

I don’t have a peanut allergy. I literally don’t have a single food allergy that displays the hallmark swelling/closing airway that people expect. But I have major food allergies, some bad enough to require epinephrine, IV Benadryl, Pepcid, Solu Medrol, Zofran and IV fluids.

The problem is not just that I’m allergic to some foods. It’s that I’m not always allergic to the same foods as I was the day before. Or the same medications. Or the same environmental exposures. My reactions on a given day are the cumulative product of the amount of irritation my mast cells have experienced in the previous day or two. There is always a running tally in my mind.

There are a lot of analogies and models used to describe mast cell attacks both to patients and to people who don’t have them. I have always thought of it as a bank. You make deposits and you make withdrawals. Like this:

For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume you have $100 in a bank account. Any activity that can cause mast cell activation has to be paid for. The cost is proportionate to the amount of activation. Getting a splinter: $2. Being hot: $10. Being in direct sunlight: $10. Standing up for 20 minutes while being hot in direct sunlight: $35. Cardiovascular exercise: $40. Arguing with your spouse: $60. Moderate pain experienced in your day to day life: $50. A painful medical procedure: $70. Mild cold: $40.

Some things are too costly to ever attempt.  Undercooked egg whites: $9000.  Massive bleach exposure: $7500.

You can make deposits into the bank with medications and physical changes. Getting enough sleep: $30. Wearing loose, comfortable clothes: $15. Doing orthostatic manuevers before standing up: $10. Taking baseline mast cell medications on your normal schedule: $50. Eating food that is warm but not hot: $15. Monitoring your exercise and stopping for breaks: $15. Wearing a cooling vest on a hot day: $20. Oral Benadryl: $25. IV Benadryl: $50. Steroids: $50.

So you have this running tally in your head all day long. When you start getting close to $100, you get stressed. You know you can’t afford to spend more than $100. Things that you could have done four hours ago safely are no longer safe. Things you could eat on a day spent relaxing at home inside with comfortable ambient temperature cannot be eaten if your apartment is too hot or if you are in a lot of pain.

You are constantly trying to avoid running out of dollars before you can get home and go to bed. Part of this is because you don’t want to trigger a physical reaction. Part of it is that this phenomenon – allergies as a function of circulating histamine/mast cell activation rather than IgE – is hard to explain briefly to people who don’t have this disease. So people will see you on a super crappy day only being able to eat one thing at a party and then four months later, when your body is much less inflamed, will see you eat three things at a party. And then it’s a thing, because these people invariably think that you are faking/being overdramatic as if somehow it is worth the effort to “pretend to have allergies.” WHO FUCKING DOES THAT?

Cost for being around someone who gives you shit for not always having the same restrictions: $75.

So everyday, you get $100. Except this is the US and our banks hate us so we have overdraft. This means that you can spend more money than you have but then they charge a steep fee and so the next day, you don’t have $100. You have maybe $30 dollars. After overspending, it can take a few days to get back to baseline.

Sometimes it’s worth it. Sometimes you can sort of game your body into getting more than $100 out of a day. This is the purpose of premedication for procedures and surgery. This is the purpose of good sleep hygiene, eating safe foods, not getting stressed, taking medications appropriately and on a schedule. You can bank a little. Not as much as you can overdraft, but you can get ahead a little bit.

Today, I went to the supermarket to grab some things for lunch at work. They didn’t have organic apples that looked in decent shape. They had non-organic apples and my safe peanut butter/honey and my safe pretzel chips. I had to run through my entire day to determine how much physical activity and stress was likely to be in the rest of my day to figure out what I could (probably) safely eat for lunch.

It’s like this all day, every day. This math wouldn’t be hard except that it’s constant and unavoidable and controls my life.