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Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an…
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Don't Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life

by Sandra Beasley

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“For those with allergies like mine, each day requires vigilance in terms of what we do, the company we keep, and where we sit in relation to that bowl of mixed nuts. One person’s comfort food is another person’s enemy. One person’s lifesaver is another’s poison.”

Just a couple of weeks ago, wee reader and I met yet another doctor, an allergist. She had a whole list of questions, a large stack of printed information to take home, prescribed a new ointment, set up a new bath routine, and a whole lot of other things that left my head spinning. Essentially, we have been battling eczema for quite a few months now (considering that he is only 10 months, a few months is a lifetime!), and his paediatrician suggested a blood test for allergies. Turns out he is allergic to egg whites, wheat and peanuts. That surprised us all, as both my husband and I aren’t allergic to any food, neither are our immediate families.

As you know, I am a reader. So one thing I knew I had to do was check out some reading material on food allergies. In a bid to learn more, but in a more personal way, as understood by someone who has lived with allergies all her life. And this one by Sandra Beasley looked ideal.

Because Beasley is allergic to: dairy (including goat’s milk), egg, soy, beef, shrimp, pine nuts, cucumbers, cantaloupe, honeydew, mango, macadamias, pistachios, cashews, swordfish, and mustard. Also: mold, dust, grass and tree pollen, cigarette smoke, dogs, rabbits, horses, and wool. Her allergies are so bad that she couldn’t use the phone after her college roommate talked on it while eating a slice of pizza. As an infant, she couldn’t keep any kind of milk down – formula, goat’s milk, soy milk. Her parents raised her on juice and water! And at that time, there was far less awareness of allergies. Even her grandfather, a doctor, didn’t believe her dairy allergy, until she grabbed some cream cheese and swiped it onto her cheek and hives formed shortly after.

Beasley discusses the history of allergies, which is a longer history than I imagined. The term was coined by Austrian doctor Clemens von Pirquet in 1906. The RAST (radioallergosorbent test), which wee reader had to do in December, was trademarked in 1974. The skin prick test (which we have scheduled for later this month) has been around for decades as well. Interestingly – at least for this allergies-ignorant parent – the RAST generates a lot of false positives. For Beasley, it claimed she was allergic to both rice and pineapple, both foods she has safely consumed before.

One thing that really surprised me about this book was the various aspects of food allergies that are discussed, such as peanut bans on flights (Beasley is not allergic to peanuts), even some information on vegetarianism and veganism (her sister becomes vegetarian). I guess I was expecting something like a blog-turned-book. And I haven’t really got a very good opinion on those.

Beasley is an award-winning poet who used to feel that prose was the “dark side”. In an interview with She Writes, Beasley says: “The key to writing the book, I realized, was to admit that I didn’t have all the answers going in, and to make the act of questioning part of the book’s conscious narrative.” And that is what makes this story interesting. She discusses using (or in their case, the lack of use) of the EpiPen (a lot of Benadryl is consumed instead), even talks about wedding traditions and how weddings for her are hazardous (people having consumed cake and all that kissing and hugging), and dining out is a leap of faith.

“Getting ready to go out on a dinner date, I always line and shadow my eyelids knowing that by the end of the night they could be swollen and heavy with fluid. I coat my lips in Chapstick, not knowing if I’ll end up with a kiss or mouth-to-mouth from a fifty-three-year-old paramedic with halitosis.”

We’ve been so careful about what we feed wee reader, especially since he’s still exploring different tastes and textures. I would so love to be able to let him try foods off my plate when we are out, but when we do dine out, it’s usually at Asian restaurants and with their use of peanuts and eggs and wheat (which is in most soy sauces) and the risk of cross-contamination as well as the difficulty of explaining what we need, it’s easier to just bring our own baby food along. I just hope that he will outgrow these allergies, or perhaps that the blood test threw up some false positives (but we’ll never know for sure until we do some supervised food challenges when he’s older). I know a lot of people out there live with food allergies (and Beasley has so many more allergies than wee reader), but, as I mentioned earlier, to me and my family, it’s a new thing. The only relative with food allergies is my cousin who was born and lives in Perth, Australia!

If not for finding about wee reader’s allergies, I would not have picked up this book. But it is such a great non-fiction read – well-written, personal, informative, that I would recommend it to everyone, whether you have food allergies or not.

( )
  olduvai | Jan 19, 2016 |
After living with a woman for 16 years who has had celiac disease since birth, I could feel Beasley's plight between trying to stay safe and trying to be "normal" in the sense that you can go out to eat and not worry. She rebuffs a lot of those critics who call food allergies a sort of bourgeois diagnosis, and show the pain and suffering (with a good ounce of humor) that a life like hers entails. I have an utterly complete author crush on her. ( )
  mkgutierrez | Oct 23, 2015 |
Sandra Beasley has a wide variety of food allergies- substances like wheat, milk, soy, and others can induce anaphalaxis if she ingests them, hives if she touches them. This is her memoir of living in a world in which substances that are laced in everything are poisonous. The fact that severe food allergies such as Beasley's are becoming far more commonplace makes the book all the more prescient. The book is a combination of memoir and scientific information about allergies. For all their prevalence, scientists know comparatively little about what causes allergies and how to prevent them. People like Beasley live with a vulnerability few others can understand. They are excluded from many communal pleasures, hence the title. No birthday cake, no cake at friends' weddings. A very few are even allergic to the proteins in semen. This was an interesting look at what it means to live with severe food allergies. Those living with food allergies will likely not find much they don't already know, but for those who do not, this is an interesting and introspective memoir, well worth reading. ( )
  lahochstetler | Feb 21, 2015 |
Quick and easy read. Fun and informative. ( )
  greenscoop | Nov 15, 2014 |
Quick and easy read. Fun and informative. ( )
  greenscoop | Nov 15, 2014 |
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Describes the impact of the author's food allergies on her childhood while tracing the cultural history of food allergies, relating such experiences as her short-lived job as a restaurant reviewer and dates that ended in trips to the emergency room.

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