The worst April Fool’s joke ever: How a bug made me allergic to meat

I have never been keen on April Fools Day jokes. In fact, I dread the day, having to double-check everything I read online, holding back my well-wishes on all of the “I’m pregnant!” posts on Facebook, and watching my back everywhere I go, in case someone decides to ambush me or play some sort of prank.

This year, April Fool’s day went off without a hitch, with exception to a few gullable moments (such as Lululemon’s “Lululeather” launch prank). Unfortunately, I should have known better than to think I could get off that easy. My April Fool’s Day “prank” came a few days later.

The weekend after April Fool’s day, I had a 3-day Army drill at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. My unit was staying in old WWII barracks at the base, pretty much in the middle of the woods. After changing out of my uniform and getting my bunk ready (rolling out my sleeping bag and attempting to make the ancient mattress feel somewhat comfortable), I decided to take the trek to the women’s latrines, which were located about 50 yards away from our barracks. Once I was back in my bunk, I realized I had a bug bite on my leg, but I didn’t think much of it since we were in the wilderness and bugs were common in Kentucky.

The following day (Saturday), I kept scratching the bug bite, but didn’t see any indication that the bite was anything unusual or alarming. Little did I know that 24 hours after that bite, my entire life would change.

In the middle of that night (Saturday night), I woke up to an intense itching sensation on the palms of my hands and bottoms of my feet. It got so bad that I grabbed a comb out of my toiletry bag and spent the rest of the night laying in the fetal position alternating between scratching the bottoms of my feet and palms of my hands with the comb.

Needless to say, I was exhausted the following morning. I groggily got ready for first formation, throwing on my uniform and slipping my itchy feet into my boots, dreading spending the day at drill. While standing in first formation (roll call), my fellow soldiers around me kept asking if I was okay and staring at me like something was wrong. They told me my neck was covered in red welts, about the size of quarters. After formation, my  sergeant told me to go get some benadryl and itch cream because I “looked like I was in rough shape.”

A few hours later, the itching and hives seemed to lessen, but I was still freaked out by the entire experience. I am definitely prone to hives—I used to have to carry an epi-pen as a child because of allergic reactions—but this time it was different. I had no idea what was causing it this time.

The week after drill, I had 5 similar allergic reactions. All of the itching and hives began in the middle of the night, causing me to think that maybe I got bed bugs while at Fort Campbell. But after sanitizing the sheets and bed and still having reactions (and my fiance showing no signs of itchiness), I ruled out my bed bugs theory.

The following week, I had 4 more allergic reactions before finally deciding to get to the bottom of it. I went on to my insurance company’s website and began calling Allergists in the area, trying to find one with an available appointment ASAP. To my luck, I finally found one that could see me the next day.

Once at the Allergist’s office, I began rattling off my list of symptoms to the doctor. Strange allergic reactions always starting in the middle of the night, intense itchiness, hives spreading across my entire body, even my face and lips on some occasions. The doctor asked me where I was when I had my first reaction, and when I told him I was at drill, a light bulb seemed to go off in his head.

After showing him my bug bite, he was almost certain I had gotten bit by a bug containing Alpha-gal, an antibody causing me to be allergic to mammal meat. (The only reason he knew this was because he had another patient with the condition—if I went to a doctor anywhere else I probably wouldn’t have been diagnosed properly and would have continued to have allergic reactions). This is the only known allergen that causes delayed anaphylaxis, which would explain the allergic reactions starting in the middle of the night, a few hours after eating dinner. I never had an allergy to meat before, but because of the bug bite, my body now cannot digest a carbohydrate present in mammal meat such as beef or pork. The doctor told me that the bug (typically a tick) is only known in southern states such as Tennessee, Kentucky and West Virginia, and there are only a little over a thousand known cases of the alpha-gal allergy.

A few blood tests confirmed the diagnosis a week later, and reality began to set in. After excessive googling of the condition (which is rare but beginning to become prevalent), I discovered that only a few days before my incident, PETA posted a April Fool’s Day press release discussing releasing large quantities of this bug in order to force people to become vegetarians. Oh, the irony!

PETA press release

PETA press release regarding releasing the bugs

Almost 3 months later, there’s only one way to describe living with this alpha-gal allergy: it SUCKS. I have to be extremely careful what I eat, because even foods cooked in beef broth or containing small amounts of bacon (such as baked beans) can cause reactions. I feel embarrassed asking waiters at restaurants how their food is prepared, and I hate having to bring my own piece of fish to cookouts when everyone else has hamburgers and steaks.

There is a chance that my body will “outgrow” this condition, but because it is so rare, there isn’t much information or case study results available as of yet. I am thankful for Trader Joe’s grocery stores, because they carry tons of great vegetarian and mammal-free meal options (most of which I would have never considered prior to my meat allergy). I’ve found alternatives for some of the foods I used to enjoy, but nothing can replace a big juicy steak or a plate of bacon (turkey bacon isn’t nearly as good!).

For those of you that live in the south, or even those that live elsewhere but go camping/in the woods—make sure to wear bug spray! I wouldn’t wish this condition on my worst enemy (unless they were a vegetarian already, ha ha).

People always ask me if I blame the Army for my allergy, but truthfully, I don’t hold any ill-will. Sure, I wouldn’t have gotten the bug bite if I wasn’t at Fort Campbell for drill, but the Army has opened up so many doors for me and my life, that if becoming allergic to meat was the only negative aspect of my Army experience, I can deal with that!

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