For the first 40 years of her life, Amy Pearl was a card-carrying member of the meat club; she literally had a credit card from the famous Brooklyn steakhouse Peter Luger. Then one day she ate a porterhouse steak, and nearly died. This week we join forces with our friends at Radiolab to tell the story of how Amy's mysterious allergy was identified by scientists. Plus, she tells us how the allergy has changed her relationship to food — and we find out if it’ll ever go away.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Pong" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Rooftop Instrumental" by Erick Anderson
- "Legend (Instrumental)" by Erick Anderson
Photo courtesy of Amy Pearl.
Amy Pearl: I wish that I could still eat anything. I feel like it's not good to have an allergy in the end, it's an extra worry that you shouldn't have to think about.
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show we obsess about food to learn more about people. Today, we’re bringing you the story of a friend of mine, Amy Pearl.
Amy Pearl: Okay...
Dan Pashman: Is your mic on?
Amy Pearl: Yeah, I'm getting — this is making me nervous, maybe I should get my EpiPen.
Dan Pashman: Are you allergic to radio greatness?
Amy Pearl: Not that I know of. I haven't been really exposed to it yet. Anyway, well let's go.
Dan Pashman: Amy and I used to work together at WNYC, New York Public Radio. And she had this really strange story that she wanted to share. We collaborated with our friends at the excellent podcast Radiolab to tell this story -- that’s why you’ll hear Radiolab’s Robert Krulwich and Latif Nasser a little later on. Anyway, let’s get right to Amy’s story.
Dan Pashman: Years ago, before any of this happened to you, just tell me, what was your relationship with meat?
Amy Pearl: My relationship with meat?
Dan Pashman: Yeah.
Amy Pearl: Well, you know how when you're little and your mom is like, you can have any special dinner for your birthday? My dinner was meatballs. And she was like, except meatballs are so hard to make. So it was pot roast. And then Peter Luger — you know, Peter Luger's?
Dan Pashman: Famous steakhouse in Brooklyn.
Amy Pearl: Yeah, I used to go there quite often and I lived there and I have a Peter Luger credit card, so —
Dan Pashman: Are those hard to get?
Amy Pearl: You know, I don't know how they give them out, but nobody seems to have one. I don't think they give them out anymore. But I mean, I was very into Peter Luger. I was living in Williamsburg and it just — it opened on like one o'clock every day.
Amy Pearl: And you could just walk in at one. They had an amazing bar. There's no tablecloths on the table. These old German waiters, they bring out your porterhouse for three. They put a little plate upside down and then put the big platter on top of it. So it's tilted and all the juice runs to the end. And then they, like, have the special double spoon thing that they somehow like scoop juice on to your steak and — oh, so good. And also like the smell of burning fat from a hamburger.
Dan Pashman: What about hot dogs?
Amy Pearl: Oh my God. I love hot dogs so much. When you bite into them and they're like clack and have like a snap and like having a weenie roast out in the open air is just it's like the — oh God, it's so good. Anyway, I was always very into meat.
Dan Pashman: What changed?
Amy Pearl: Oh my God. It was terrible. It was — what happened was I was having this beautiful — it was springtime. I was having a beautiful leg of lamb with some neighbors and we put it on the grill and it was just a delicious, beautiful dinner. And I had served with it some ramps that I foraged in my mom's yard. So we had this delicious meal. And then, you know, I went home and I was going to sleep at like midnight, like a few hours later, and I just felt weird. I was like, something's wrong. I feel like really anxious, like something's wrong with me. And I went in the bathroom and I, like, look in the mirror. And my face was like all weird looking. And I was like —I kept laying down and be like, I'll just sleep it off, whatever it is.
