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Wheat, Meat and Other Allergies

Profile: Author John Grisham’s Allergy Mystery

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.”

On how the allergy affects day-to-day life.

“There are times when you think, boy, I’d love to have a big old steak or cheeseburger or a side of ribs or even, you know, a Bolognese pasta sauce or something like that. But you say, well, it’s not worth it.

Renee is a very healthy cook, and I’ve never had a problem with cholesterol, nor does she, or blood pressure. But it’s a whole lot lower now [laughs], cholesterol. There’s no real drawback. I could easily be a vegetarian. But my wife is also a wonderful cook. We spend a lot of time in the kitchen; we open a bottle of wine every evening about 6 and start thinking about what can we cook, or we go out. But we do eat a lot of chicken. A LOT of chicken.

[Outdoors,] we’re much more careful now. We hike all the time, through the trails. We’re much more careful with the [tick repellant] spray and spray the dogs.”

Next Page: Trying to explain this weird allergy.

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