Anaphylaxis up close and personal
I've never been one of those people who has "allergies." I consider myself very lucky that I don't live in fear of eating nuts, eggs, or seafood, and I don't have to tour all the factories where food is processed to assure that no grain of wheat was ever there.
That may have changed a bit this weekend. I was the victim of a bee attack, received multiple stings, and was starting to fail from anaphylactic shock, which is an overwhelming systemic allergic response to the venom. Luckily it happened in a populated area, and some kind strangers summoned an ambulance so I am still here to tell you about it.
Naturally I wanted to know what happened to me, why it happened, how it all works, how to avoid future attacks, and what to do about it going forward. So here is the story, augmented with research.
I hope and pray this never happens to you or your loved ones, and that your reason for being here reading this is purely academic.
Bee attack caught on tape
One fine spring November morning I set out on a 10K run along the Moonee Creek Bike trail. (See the pictures.) For those of you who think Australia is all bush, I want to emphasize that this is an urban area just north of Melbourne. Moonee trail is rarely out of sight of a major motorway, and there are homes and businesses along the entire length of it that I was on that day. I was totally wearing shoes and socks (for those of you following my barefoot running escapades.) It was a glorious day, great run, anyway, until the end of it. My house is indicated by the red marker on the map. There is a big long term project located just south of Moreland Road that has a section of the bike path closed off (indicated in yellow.) You must get off on Eric street, detour through a short section of residential streets and get back on the path at Hilda or Vanberg Road. That was my PLAN (indicated by the blue line.)
What actually happened was I got attacked by a swarm of honeybees on Eric Street. (red x). The bees pursued me (dotted red line) along McPherson Street. I have also included a video which appears to be a real bee attack, similar to the one I had. Those crazed swatting and jumping up and down motions that guy is doing are exactly what I was doing. (I must have looked pretty stupid!) I finally shook the last of them and decided to take the most direct route home (along Albion St.) The bee stings did not actually hurt that bad. I had been stung by things plenty of times before. It was the buzzing that was driving me nuts. I remember yanking out several little white stingers in all the pandemonium. That is why I believe it was garden variety apis melifera, and not some evil European wasp or hornet. Wasp and hornet stings feel like someone jabbed a 7cm white hot needle into you and they don't leave barbs behind. And it was not evil African bees either, because that species has not yet made it to Australia.
I did not realize how serious a situation I was in--I was just thinking get home ASAP and get some cold water and soda paste on the stings. Truly it was only about 400 mts to my house. But as you can see, I did not get very far. My circulatory system was revved from the run, and it became a super efficient delivery system for the venom. I was forced to slow to a walk at the park, and as I crossed over the canal I knew that I was not going to make it home, and collapsed at the black X. That is how fast it kicks in!!!
What does it feel like? Horrible! All the energy drained from me. I felt nauseous and had a few dry heaves, and it felt like I was going to have diarrhea and wet myself, though I actually didn't do either of those things. I felt faint and had to put my head down. My thinking process was slowed. I did manage to give a bystander my husband's mobile number so someone could call him and an ambulance. A horrible hot prickling sensation was starting in my feet and legs, and my lower legs were already turning red. I do not remember having any shortness of breath or feeling any swelling in the throat or tongue. But my memory of that bit is a little cloudy.
I do remember the paramedics asking me to try to help them help me onto the stretcher. When I attempted to do so, I lost it. My husband (who had arrived by then) says that I completely slumped over and looked grey and dead. I regained consciousness in the ambulance after being given two hits of adrenaline. I remember them talking about how it might elevate my heart rate and BP and that it might make me feel a bit panicky or anxious. It did not make me panicky at all, and I remember thinking that raising the BP and HR in this situation was probably a good idea, since the BP had dropped below 60/40, and I don't remember what the HR was, but it was some serious brachycardia.
I was transported to the City campus of Royal Melbourne Hospital, where I was held overnight for observation. Luckily I did not have a rebound reaction. Once they got me stabilized, I just basically slept it off. They told me that I might be a bit lethargic for the next 24 hours, which I totally was. Some of the stings turned into raised red swollen hot patches on my skin and some of them didn't. It itched. I just took OTC antihistamines to help out with that, and it was helpful.
I was sent home with a prescription for an epipen, which is a portable self-administered single dose of adrenaline to keep you alive in case it happens again.
As I stated at the first, I don't think I am super sensitive to bee venom, but everyone is sensitive to some extent. My reaction was probably simply due to the massive dose I received and the fact that I had been running, so it all hit my poor little body very quickly. Apparently there is about a 30% chance that this episode sensitised me for life to bee venom, and that from now on a single sting could send me again into anaphylaxis. That's quite likely to happen, since I am rather fond of bush walking. Another full-fledged mass attack is less likely. Life is all about odds and luck, when you get right down to it.
Luckily, this particular attack took place in a populated zone. It would have been complicated even if I had just been on the bike path, because you couldn't easily get an ambulance down there and I would have needed to be carried up the embankment. I wonder how much good one epipen would do if I were seriously out in the sticks. I tend to go out running alone quite often in the woods back home in Oregon!
The other thing I wonder is that even if I was carrying an epipen, in the case that I became unconscious would untrained random bystanders even know to look for it? I guess that's why you also wear a medi-alert bracelet or something. Arrr! Life just got a bit more complicated.
What causes bees to attack? From what I read and have experienced, isolated foraging bees only sting you if you step on them or mess with them. In the spring, hives are reorganizing and reforming, and sometimes queens are out. Bees get jumpy when the queens are out and about. They say that wearing dark clothing or floral perfume attracts them. I wasn't wearing much in the way of clothing at all but it was dark: I had on grey running shorts and a grey sports bra and was carrying a red shirt. I certainly didn't have perfume on, only my own sweat. Most likely I spooked a jumpy bee by brushing at it or swatting at it, thinking it was a fly. When alarmed or squished, bees give off smells that put the whole swarm into attack mode. If attacked by bees you should not swat at them like I did, because that will make it worse.
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