Health Food Insider

How a Fire Extinguisher, an Allergic Reaction, and an ER Visit Improved My Life

Doctors never helped so I tried a couple alternatives.

I try to remember the name of the newest doctor as I stare out the car window. Farmhouses and barns are white and red islands in seas of corn and soy beans. I resist the urge to ask my mom how much longer before we get there. I cannot resist the urge to scratch my scalp or rub my eyes. She catches me and gives me the look.

No words are needed. Scratching and rubbing make things worse, but I’m a little girl and sometimes I can’t stop myself.

I have a feeling this will be our last attempt to find a doctor who can help me because so far, as my dad likes to say, ‘They’re all a bunch of quacks’.

Today we will see another skin doctor. My hay fever can wait.

My stomach tightens and I cringe just thinking about the last skin doctor and what he did to me. He gave me air shotsin my head. Imagine a metal gun with many tiny openings that shoots liquid into your scalp at pointblank range over and over again, all around your head. For my mom’s sake I didn’t cry but I couldn’t stop the tears from falling onto the examination table.

Maybe this new doctor will try something less painful today.

We sit and wait. Finally, a nurse ushers us into the examination room and points to a chair in front of a machine that looks like a giant microscope. I take my place, and the doctor enters.

“We’re going to try some radiation treatments.” He smiles as if he’s going to treat me to a banana split or take me out for a pony ride.

Instead, he positions my head under the machine, tells me to close my eyes, and flips a switch on the wall, counts to five, and flips it off. My closed eyes detect bright flashes of light. I lose count as he re-positions my head and repeats the process. To his credit, I feel no pain.

On our way back to the car, my mom takes hold of my hand. “Well, we’ll see if this works. If not, no more doctors. We’ve tried them all.”

It does not work.

At the time I didn’t know what radiation was and my mom trusted doctors enough to let the last one give me radiation treatments on my head. It’s a wonder I can string together a complete sentence after that little experiment.

As a preteen, the only thing I remember being told about how to deal with the hay fever was to stay inside during the spring and fall, and stay away from grass and leaves. Yeah, right. My eyes itchy eyes, runny nose, and unstoppable sneezing exhausted me and everyone around me.

During junior high and high school, I lived with the allergies. Our family doctor prescribed a high-dose cortisone cream for the eczema, with three refills, and that worked until the refills ran out. The nice pharmacist in our small town kindly refilled the prescription many more than three times until his conscience got the best of him and he stopped.

In 1980 I left my parents’ farmhouse for college in Chicago. My allergy symptoms lessened, probably because there are not vast tracts of pollen-filled plant material growing in the big city.

The neighborhood health food store employees taught me about natural body care products which kept the eczema somewhat manageable.

Nothing from my childhood prepared me for what came next

By the summer of 1989 I was back in college and my allergies were back in full force. I sneezed and blew through boxes of tissue. My eyes itched constantly and at night I rubbed them in my sleep. Cold washcloths were no match for my inflamed, hot eyes.

In addition to my waitress gig downtown, I helped run a popular hipster corner bar. A powerful air conditioning system, two massive smoke eaters, and good ventilation allowed me to work relatively sneeze free while I was there.

The only problem was the owner. Let’s just say he was a tad eccentric and a lot paranoid.

One Saturday afternoon, during a staff meeting, our fearful leader decided to show us how to properly use a fire extinguisher. Unfortunately, in his haste to demonstrate the proper way to use a fire extinguisher, he neglected to read the instructions, failed to point the nozzle at the floor, and filled his tiny storefront bar with chemical flame retardant.

I ran for the door but not fast enough. Chemical droplets hit me in the face. I knew I was in big trouble.

Repeat Behavior

“Can you come take me to the emergency room?” I asked my boyfriend when he answered my call at 2am the next morning.

“If my face swells up any more my skin is going to split open. I can barely see my nose.”

“Oh geez, I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

The ER doctor promptly shot me up with a name brand antihistamine, and I promptly throw it up. A nurse told me to hop on a gurney in a dimly lit cubicle and left me, without a blanket, to freeze my ass off. Bits of conversation and laughter floated across the hall from the nurse’s station. I shivered and counted ceiling tiles for an hour. Nobody came to check on me so I hopped off the gurney and walked toward the exit.

Three things I learned that night

  1. Emergency rooms are freaking cold.
  2. Just because you go to an emergency room doesn’t mean you will get help and they miight make you sicker.
  3. If you walk out the door nobody will stop you, especially if you don’t have insurance and you tell the nurse that since you are freezing, and the doctor actually made you feel worse, you think it might be best just to head back home.

