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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 10 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.

He has three new books being released in 2012, including a baseball novel, Calico Joe, and the third installment in his young adult series, featuring “kid lawyer” Theodore Boone (who happens to have asthma), but the author still found time to sit down in his Charlottesville, Virginia office with Allergic Living contributor Mary Esselman.

With good humor and frequent reference to his meticulous log notes, Grisham discussed his bedeviling allergy.

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.”

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



Allergic Living acknowledges the assistance of the OMDC Magazine Fund, an initative of the Ontario Media Development Cooperation.