When journalist and editor Nicola Adam had a severe allergic reaction to nuts hidden in a bread roll, she could have died but for the quick-thinking actions of her friend.
As new rules are introduced to label allergens in foods, she tells why the move is so important
You get by with a little help from your friends. Or, in my case, you survive.
When I first met my friend Emilie Mercer as colleagues on the Lancashire Evening Post, it didn’t cross my mind that one day I would be calling her my hero. But then I also failed to factor in one small and deadly problem.
It was only a few weeks ago when I headed down to London from my home in Walton-le-Dale for a Christmas-fuelled week of shopping and shows with Emilie, who works in PR and lives part-time in the city.
We were having a fantastic time when we headed to a renowned champagne bar and restaurant for a meal with a lawyer friend, Sarah.
We were all on top form, ordered our meal and bottle of champagne as a treat and were talking up a storm. Then they brought us some bread.
The tiny, trendy trio of a white roll, a brown roll and wholemeal roll looked innocent enough. Emilie went for brown. Sarah for white. I picked the delicious-looking wholemeal and took a bite. It crunched.
I knew straight away it was a walnut and spat it out. I have been allergic to nuts since I was a youngster and it was obvious immediately I’d reacted as my mouth started swelling.
But that is the thing – years of mouth swelling and discomfort has made me relatively unconcerned. It usually goes away eventually, with anti-histamine.
Doctors’ warnings and prescriptions of lifesaving epi-pens (an instant adrenaline shot) had not been ignored, but complacency had set in. With lips swollen and in discomfort I saw through the meal as the reaction receded. My epi-pens, woefully out of date, were in my drawer at home.
By the time we left, I felt fine, even managing a glass of champagne and some of my meal. We hit the shops at St Pancras, the episode only rankling due to the dismissive nature of the staff to the incident.
“She looks fine,” were the exact words of the Maitre’d which later came back to haunt us.
We were walking and discussing what to do next when I suddenly felt odd.
Unable to pinpoint what was wrong, I was suddenly unable to converse with Emilie.
Her questions seemed echoey. I felt hot, my skin was on fire. Feeling woozy, and suddenly nauseous, we went straight to the station toilets where – seeing a queue of two people I remember sinking to my knees, my legs unable to carry me. The last things I remember clearly were my palms on fire, being sick and wanting to pull off my clothes due to the extreme heat.
I was in anaphylactic shock.
As I collapsed in the toilet barely conscious, Emilie – unsure what was going on – was being an absolute hero.
Running to Boots, she was sent to another counter to get help. It was closed.
As she was about to ring 999, she spotted a bike paramedic called Ben who just happened to be walking past and ran to flag him down.
I only remember the rest in flashes, Emilie shouting as the paramedic tried to get a line into my arm, being hot then cold then in inexplicable abdominal agony, struggling to breathe in gas I was being offered. Shaking like a leaf. Blood pouring from the needle in my arm.
It took intravenous adrenaline, antihistamine and a large amount of morphine before I came round enough to be able even to speak.
Emilie’s actions and Ben’s access to timely treatment saved my life. In the ambulance I was beginning to see through the fog enough to be slightly embarrassed.
I had a very lucky escape and was well enough to be discharged that night after steroid treatment. It could have been so much worse. And I have a lot to thank Emilie and the staff of University Hospitals London for. They were fantastic.
But it could have been completely avoided if the restaurant had clearly labelled food with allergens.
It is just coincidence that last weekend marked the introduction of new regulations which mean all food outlets have to pinpoint certain ingredients – there is a list of 13 allergens, ranging from nuts to seafood.
For some food businesses this will be a lot of work – but I urge them to take action and take the issue seriously. Two million people in the UK have allergies like this.
It may seem like a sledgehammer to crack a nut. But it may save a life.