I probably made a smart remark about looking forward to getting billed for the privilege of not getting any relief, but I can’t be sure. 1989 was a long time ago.

Alternative #1

My face didn’t look much better in the morning, so I did what any good English Major should do in a crisis: I called my mentor.

“You need aloe, “Robin said. “Come over and bring twenty bucks.” She was professor who sold aloe on the side.

I met Robin in her Shakespeare class at one of Chicago’s community colleges. She had a PhD from the University of Chicago and was a professor at Roosevelt University. She had a guru, taught a meditation class, turned me on to yoga, did astrology readings, ran a women’s writing group, and helped me get a full merit scholarship to Roosevelt, where I was scheduled to graduate in January. She was a wise woman, knew about natural remedies, and I figured she could put me on the right path.

“I can’t believe you haven’t been icing your face. I can’t believe they didn’t give you an ice pack at the hospital.”

Now that she mentioned it, neither could I.

“The antihistamine made me sick.”

“Their drug of choice these days. Stay away from hospitals. That goes for prescription drugs too.”

I slipped her a twenty and she handed over the aloe juice.

“Go home, wet a wash cloth, wrap it around a handful of ice, pour a little aloe on the cloth, and hold it on your face. Twenty minutes on if you can, twenty minutes off, and repeat. In between, drink an ounce or two of the aloe.”

I must have made a face.

“You heard me, drink it. The swelling will go down within in an hour or two.”

I obeyed and it worked.

So began my long, successful relationship with aloe.

Alternative #2

The bar owner got wind of my trip to the ER and his paranoia kicked in.

He denied that the chemical spray had anything to do with my allergic reaction, but still, he wanted to help.

“Here’s the number of my friend, Althea. She’s an herbalist and acupuncturist. Give her a call.”

I can’t remember if he paid for my first visit, but he may have as a gesture of goodwill in the hopes that I wouldn’t sue him for fire-extinguisher malfeasance. Remember, he was a tad paranoid. I wanted to keep my job so I didn’t press the point. I needed some relief from the allergies and agreed to give his friend a try.

On the appointed day, I walked to a tiny, unmarked, frame house in my neighborhood. Althea, barely five feet tall and very pregnant, ushered me into a small treatment room on the first floor of her house.

I hopped on the examination table and she took my left wrist in her left hand.

“I’m listening to your pulses.” She moved her fingers ever so slightly on the inside of my wrist. “I’m listening to your major organs.”


“Wow. You are a hot tamale, my dear. So, what’s up?”

I gave her the rundown.

“Oh, we can fix you up.”

“Even the eczema?”

“Yes, we’ll work on both. Leave your clothes on but take off your sandals. Lay down on the table. I’ll be back in a minute to get you needled.”

Althea inserted needles (right through my clothing) from the top of my head to the tops of my toes and just about everywhere in between.

“Stay still. You’ve got a lot of needles in you. I’m going to leave you like this for at least half an hour.”

I channeled my inner porcupine, relaxed on the table, and wondered if the needles in my ears could penetrate my brain if I accidentally rolled over on my side.

Althea eased back into the room and removed the needles. Each one made a tinkling sound as she dropped them into a metal pan.

“How do you feel?”

“Pretty good. I’ll know when I get outside.”

“I’m going to put together an herbal extract to help cool you down and clean you up. Come back tomorrow for that, and we’ll set up a plan. I’m thinking twice a week for four weeks. We’ll go from there.”

“I’m on a limited budget.”

“Oh, we’ll work out something. Don’t worry about it.”

I liked this little healer-mamma so I did not worry about it.

I stepped outside and took a deep breath of Chicago summer air. No sneezing. I skipped up the sidewalk and felt free…for about two hours, which was long enough to convince me that I might have finally found someone who could help me.

Two weeks later I got a bill for the ER visit. I owed them two-hundred and twelve dollars; thank you very much.

The facts of the matter

The fact that I went to the emergency wasn’t unusual; I simply did what my mom did which was to consult doctors. Again, it didn’t work.

The fact that I reached out to my mentor wasn’t that unusual; she was a wise- woman-mother-figure who knew about alternative healing methods. I was willing to try anything.

The fact that the bar owner who caused my allergic reaction sent me to a healer who helped me was unusual; it remains one of the most ironic experiences of my life.

The big lesson

Sometimes we need a crisis. I learned to be grateful for the fire extinguisher incident because it taught me to ask for help, to take advice, and to try something different. It set me on a new path and sparked my interest in the useful plants and alternative medicine which eventually led to a thirty-year career in the health food industry.