Amy Pearl: But every time I lay down, it felt like I was going to faint. So I was like, prop myself up. And I was like, oh God, I was having terrible stomach cramps and just like a weird feeling of impending doom. You know, but just like anybody, I'm just like, just get a good night's sleep. This will pass. I was like, splash a little water on my face. I mean, I don't know what made me think think but I thought, maybe a snail, a tiny snail was on one of the ramps that I ate and it was poisoning me somehow. You know, snails? I mean, they probably poison us. So I called my friends in the morning. I was, "Hey, how are you guys doing? How was dinner?", and they were like, oh, so great. I was like, "Really? So great? Nothing weird?", like —
Dan Pashman: No horrific panic attacks?
Amy Pearl: And they were like, oh, that was so lovely. Thank you so much. Let’s do it again...blah, blah, blah. And I was like, wow, I really had a rough night. And but I didn't think anything of it. And I went on with my life, you know, just like whatever.
Amy Pearl: And then about a week or two later I made some cheeseburgers and I ate a cheeseburger and I was watching Goodbye, Mr. Chips, really tear-jerking movie and a good book, too. And about a couple of hours after I ate, I was like, I started to feel really weird. Again, I was like feeling like I was like had to stand up. I was like, I think I'm going to faint. I feel really lightheaded. I can't catch my breath. I feel like really woozy. But if any time I lay down, I really felt like I was going to faint. So I was like trying to say sitting upright. And I was like, oh my God, this is very similar. I ran into the bathroom and I was looking in the mirror. And lo and behold, I had hives all over my stomach. And then they started coming out of my hands and I was like, oh, my God, something's happening.
Amy Pearl: And at one point I did get up and unlock my door because I did feel like I'm going to pass out, call an ambulance and then they're not going to be able to get in. So, I mean, I was in a little bit afraid of what was happening. And when I woke up in the morning, the first thing I did was Google sudden meat allergy because I was like, this seems like an allergy and the only thing that was the same was meat. And I'm going through and the second thing that came up with this article that was like, Florida man has sudden meat allergy. I was like, oh, my God, I think is it possible I could have this? And so I made an appointment with my doctor. I brought in the article. I'm like, I'm going to be this person, but I can do it. I had the article in my pocket.
Dan Pashman: What person?
Amy Pearl: You know, the person who goes to their doctor with something, "I found on the Internet...". So I brought the article. It was in my pocket and I got to the whole checkup. And I was too chicken. I went — when I was paying the receptionist, I pulled it out and gave it to the receptionist. And I was like, "Could you give this to the doctor?". So that was like the best I could do. And then I did call my doctor and had a conversation with him on the phone asking him if I could get tested. And he was like, no, there's no such thing as a meat allergy, blah, blah, blah.
Dan Pashman: Here’s where our friends Robert Krulwich and Latif Nasser from Radiolab come in.
Peter Smith: So some people think allergies are just like in your head.
Robert Krulwich: This is science writer Peter Smith. We got in touch with him after we heard Amy's story because Peter is an investigator of many things, including strange allergies.
Peter Smith: And people are like mushrooms hurt them. Or they think —
Latif Nasser: Wi-Fi hurts them?
Peter Smith: Yeah, wifi hurts them...
Robert Krulwich: And when our producer, Latif Nasser and I got into the studio and we told them about Amy's story he said...
Peter Smith: Ohh, yeah, all right.
Robert Krulwich: I know exactly who you need to talk to.
Thomas Platts-Mills: Hello?
Latif Nasser: Yeah! Hi!
Latif Nasser: Thomas Platts-Mills.
Thomas Platts-Mills: This is Thomas Platts-Mills. That's right.
Latif Nasser: How are you?
Thomas Platts-Mills: I'm very well.
Robert Krulwich: Dr. Platts-Mills is down at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He's a professor and he works at an allergy clinic.
Thomas Platts-Mills: At an allergy clinic, we are constantly sifting through stories, which not only you don't believe but are actually nonsense.
Robert Krulwich: And he told us in the last ten years or so, he started hearing lots of stories, just like Amy.
Thomas Platts-Mills: Right.
Robert Krulwich: Somebody shows up at the office convinced that they're allergic all of a sudden for no apparent reason to red meat.
Thomas Platts-Mills: The first time I heard it was probably as early as 2004.
