By Sandra Fusco-Walker
As a patient advocate for 20 years, I can’t count the number of families I’ve met who lost loved ones to anaphylaxis. Many who died had one thing in common … they didn’t use epinephrine. Either they weren’t aware they had allergies and never had a prescription, they forgot to carry it, or they thought they didn’t need it anymore.
National guidelines emphasize epinephrine is the first line of treatment for anaphylaxis. It usually makes the difference between life and death … minutes count.
My mantra as an advocate was always, “When in doubt, give the shot!” I emphasized the medication wouldn’t kill if they really don’t need it, but anaphylaxis will, and you just might save a life. In the back of my mind, I wondered about the qualifier medical professionals added when I’d ask about safety … “It won’t kill them, but if they have a weak heart, maybe an older person – epinephrine might be a problem.”
On July 19, 2014, I knelt beside my 63-year-old husband, Scott, the only one in our family with no history of allergies or anaphylaxis. He was writhing on the ground drenched in sweat, retching and barely conscious 10 minutes after yellow jackets stung him. I held an auto-injector in my hand and hesitated. Even though all the symptoms were there, right in front of me, I started questioning myself. Should I wait for the ambulance? Should I give him the shot? Is his heart strong?
I remembered the ending to those conversations about safety – “If they’re already dying from anaphylaxis, a heart attack doesn’t really matter, does it?” – and I plunged the device into my husband’s thigh counting off 13, my lucky number.
As I pulled it away, I watched the red rash on Scott’s arms solidify to blotches. Ten minutes later, EMTs arrived with more epinephrine and gave him a second shot. By the time Scott entered the emergency room he was lobster red from his head to his feet except for his fingers and toes; they looked black, apparently from the lack of oxygen in his blood. The ER team worked their magic. Later the doctor emphasized it was the quick use of epinephrine that saved Scott’s life.
We are grateful to everyone who taught me so much during my time at Allergy & Asthma Network. I’m especially grateful to those families who despite their grief bravely shared their experience in hopes others wouldn’t lose their loved ones, too. Your message was loud and clear, and it worked.
Sandra Fusco-Walker is the former director of patient advocacy for Allergy & Asthma Network.