This is a tragic, yet important and certainly memorable story. Let’s set the scene. Myself, along with three of my girlfriends had traveled down to Sorrento, a town in Southern Italy easily accessible from Naples via railway (how we decided to flee Naples for Sorrento is a different story). Situated atop breathtaking cliffs above the Bay of Naples, Sorrento boasts of panoramic water views around every corner. If you know me, you know I’m a total sucker for ANYTHING water. Add in the backdrop of Mount Vesuvius’ shadow, quaint marinas, shining cobblestone streets, and an abundance of locally made limoncello, you have a destination out of an adult fairytale. After a troubled 48 hours spent in Rome and Naples, this dreamlike town had an air of quaint appeal that I assume honeymooning couples would likely seek out.
We stepped off the train and into a blue skied, palm tree lined small Italian town. In the distance was music and laughter. As we made our way toward the noise, scatters of festively dressed children and adults alike began to appear. We rounded a bend along a cliff bordered by the Bay of Naples far below to find Carnevale in full swing. Carnevale is also known as Mardi Gras, celebrated 40 days before Easter - a final joyous celebration before the Lenten season. There was confetti on the streets, dancing, music, and some walking around on leg stilts in costume. Children had ice cream cones in hand and adults laughed and chatted among themselves. We bought ourselves gelato (YUM!) cones and took in the small but beautiful celebration in this town we had just arrived. However, the next time I ate gelato would NOT be as joyous. Dun, dun dun.
The remainder of the afternoon and the days that followed had a similar magic to them. We enjoyed a beautiful, affordable hotel room with a view (We’d been upgraded for reasons unknown to us, but I suspect the lack of visitors in the off-season had something to do with it) and ate the most delicious gnocchi my taste buds have ever had the pleasure of soaking in. Italian waiters brought us complimentary limoncello shots to welcome us and joked that we’d marry them. The night consisted of cheap wine and breezy whimsical streets that had a comfortable quiet to them.
The next day, Meg and I made our way down the long decline to the marina below. A stone and concrete path winded it’s way down the side of the cliff where Sorrento sat and led to a seemingly deserted port area. Boats existed yet none appeared to be boarded. We brought our wine and sat on the edge of the Bay of Naples drinking it and feeling the waves crash mist unto us. No plans, simply existing. We met up with two of our girlfriends at a restaurant near the pier midday and ate more good food. After, we decided to get gelato at a small stand along the marina. I ordered mint and we all sat on a floating dock on the Bay of Naples at the base of a cliff in a place that very well could have been a postcard. Then, I took one tiny spoonful of my ice cream.
As soon as it hit my mouth, I knew something was not right. My mouth dried up, my throat itched, and swallowing felt like a task I had to actively think about. Being in the scene that we were, I tried convincing myself nothing was wrong. Another minute went by before I had to acknowledge the facts: this was the beginning of an anaphylaxis reaction to nuts. My mind began racing. I was in Italy. Small town, very few spoke English. I was out of my home-base Dublin. My cell phone had no connection. What was the emergency number? Who could call it? And mostly importantly, I need to sprint up this cliffside with a closing throat and swelling face to find a pharmacy.
My naive self thought that if I could find Benadryl, all would be alright. Little did I know my intolerance to nuts had become severe to the point that epinephrine and hospitalization were the only treatment. After running from pharmacy to pharmacy with no one who had what I was searching for, my friend was terrified by my swollen eyes and lips. I had bought, what I later found out to be the equivalent of Claritin allergy medicine, and was sitting outside in Sorrento’s city center waiting for a bottle of water so I could take it. Things were getting blurry, I was wheezing just to breathe. I could see little out of my swollen eyes, and I felt passing out was just on the horizon. In the middle of the square, I yanked down my pants and jammed my epi-pen (which I was carrying and had never given to myself) into my thigh.
Things after that were blurry, but I know some civilians and my friends had gotten an ambulance to pick me up and I was given and IV. My stomach felt like knives were twisting, but I could breathe again. I’ll spare you the details but things were coming out the top and bottom out of my control as I writhed around attempting to relieve the pains any way I could. Those poor doctors who had to deal with me. None of which spoke English except to comprehend my repeated use of “F*ck!” when a needle was put into my butt to bring down the hives that had covered my body. They had a laugh and I learned curse words transcend language barriers.
Fast-forward and I’m signing papers to be released. So much fine print, so much Italian, ZERO comprehension of what I was supposed to be reading. And zero clarification due to a language barrier. So, I signed the papers, happy to be alive and breathing, and scared to death of the bill I’d receive for treatment. Let me take a moment to thank my friends who behind the scenes were calling my parents, study abroad program personnel, and international insurance plan office. All was well and I had sufficiently scared a whole lot of people. Including myself, as I only ate bread and pizza for the next few days, keenly aware that I had used the only epi-pen I had brought along to spring break.
My lessons were plentiful that day. Don’t take chances on eating when you have severe allergies. Don’t wait to get or give treatment. Always listen to your sense of doubt when it comes to taking care of yourself. And for me, learn how to communicate my allergy in the spoken language - BEFORE arriving.
That wasn’t the first allergic reaction I’ve had, and it hasn’t been nor will be the last, but it was the most severe. It’s armed me with the knowledge that it’s always better to play it safe when those severe consequences exist and it has prepared me to know how to recognize my own signs and symptoms.
And no, I did not receive a bill in the mail. Emergency medical services are free of charge in Italy. What an idea.