The sensational news of the 33 miners stuck for 2 months plus in a hot, humid tunnel 2,050 feet underground in Chile captivated the attention of the world. And for the first 17 days they were cut off from the world above them. No communication whatsoever. And nobody above ground knew whether these 33 men were alive or dead. The amazing part is that they survived for 17 days with death breathing down their necks. Their determination and sheer will to survive is astounding. This experience will stay with them forever. Their lives will be transformed. I hope that they will progress and not regress. To give up in life after overcoming death would be such a waste.
It has been 30 months now since I met Death. And these 30 months have been life-changing for me. It has been nothing but difficult and challenging, but the journey of self-discovery, of seeing things in a whole new perspective or learning to live again has been necessary. It has taught me how to make lemonade out of the lemons that life has thrown at me.
At the mere mention of the word 'death', many would cringe, touch wood, change the subject abruptly or even say, 'CHOY!' But it is 'death' that I am going to talk about today. By encountering 'death', I was rudely awakened from my slumber and learned to live all over again. And honestly looking back at the years I have lived, I was never alive. I was like the living dead. A person with a living body, but with a dead soul. Are you one of those living dead? Just barely scraping through each day of your life. Dragging your life through each day waiting for the next to end. Or living a life with no passion or purpose or joy.
March 2nd 2009 was just like any other day for me. Waking up, going about my normal routine: looking after my child, preparing meals and normal house chores. The first encounter happened during lunchtime. After chewing the peanuts from the chicken and peanut soup for the umpteenth time, a very strong foreboding feeling washed over me. I knew something was terribly wrong but didn't know what it was as this has never happened to me. I immediately went to my mother and told her that if I collapsed, my Epi-Pen was just in the cabinet. The foreboding feeling left and I didn't give it much thought after that.
Dinnertime came and I drank the same soup again! This time the reaction manifested physically. My lips swelled to the size that it would put Angelina Jolie to shame! And by the time I reached the hospital, my blood pressure had plunged, my throat and tongue had swelled to the point I had difficulty talking. I was given steroids and anti-histamine and was admitted for two days. Two days of continuos steroids and anti-histamines. I was discharged on Wednesday morning and was rushed to the ER again on Wednesday night. I kept reacting, to what I didn't know at that time. This time the ER doctor sent me home saying that 'I looked fine and was fine' even after we told them of what happened on Monday. I was very lucky that we did not meet this doctor in the wee hours of Saturday morning.
On Saturday at 1.30am, the worst allergy reaction struck. I was very stoned and groggy from all the medication, but a voice in my heart told me not to sleep. I think if I had slept, I would have died in my sleep. I felt my heart failing, my whole system shutting down and going into shock and I was blacking out. I woke my husband up and he jabbed me with the Epi-Pen and once again we rushed to the ER. This time I knew that I might not return at all. I was slipping into unconsciousness in the car and then I wasn't in my body anymore. I was moving into this dimly lit tunnel and Death was embracing me. I was in Death's arms and it was leading me to go deeper into the tunnel. The coldness that Death is can never be measured with all the eons of winters on this earth combined. As I moved into the tunnel with Death, I heard my husband’s voice calling me from a distance, calling my name, asking me to go back and that our son needs me. And in an instance, I was back in my body.
By the time we arrived at the ER, my veins had collapsed and they had to prick anywhere and everywhere to get a vein. I was lucky that the ER doctor that night had also experienced an anaphylactic attack and thus understood what allergy was and the seriousness of an allergy attack. When they finally found a vein and when the steroids coursed through my veins, I felt such relief. I could breathe. I could feel my heart returning to normal. And I knew that I was safe, for now.
I was admitted again, pumped up with medications and I was pricked by the daytime vampires, night time vampires and afternoon vampires constantly. Blood for this test, that test and every test that is imaginable. Up till today I still bear some scars of the needle marks. They remind me of how much I've been through and the things that I've learned throughout this journey.
The following months were hell. Someone had to be with me all the time. People who have had anaphylactic shocks were susceptible to having recurrent attacks. And when that happens, we could just collapse. And with no one around to administer the Epi-Pen, it would be fatal.
