When a Medical Facility's Essential Oils Fair Triggered My Idiopathic Reaction


I was supposed to have a neurology appointment last week. I say “supposed to” because instead of seeing my doctor, I ended up leaving the medical building with a team of EMTs and being rushed to the local ER thanks to a severe anaphylactic reaction less than five minutes after entering the facility.

As someone with mast cell disease, I live with the reality that I can have severe allergic reactions to completely random triggers, sometimes with no known cause. That was not the case this time. This was not an idiopathic reaction with no known cause. Any medical facility is designed to treat patients and help them manage their health, yet when I walked into the building last week, this facility exposed me to one of my worst triggers and resulted in me being put into a life-threatening situation.

When I entered the main entrance on the first floor of the building, there was a sign announcing that there was an essential oils fair being held on the second floor that day. I was immediately put on guard because I know scented products are one of my most dangerous triggers. My doctor’s office is also on the second floor but directly across from the elevators so I figured I would be able to easily avoid the products. I (apparently) naively thought no medical facility would place an essential oils fair out in the open knowing how many people (not just mast cell patients) are sensitive to fragrances. I could not have been more wrong.

As soon as the elevator doors opened, I immediately realized how mistaken I was. The essential oils were not only spread out in the lobby of the second floor (with no way to avoid them), but they also had numerous scents diffusing all over the space!

Now, as a rare disease patient, I understand it is my responsibility to be aware of my surroundings and to do what I can to minimize the risk of major reactions. I wear a filtered mask when I leave the house, rely on my service dog to alert me to oncoming reactions, and always carry my emergency medications with me. I took all my normal precautions, but I was exposed to such a large amount of my worst possible trigger. There was nothing I could do.

I tried to control my reaction with IV medications and inhalers, but the exposure was just too overwhelming. My throat started to close, and I was beginning to lose consciousness. After stabbing myself in the leg with my EpiPen, I spent the rest of the afternoon in the ER instead of seeing my neurologist for a much needed appointment AMD testing. Even with all my preparedness, sometimes there’s just nothing I can do but reset my “days without epi” counter and reschedule my appointment.

That day there wasn’t anything I could have done differently, but this situation could have been avoided. It is not just an annoyance but irresponsible for a medical facility to host an event like this out in the open with no way to avoid it. I may have been the only person to leave the building in an ambulance due to the essential oils that day, but I know I am not the only person who has issues with fragrances. And to force people to be exposed to these products with no option to avoid them is unacceptable, especially for a medical facility filled with providers who took an oath to “do no harm.”

My issue is not with the oils. I actually have no problem with essential oils. Obviously they are not for me, but I understand that for many people they are very beneficial and a great alternative to medications in some conditions. If a hospital or medical office wants to offer an essential oils fair to allow patients to have an opportunity to see what options are available and try different products, I think that is reasonable. But it needs to be done in a way that does not create a life-threatening situation for those of us for whom these oils is not an option.

This fair should have been held in a conference or meeting room away from the lobby and common areas. People who are interested in trying the essential oils could be directed to the appropriate location through well-placed signs, and those of us who need to stay far away from these scented products would not be risking our lives just to get to a doctor’s appointment.

Like I said before, I am used to the fact that as a rare disease patient, it is my responsibility to do what I can to manage my condition and avoid my triggers. I know any time I leave the house, I risk being exposed to something that could potentially cause a reaction. However, as someone who spends a significant amount of time in hospitals and at doctor’s offices, I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect the medical community who takes an oath to “do no harm” not to expose me to life-threatening triggers.

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Thinkstock photo by botamochi

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