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Wheat, Meat and Other Allergies

Profile: Author John Grisham’s Allergy Mystery

He’s known for his bestselling novels and the hit films they inspired: The Firm, A Time to Kill, The Pelican Brief, The Client, to name a few. His dashing protagonists unlock secrets, ferret out corruption, and bring culprits to justice. But 12 years ago author John Grisham found himself caught in his own personal thriller, this one a frightening medical mystery.

Something was causing him to experience unnerving allergic reactions, sometimes in the middle of the night. His skin felt “on fire” with welts that would swell and itch – but what was behind the outbreaks? And how to stop them?

After consulting a physician and keeping a log of every morsel he ate for months, Grisham uncovered the bizarre cause of his misery: red meat (beef, pork and other mammals’ meat). What he didn’t know at the time was that the allergy is linked to tick bites. And Virginia, where Grisham’s family lives on a farm, is tick central.

In fact, University of Virginia researchers were among the first to document the tick-meat allergy connection, in part because renowned UVA allergist Dr. Thomas Platts-Mills himself developed meat allergy after being bitten by ticks.

What makes the allergy particularly confounding to track is that it causes delayed reactions, often over four hours after eating meat.

Despite his busy schedule of writing, speaking, and supporting good causes, Grisham manages to keep his allergy in check both at home (in Virginia and Mississippi) and on the road.

The prolific author is always writing – in 2013, he released Sycamore Row (the sequel to A Time to Kill), and the fourth installment in his young adult series, Theodore Boone (the kid lawyer who happens to have asthma), and coming for fall 2014 is Gray Mountain, a new suspense novel.

The author found time to sit down in his Charlottesville, Virginia office with Allergic Living contributor Mary Esselman to discuss his bedeviling allergy, making frequent reference to  his meticulous log notes.

On the beginning of his odd allergy.

“The first [reaction] was in June of 2002. I noticed some rashes on my ankles. I remember thinking, ‘This is weird, both ankles.’” [He didn’t think it was a big deal.]

“Then in July 2002, I went with my wife to an annual garden club dinner, and she had prepared these huge beef tenderloins that I had grilled. And while I was cooking, I was shaving some off to sample. By the time we got to the garden club party, my ears were really, really itching. I got my wife and said, ‘Renee, something’s going on.’

There was a doctor there, and he gave me an antihistamine. My skin was on fire.

So we got in the car, and I was so desperate I stripped down, took off all my clothes but my boxer shorts, and I had all the air [conditioning vents] blowing on me, and you could just see the welts. The skin was just welting up. It almost made me nauseated just watching my skin.”

[He wrote down in the food log his doctor advised him to keep that it was beef. The penny began to drop.] “It was always beef.”

On developing delayed reactions.

“Two weeks later, we went to a baseball game in Shea Stadium with the kids, and I had a hot dog. And this is when the weird stuff started happening because from that point on [the reactions] were all delayed [by four or five hours after eating]. I’d be asleep – and when you wake up you know you’re in big-time trouble.

I remember standing in the hotel bathroom, Renee was putting damp cloths on my skin, and you can just see it: down your legs, and right into your midsection is where it just really welts up. The inside of your forearms – there have been times when I would scratch until it almost would bleed. You just cannot stop scratching.

So the plot thickens. There were 11 episodes in 2002-2003. By then I’m writing notes to myself, ‘No red meat, you idiot.’ Because it was pork – my favorite pork ribs from a restaurant in Memphis one time – sausage, bacon, ham. Lamb one time. I finally just stopped eating red meat.”

Next Page: ‘I woke up and thought I was going to die’

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