Health Stories

I was hospitalised by a smell

A kids' birthday party became a matter of life and death for Melita

Melita Taylor, 35, Geelong, Vic

As I peeled off my glove, I noticed something odd. An itchy, red rash across my knuckles.

‘What do you reckon this is?’ I said, showing my co-worker at the hospital.
‘It’s probably from the latex,’ she said. I shrugged it off.

As a healthy 20-year-old with a career in nursing, I didn’t think any more of it. I’d always wanted a job in healthcare – ever since I’d recovered from a serious car accident as a teenager. I’d been in awe of the nurses who had helped me pull through. Little did I know my career saving lives might end up being life-threatening…

Over the years, my mystery rashes reoccurred every now and then. I went on to have a little girl, Madi, now nine, but when she was five, my world was suddenly turned upside down. It was early in the morning and I was on duty at work when suddenly, I started feeling really strange.

Little did I know my career saving lives might end up being life-threatening…

‘Are you okay? You don’t look so good,’ said another nurse.
‘I don’t really feel so good, either,’ I replied. It felt like my throat was closing over. I gasped for air. I looked at my colleague, petrified as my body turned lobster-red and I broke out in angry bumps. Startled, my co-worker hit an alarm and medics rushed in. At least I’m already at hospital… I thought.

The rash coming on.
First I break out in an angry rash.

For the next 12 hours I stayed there, undergoing tests. But they didn’t discover what was wrong and in the weeks that followed, I suffered several more reactions. It was terrifying not knowing when they might strike.

Several months later I finally got a diagnosis. ‘You have anaphylaxis – a severe reaction brought on by an allergy,’ the doctor told me, explaining mine was linked to latex. It means my body goes into shock if I come into contact with, or even just go near, rubber.

I was in disbelief. It turns out developing a latex allergy is more common among healthcare workers who often wear special rubber gloves for procedures, or have to be around people who do. But it seemed my reaction was more severe than most. It could kill me.

And it wasn’t just hospital gloves I had to be wary of. Everyday objects like party balloons, rubber bands, tyres and bottle stoppers could become life-threatening too.

It could kill me.

As I processed the news, I felt my world was unravelling. Life would never be the same. I was totally shaken up and scared of what the future would hold for me and Madi.

Doctors advised me to carry four EpiPens – special syringes that administer medicine – that would relax the muscles in my airway to increase my chance of making it to hospital in the case of a severe attack. The idea of having to use them was daunting but necessary as my attacks became more frequent.

One time, I’d gone out for lunch with a mate to celebrate her new job when I had a severe reaction. It turned out there was a rubber stopper in the water bottle at our table. Another time, a vehicle braked suddenly while I was by the road packing our car. A small amount of burning rubber hit me and within minutes I was wheezing. It was as if life itself was a risk every day.

Although I tried my best to shield Madi from what was happening, it wasn’t easy. One of my most scary reactions happened minutes after I dropped Madi off at a child’s birthday party. ‘Bye love, have a great time,’ I called out at the door as she ran inside. That’s when it hit me – the smell of party balloons. Please no, not now, I thought. Still not wanting to believe the worst, I set off back home. But within minutes of arriving at the house, the chain reaction had begun. First I felt a hot flush. Then I started wheezing. My body turned red and my fingers, lips, tongue and eyelids swelled. Frantically, I called an ambulance and texted my best friend Natalie, I’m going into shock. Help! Moments later, I collapsed onto the floor of the living room. Luckily Natalie was on her way and I got the medical help I needed – but it was another close call.

That’s when it hit me – the smell of party balloons.

A large bruise left by an EpiPen
Using an EpiPen is traumatic in itself.

Balloons struck again in April this year. As I recovered in hospital from an asthma attack, a visitor on her way to another room walked past my door with a bunch. Detecting the scent drifting into my room, I went into shock in my hospital bed. The attack was so severe it landed me in intensive care again.

In the past three years, I’ve had 25 severe attacks that have left me in hospital for between three and five days. It can happen anywhere. I can’t even put my groceries on the rubber check-out belt. My condition is so severe that no airline will give me clearance to fly. And forget about going to the dentist.

From the moment my allergic reaction starts, it can take as little as 30 seconds to go into full shock. Madi’s been my little hero. From the age of six she’s been trained to administer my EpiPens to keep me alive until emergency services arrive. And she’s my number one balloon scout – always looking for things that could set me off.

My condition is so severe that no airline will give me clearance to fly.

Melita with daughter Madi
Madi’s been my little hero

I don’t know what I’d do without my family and friends. They’ve made their lives and homes latex-free for me. Today my condition means I have to work from home as a nurse, speaking to patients only over the phone. I also try to raise awareness. If I can get more people to understand how a sensitivity can turn into a severe allergy, I’ll have done my bit.

Protecting yourself early on is key to maintaining a more normal life. Whatever gets thrown my way, I’m determined to be a positive role model.

This story first appears in that’s life! Issue 22, 2015

Lethal Latex

An allergy to latex is actually a hypersensitivity to a protein contained in the sap of the Brazilian rubber tree. This sap is used in the manufacturing of latex products. Just one per cent of the general population is thought to be affected. Latex allergies can range from mild irritation to the most severe form, anaphylaxis, which can be fatal. Some proteins present in latex are present in foods like banana, avocado, kiwi fruit, passionfruit, plums, strawberries and tomatoes. Other than healthcare workers, those most at risk include hairdressers, food service workers and housekeeping staff.

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