Stuart Beard is one of my fav people in the whole world! (yup, really Stu, I’m not taking the Mickey this time honest). Stu and I used to work together and bonded over our shared ‘special needs’ diets and love of talking about poo (he even works with poo, but that’s another story).
Stuart’s story of a dairy allergy diagnosis is all too familiar – misdiagnosis, followed by more misdiagnosis, before finally getting an answer. Unlike many however, Stu’s symptoms were not stomach-related. Check out his story here …
“So the specialist has confirmed I’m allergic to dairy products and if I can’t change roles, he’s going to sign me off sick while I look for a new job.”
These are not the words I ever thought I’d find myself saying, but a little over 10 years ago, this very conversation was had with my then manager … at a dairy factory. I’d been working in the lab (which was part of the factory, with milk powder dust everywhere) for about 18 months and something was seriously wrong with my health.
With the exception of a serious case of hayfever (I was “that” snot ridden child), the first 20 years of my life were blissfully healthy, but all of that was about to change. Shortly after my arrival in New Zealand (for what I now understand to be “my OE”) I developed a small rash on my neck; a quick trip to the pharmacy yielded a tube of cream that cleared it up. But it slowly got worse. First my hands, then the inside of my elbows. Trips to see GPs both here and in the UK all got the same response “oh, it’s just atopic eczema, here have a prescription for some hydrocotisone.”
Then it all changed. Having settled permanently in New Zealand, I set about chasing a well paying job…and like all good science graduates, this meant a stint in a dairy factory laboratory. Over the next few months things went from bad to worse … my arms, my shoulders, my back, my neck, then finally my face turned a beautiful shade of red (and flaky from the scratching). With hindsight it was obvious what was happening, but when you’re in the midst of it, sometimes you can’t see what’s in front of your face.
A trip to a dermatologist was promptly arranged, which yielded yet another “yes, it’s atopic eczema, here have (some frighteningly high concentrations) of hydrocortisone.” Needless to say, my mental health was not great (scratching until you bleed, then dissolving into tears of anger/frustration is not fun) and I started “hiding” my body with clothes, in a way that I now understand many people with eczema do (which only made things worse, as I overheated).
Feeling increasingly run down, I was knocked out with a classic case of shingles and I realised it was time to take matters into my own hands, and so the research began … after a few false starts (including a trip to a dubious “buy our expensive creams, they will fix you” health clinic), my partner stumbled across an article about the Auckland Allergy Clinic, and an appointment was promptly booked.
For the first time in four years, a medical professional actually asked my about my life and attempted to find a cause to my health problems; yes, the skin prick test and blood tests suggested I was “generally very allergic”, but combined with a change in working environment, the cause of my problems came into sudden focus. His concerns about my health were very serious though, whilst I was only suffering with eczema, a very real possibility was that I would develop asthma if my situation didn’t change. As luck would have it, I had some annual leave booked, which gave me a two week opportunity to completely exclude dairy from my life. The results were nothing short of miraculous!!!
Cue difficult conversation with manager. It was the only time I’d seen him looking stressed. Luckily he valued me as an employee and I was able to move sideways into a slightly different role, which minimised my time within the factory, and combined with total dairy exclusion from my diet got things under control for long enough for me to plan a career change under my own terms.
So, ten years later … well I’m almost over craving dairy products…and labelling/availability of dairy-free products is slowly improving … I’m lucky to have good friends and family, who are supportive of my “special needs”… questions of “can you eat coconut cream” and “where do you get your calcium from” are less frequent … I’m much more comfortable proactively asking about ingredients in cafes and restaurants (I hate being perceived as fussy) … and most importantly I have my health back.