Dr. Randhawa’s three seat waiting room was dated and underwhelming back in 2017. As I read the poster describing anaphylaxis, I knew this was my last hope. Dozens of appointments from across Israel to the United States yielded no results.
The journey to Dr. Randhawa’s office in Southern California started two years earlier in 2015. After a barista handed me a soy latte, my next act was nearly fatal. One sip of that consequential latte, and the soy it contained, inflicted an episode of anaphylaxis, which left me coughing relentlessly, gasping for air, and ultimately losing consciousness. That experience was the start of a trend in which I saw myself develop life-threatening allergies to almost every food that I consumed, foods that I had safely eaten my entire life.
My name is Natalie, and I am a 26-year-old currently living in Tel Aviv, Israel. Throughout my life, I have lived in various locations around the world including Southern California, Maryland, Boston, London, Spain, and Israel. I love to travel, and I speak three languages: English, Spanish, and Hebrew.
Growing up, I never had any food allergies, only the typical seasonal environmental allergies. At 15 years old, I started reacting to carrots with throat swelling and coughing. At 17 years old, right before my senior year of high school, I had my first skin test. It revealed that I was allergic to carrots, cats, and everything in the environment. But besides that, everything else was negative including peanuts, tree nuts, soy and the rest of the top 8 allergens.
I continued through life avoiding carrots; I still ate out, I traveled, I studied abroad, it didn't affect me. But at 20 years old, my first official life-threatening allergic reaction happened at Starbucks as mentioned above. About 8 months later, I experienced another anaphylactic reaction to soy milk from cross-contamination at a coffee shop, and shortly after I found myself in the hospital due to another life-threatening reaction, this time to peanuts. I had purposely eaten the peanuts as I was never allergic and had a negative skin test, so I had no way of knowing that my body had become allergic.
A few months after graduating college at 22 (from Northeastern in Boston) and moving to Israel, my food allergy condition quickly escalated and it wasn’t only soy, carrots and peanuts anymore. Over a mere few weeks, I began experiencing life-threatening symptoms to various tree nuts and fruits, such as peaches. And then my throat started swelling when I ate onions, oranges, eggs, black pepper, paprika, rosemary, garlic, coffee, powdered sugar, and the list went on until I developed IgE mediated life-threatening food allergies to everything but wheat, dairy, grapes, blueberries, olive oil and salt. This happened all within three short months.
The bustling emergency room at Assaf HaRofeh in Rishon LeZion (in Israel) became a second home to me. I had a looming fear that hung over my head at all times: will this bite of food be my last? The doctors couldn’t figure it out. “You are just an allergic person” they would say. Mast cell activation syndrome was ruled out. Reaching rock bottom, I was forced to uproot my life in Israel and move back to the United States to be treated by the only physician who was ready to take on my unique, practically hopeless, case.
Dr. Randhawa, or Dr. R to his patients, led me to a cold, fluorescently lit patient room where he spent five hours with me. The calmness in his voice and the reassurance that I was not the only patient he had seen with my condition was worth it in itself. After multiple anaphylactic reactions leading to sometimes not eating for an entire week out of fear, the hopelessness that I had felt slowly vanished as Dr. R explained the extensive testing I would go through, followed by immunotherapy treatment.
As a curious person with a great thirst for knowledge, I wanted to understand why this was happening to me and how treatment would work. As a professor, Dr. R took the time to draw out diagrams and explain the science behind it. Even after four years of college followed by a post-bacc, I have never been so fascinated and enthralled by a lecture in the way Dr.R’s explanation was able to grip my imagination.
A year into treatment, I could no longer be a bystander to a pandemic that has caused myself and millions of others so much pain. Anaphylactic food allergies affect millions of people around the world and cause countless deaths of otherwise perfectly healthy children and adults. I find this unacceptable. This led to my advocacy brand, NoNuts4Me, and my journey to research.
After attending physician only medical conferences and interviewing six board certified allergists for my film, Risk At First Bite, I realized that raising awareness through NoNuts4Me would never equal the impact a physician or a scientist would be able to have. I remember my interview with allergist/immunologist Dr. Caperton specifically. Her determination in becoming a physician, and all the sacrifices she made to be there for her patients, led me to consider medical school for the very first time that night.
I want to be on the forefront of advancing research that will change the lives of future patients, just like Dr.R has done for thousands of people, including myself. In fact, I have already taken the initiative to map out food and environmental protein components and how they cross-react with each other through a big data survey study that I conducted which is currently under review for publication. But this is only the start. As a motivated and driven individual, I am someone who, if I do not have a solution, will go to the end of the world to find one. I believe that the results of this research, along with future research that I plan on undertaking, should lead to a more efficient and accurate diagnostic system, and eventually, a cure.
I went back to school at the age of 26 after an established career in business to take all of the science pre-requisite classes that I never took in undergrad. They included cellular biology, genetics, general chemistry, organic chemistry, and physics. I took the MCAT, I shadowed physicians, and I planned to apply to medical school.
It was at my very first medical school interview that a question through me completely off guard: why are you not pursuing a Ph.D.? I immediately answered that it's because I longe for that patient interaction. All of the patients I've connected with through my film Risk At First Bite and through my instagram account NoNuts4Me is really my true inspiration for changing my entire career. But would being an MD allow me to reach my goal? My goal is to focus on the research, the cure - to offer solutions to these patients.
That's when I realized, that spending my time in medical school and as a physician would take significant time away from this goal. It would require four years of general medical education followed by a four year (in Israel) residency in internal medicine followed by a 3 year (in Israel) fellowship in allergy. It would be seven years before I even got to practice as an allergist. Let alone the immense amount of studying and clinical hours that would take away from research.
I never thought about a Ph.D. for one very simple reason - both of the medical professionals that inspired me, Dr. Ranadhawa and Dr. Caperton, both were physicians. Neither of them are even a MD/PhD. So I truly never explored this option. But that guy who interviewed me for medical school, he was a PhD, and he could see right through me. He could see something that I didn't even see.
Deciding to do a Ph.D. was the best decision I have ever made. I first had to do a masters though, because although in the United States you can enter PhD straight from undergrad, it doesn't work like that in Israel. Here in Israel, you must do a master's and you must get a 95% average (above a 3.5 basically). There is a reason Israel is one fo the leading medical research centers of the world! (Except not quite in food allergy - but I am going to change that).
So I am now finishing up my Masters of Science in Microbiology and Immunology at Georgetown University (they went online because of the covid pandemic). I am in my last semester which will finish in May 2021. I am also researching at a medical laboratory here in Israel, which is where I will continue onto my PhD as soon as the masters is complete. The research I am now doing is exactly what I will be researching during my PhD (I've basically unofficially started I guess). My thesis is based on eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE).
While I was dealt an unfortunate hand of cards when it comes to my health, it has brought me to where I am today: a determined young woman, looking forward to advancing research for the millions of people worldwide with anaphylactic food allergies.