All the test results came back negative. That is good news AND bad news. The good news was that there was nothing wrong that they could find with me. Bad news was, what was it that happened to me then? What triggered the attacks? More trips to doctors, hospitals and tests and still NO answer. The only answer was in the years of experience of Dr.Yadav, Malaysia's only immunologist allergist. Even his tests came back negative. But because of his years of experience and the vast knowledge that he had, he believed strongly that I was salicylate sensitive. Salicylate is a component in aspirin. Salicylate is practically in everything. It is in food flavouring, sauces, food colouring, additives, spices, herbs, food preservatives, and even in fruits and vegetables. Salicylate is used in shampoos, soaps, paint, creams, toothpastes, detergents, mouthwash, lotions and etc. You get my drift, they are in EVERYTHING! How was I supposed to live a 'normal' life or even stay alive when everything had salicylate? My diet was reduced to fresh food: chicken, fish and a selected few fruits and vegetables. And the only thing that I could cook them with was salt, sugar and sunflower oil. No outside and processed food AT ALL! For months I was just eating the same food, day-in and day-out. Even the smell of belacan, durian, petai, detergents, shampoos, soaps or even hair-creams would trigger an allergy reaction. Because of the fear of anaphylactic shock, I had to go for a colonoscopy anesthetic-free. The doctors said I was too high-a-risk. When I'm in pain, I have no painkillers, NSAIDS, or even Panadol. Doctors tell me the same lines all the time, 'You're a doctor's worst nightmare because you're allergic to EVERYTHING!’ ‘Try not to fall sick.’ ‘I don't know what medicine to give to you.' And if I had to try a new medicine, as there are no more options, I would have to be admitted and be placed on high-alert, in case I react to the medication.
I became very depressed. I was very frustrated, angry and became a recluse. I am very, very blessed to have a strong and loving family. Without them I would not have survived those difficult days. There were days so bad that the neighbor's detergent could trigger a reaction so bad that all I could do was curl on the bed and just pray for all of it to end. Smells that triggered migraines from the depths of Hades and severe burning sensation on my tongue as though it was sprayed with acid and then dipped in salt, experimentation with new foods that caused loose bowels until I thought even my entrails would be expunged permanently, attacks so bad that my husband and I actually went to the hospital to wait just in case I dropped dead.
I was fed-up with everything. I was on anti-histamines everyday. And when the attacks came, I would have to double or triple the dose. And I was so stoned from all these anti-histamines. I couldn't even function as a person, as a wife, as a mother or a daughter. I decided to take charge of my life. I didn't cheat death to end up with a life like this. Of course it was difficult at first. I had to experiment with new foods bit by bit. If I reacted to the new food, I had to go back to the 'salicylate-free' diet and when I am out of it, I'll try again. I had to learn to cook, to make food in new ways. I had to learn to make my own chemical-free bread, cookies, biscuits, cakes, and basically everything that I put in my mouth. I had to flee many times in shopping malls when someone's perfume suffocated my air space. I had to forgo many outings and gatherings. And whenever I go out, I have to cook my own food and bring it out. I had to keep my house 'chemical free'. I hate it when people give me looks of sympathy, or said, 'WAH, everything also cannot eat, so poor thing! What kind of life is that?'
It was during these 30 months that I've learned to be resilient, to know which battles are worth fighting for, which ones to let go. I've learned the important things in life are in our hearts not in things. I've learned to live a life free of fear. What is to fear? I have met Death. I've learned the meaning of love. I've learned joy. I've learned to never give up. I've learned to appreciate. I have rediscovered my passion in life again. My vision of life and what life is can never be the same.
It took me 30 months to reach where I am today. Of course some days are 'Moderato', some 'Adagio', some 'Allegro'. I have days where I throw hissy fits. I have days where my mood is of a woman with PMS and menopause combined. There are days where I keep walking into a brick wall. There are days where I feel like I’m clawing my way up a steep, icy mountain with my bare hands. But I take a day at a time. One hurdle at a time. In this period of 30 months, I have had relapses. I have had long periods of time where I did not react to anything. Today I can eat so many more types of food (and reaction-free) compared to 30 months ago. I can even eat foods with a small amount of salicylate. Of course I have yet to try eating 'outside food'. That is my next goal.
To the people who are reading this, don't wait till Death comes knocking at your door before you realise the life that you've been living has been a farce, a facade. Live your life with passion. Get your priorities right. Ask yourself, 'Why are you alive? What is it that you want out of your life? What do you plan to achieve in your life? Are you working towards your dreams? Are you happy and contented with who and what you are?' Live your life before it’s too late.
‘Life is something that everyone should try at least once.’ – Henry J. Tillman
‘There is no wealth but life.’ – John Ruskin