Health Food Insider

How a Fire Extinguisher, an Allergic Reaction, and the ER Changed My Life

Doctors never helped, so I tried a couple of 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 soybeans.

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 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 point blank range over and over, all around your scalp. For 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.

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 UV light 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. My closed eyes detect flashes of light. He re-positions my head and repeats the process. To his credit, I feel no pain.

In the car, my mom holds my hand. “We’ll see if this works. If not, no more doctors. We’ve tried them all.”

It does not work.

Fast forward

As a preteen, the pediatrician suggested I stay inside during the spring and fall to avoid grass and leaves. Yeah, sure. My itchy eyes, runny nose, and unstoppable sneezing exhausted me and everyone around me.

During junior high and high school, I tolerated my allergies. Our family doctor prescribed cortisone cream for the eczema. It worked, but if I stopped, it returned.

In 1980, I left the farm for college in Chicago. My allergy symptoms lessened, probably because no fields of pollen-filled plants exist in the city.

The neighborhood health food store employees taught me about natural body care products. I got off the steroid cream.

Nothing 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. I rubbed them in my sleep. Cold washcloths were no match for my inflamed, hot eyes.

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

The problem was the owner. He was a tad eccentric and quite paranoid.

During a staff meeting, he showed us how to operate a fire extinguisher. Unfortunately, in his haste, he neglected to read the instructions and failed to point the nozzle at the floor.

A cloud of chemical flame retardant wafted around his tiny storefront bar and headed in my direction.

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

Back to the doctor

“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 right there.”

The ER doctor shot me up with antihistamine. I promptly threw it up. A nurse led me to a gurney in a dimly lit, unheated cubicle, and left me without a blanket.

Bits of conversation and laughter floated across the hall from the nurse’s station. I shivered and counted the ceiling tiles for an hour. Nobody came to check on me, so I slid off the gurney and walked toward the exit.

Three things I learned that night

  1. Emergency rooms are cold.
  2. Just because you go to an emergency room doesn’t mean you will get help and they might 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 you’ll just head home.

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

Alternative #1

Next morning, my face looked the same, 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 a professor with a PhD from the University of Chicago and sold aloe on the side.

I met Robin in her Shakespeare class at the community college. She also taught at Roosevelt University. She held meditation classes, 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 would graduate in January.

She was a wise woman who knew about natural remedies. I figured she could put me on the right path.

“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 nowadays. Stay away from hospitals and prescription drugs.”

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

“Go home, wet a washcloth, wrap it around a handful of ice, pour a little aloe on the cloth, and hold it on your face. Twenty minutes on, 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 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 he still wanted to help.

“Here’s the number of an herbalist and acupuncturist. Call her.”

I can’t remember if he paid for my first visit, but he may have as a gesture of goodwill, hoping that I wouldn’t sue him for fire-extinguisher malfeasance. 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. “And 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 on your clothes. 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 leave you like this for at least half an hour.”

I channeled my inner porcupine, relaxed, 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 tinkled 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 clean the liver and cool you down. Come back tomorrow for that, and we’ll set up a plan. I’m thinking twice a week for four weeks to start.”

“I’m on a limited budget.”

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

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

I stepped outside and took a deep breath of the 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.

Althea and I worked out a barter. I transcribed her goddess lectures in exchange for treatments.

The facts of the matter

The fact that I went to the emergency wasn’t unusual. I went to the doctor like mom did. 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 ready and 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

I’ve learned a lot since I was a scared little girl going from doctor to doctor.

I learned to be grateful for the fire extinguisher incident because it taught me to ask for help, take advice, and try new things.

Sometimes we need a crisis to set us on a new path. Mine sparked my interest in alternative medicine and herbs, which eventually led to a thirty-year career in the health food industry.

🍃Find out why aloe vera is my all-time favorite natural remedy 🍃