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Wheat, Meat and Other Allergies

Profile: Author John Grisham’s Allergy Mystery

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.”

On cheating on the diet – and paying for it.

“Four years go by, and after a while I started eating red meat again. And I got by with it and I’m thinking, ‘This is good’. In 2007, I gave the commencement speech here at UVA [University of Virginia]. Then my wife and my daughter and I came downtown and all had a cheeseburger. That was in May.

In September, Renee fixed some big beef dish, and she had a thick wine reduction sauce, just delicious. And I woke up and thought I was going to die. It was the worst hives and rashes and itching ever. I took an Allegra [later he amends to say he took two], got out of bed so she could sleep, went downstairs, and at some point fainted and my head cracked a chair – and broke the chair. Of course I’m hard-headed [laughs] so it didn’t do any damage [to his head].

The last one was November 3rd, my wife’s birthday, 2010. To celebrate, we were in Paris. We went to a fancy restaurant, and I had a very rich rabbit dish in heavy sauce and I woke up about four hours later with yet still the worst case of hives, itching. I had Allegra, and we almost called to get a doctor. But I didn’t want to go to the doctor in a strange city, or a hospital, so we toughed it out.

And that was it. That episode was so bad I said, ‘I can happily give it [red meat] up now’. So I’ve had 15 episodes in 10 years with a gap, oddly enough, when I thought I could eat beef and pork. But I can’t.”

On treating his reactions.

“I always have Allegra nearby. There have been times when I would wake up in the middle of an episode and take the Allegra, and it kills the itching but not the swelling. But you can sleep it off. The next day is ruined; you feel terrible.

When this got cranked up in the summer of 2002, I had an EpiPen close by. Renee was always afraid I was going to have a heart attack or stop breathing, so I carried an EpiPen …. From June of 2002 through July of 2003, that 13-month period, there were 11 episodes, and that’s when I had the EpiPen. And then, I just figured it out. And I’ve only had four [reactions] since then.”

On his wife developing the allergy.

“What’s odd is now Renee has the same affliction. She started about a year ago. We live on a farm – ticks everywhere. And we’re from Mississippi and never had the problem there. We moved here in ’94, and again it wasn’t a problem.

But I think the problem is being seen everywhere around here [Charlottesville]. It’s being studied and all of that. [Renee] has been through it, I would guess, four times with rashes, but nothing as uncomfortable what I’ve gone through. But she doesn’t want to do what I’ve done, so she stays away from red meat.”

Next Page: Day-to-day life with the allergy.