Dr. Randhawa’s three seat waiting room was dated and underwhelming. 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 three years earlier. 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 and gasping for air. 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. 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 those, 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 a life-threatening reaction 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 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 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 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.
Thus, I am currently completing a Masters of Science in Microbiology & Immunology as well as an MBA in Health Care Management. I then plan on pursuing medical school and a PhD.
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.