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Finding Allergies in Panama

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Written by Matt   
Tuesday, 16 December 2008 09:29
Panama's AllergiesSome people contribute organs when they die, others write checks to charity. As a child, my body was my gift to science as numerous doctors in numerous states examined, without conclusion, my allergies the way one might consider a Rubik's Cube, as if simply being in its presence and going through the motions might magically produce a solution. Starting from the moment I was born, there were complications going on inside of me. Pyloric Stenosis, a condition I still don't know too much about, had welcomed me into the world and before I was old enough to sneeze, surgeons were cutting open my belly in an effort to stop my continuous vomiting. My early years were marred by throat constrictions, but since this was before what I like to call "the allergy craze" when it became trendy to drink soy lattes and tofu spring rolls, my reactions were purely enigmas to most of us. As a young and imaginative kid, I liked to envision the inside of my body as a factory during the Industrial Revolution, where teams of workers were trying their darnedest to help yet inhibited by wretched working conditions.

"Can we get some fucking light in this dust bowl?" one of them might say. "God dammit, I can't work with my glasses fogging up like this!"

Throughout the first decade of my life, I was put through a gauntlet of tests at some of the biggest children's hospitals by some of the industry's brightest stars. Trips into Philadelphia became akin to being a mini rock star on tour where everyone knew my name and preferential treatment was not hoped for but expected. I endured epic fasts, meant to reduce to bare bones, the way my curveball body functioned. I consumed vials of viscous liquids and canisters of powdered experimental drugs. I even sat expressionless for two hours while specialists punctured my back several hundred times, but I can't say my medical experience was ever extensive.

As I grew up, my symptoms began to lessen. I'd like to think it was the workers inside of me finally acclimating to the environment, the way blind people learn to tie shoes and use the remote. However doctors had predicted from the start, that the majority of my problems would dissipate "by the time I became an adult." While this forecast was disproved on the evening of my bar mitzvah when I threw up a large celebratory plate of lobster meat and California rolls, I saw what they were getting at.

As concerns for the severity of my symptoms diminished with age, new challenges predictably took their place. Traveling, a hobby I came to adore, introduced the need to know the words for my allergies in many different languages. At a pizza joint in Berlin, I struggled aimlessly with the phrase "no cheese," then as a result was delivered an empty, dry pizza crust alongside a bottle of ketchup. In Finland, where arguably every salad dressing is made with crème, my poor translation got me a bowl of raw, unadorned black olives. And in Russia, when all of my fifteen-year-old comrades at the breakfast table had ordered glasses of milk, I was mistakenly handed a tall glass of the house ale. Being the boy in the bubble sometimes had its rewards.

"Yo estoy allergico a leche, mantequilla, crema, queso." While my clarifying at restaurants in Panama may come off as demanding, virtually a who's who of dairy products, it is sort of necessary in an effort to keep me alive. My requests are often met with confused looks, the way one might react when confronted by a talking beaver. "You can't eat what?" they ask, then shrug me off as if just another overly picky tourist.

Many of my Panamanian friends look at my allergies the same way my American friends do: as if they are terrible hindrances to life and all its delicious pleasures. "So you can't eat ice cream?" they'll ask, as if making a breathtaking medical revelation. "And potato salad? You can't even eat potato salad?" See, potato salad isn't really up there on my popularity list, I'll tell them, but no, I can't eat that either.

To many people in Panama, being burdened by such allergies is not unlike living without legs or a penis: a dreadful hindrance not only to me, but to the unfortunate ones who are forced to interact with me on a regular basis. After getting over my mind-boggling deficiencies, people in Panama generally embrace the allergies like a cuddly alien. They don't know what it is, but they're happy to help its cause and they regularly express feelings of sympathy.

"I cannot believe that," some of them say when learning I can't eat egg for breakfast. "Lo acompaño en tu sentimento," they reveal, which is literally the same thing you say when someone's close friend has passed away.

But in response, I like to think back to the days of hour-long cat scans and weekly blood tests during which I experienced first-hand the introduction of the butterfly needle. I think back to experimental diets where I could consume nothing but white rice and apple juice for days on end, and barium sulfate bottles I was forced to swallow before testing which tasted like something between liquefied chalk and butt crack. I remember back to the days when throwing up and stomachaches were freakishly ordinary, but no one had any idea why. And in the end, choosing to avoid potato salad in Panama isn't all that bad.

Image: It's not me, it's another lucky guy -

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 16 December 2008 09:37