Robert Krulwich: And every single time he heard the story, he would tell the patient exactly what Amy's doctor told her now.
Thomas Platts-Mills: No.
Robert Krulwich: No way.
Thomas Platts-Mills: No, no, no.
Robert Krulwich: It's not possible.
Peter Smith: Right.
Robert Krulwich: So what was wrong with these complaints, you know, in an orthodox medical way?
Thomas Platts-Mills: Oh, everything.
Robert Krulwich: Everything.
Thomas Platts-Mills: Every adults don't become allergic to something they've eaten for forty years out of the blue and certainly not red meat.
Robert Krulwich: So you're basically saying to these patients, I think you must be making this up because I can't explain it.
Thomas Platts-Mills: Well I don't use language like that.
Thomas Platts-Mills: I say, "There, there...".
Robert Krulwich: I was trying to do your inner voice.
Thomas Platts-Mills: Oh, you don't want to know what doctors are thinking in their inner voices. You know, you often think in the middle of an interview, is it possible that he's got, you know, some ghastly disease?
Latif Nasser: Mad cow?
Thomas Platts-Mills: Yeah. You know?
Robert Krulwich: The point is that when he'd hear a story like Amy's, he just —
Thomas Platts-Mills: Didn't believe it.
Robert Krulwich: But then everything changed. Thanks, oddly enough, to a cancer drug.
Peter Smith: This new cancer drug called siltuximab.
CLIP (NEWS ANCHOR): In New York today Martha Stewart was indicted on criminal charges relating...
Robert Krulwich: This is the very drug that got Martha Stewart in all that trouble for insider trading.
Thomas Platts-Mills: Remember that? And went to jail for six months?
Robert Krulwich: Yeah...
Robert Krulwich: Anyway, very promising, exciting new drug. But then...
Peter Smith: Doctors were giving people this injection and they would just like end up on the floor of the doctor's office.
Robert Krulwich: In shock?
Peter Smith: Yeah, that would be in anaphylactic shock.
Robert Krulwich: Their hearts would start beating faster. They'd get short of breath. They'd get stomach cramps. Their immune system would start to overreact to something new and alien that came in with the drug. Basically, a classic allergic reaction.
Peter Smith: So the mystery lands on Thomas Platts-Mills's desk.
Thomas Platts-Mills: Yes. So we were asked to look at cetuximab
Robert Krulwich: To see if they could figure out what was causing the reaction.
Peter Smith: And he tests two groups of blood, a control sample, and then people that have this allergy.
Robert Krulwich: And he quickly zeroed in on a particular molecule, a sugar that was part of the drug.
Thomas Platts-Mills: This sugar, Galactus, Alpha-1-3-Galactus or Alpha-gal.
Robert Krulwich: Alpha-gal?
Thomas Platts-Mills: Yeah.
Robert Krulwich: As in a particularly great lady?
Peter Smith: Yeah.
Robert Krulwich: Better than the Beta Gamma Gal?
Latif Nasser: It's like alpha male but alpha female didn't quite have a ring to it..
Robert Krulwich: Anyway, it seemed like Alpha-gal was the culprit.
Thomas Platts-Mills: Yeah. And if you'd told me four years earlier that there's a whole lot of people out there who are allergic to this sugar, I'd have thought you were smoking, you know, vaping again.
Robert Krulwich: Because not only does this sugar, Alpha-gal, show up in the cancer drug and this is where you get back to Amy, it also shows up in the blood of mammals.
Thomas Platts-Mills: All non-primate mammals.
Robert Krulwich: So every time you eat...
Thomas Platts-Mills: Lamb...
Robert Krulwich: Or...
Thomas Platts-Mills: Beef, goat, camel...
Robert Krulwich: Even...
Thomas Platts-Mills: Tripe
Robert Krulwich: Or...
Thomas Platts-Mills: Pig's kidneys.
Robert Krulwich: You're also eating Alpha-gal.
Amy Pearl: So I'm reading this article and it says like it's this thing called Alpha Galactus or Alpha-gal or whatever...
Robert Krulwich: So it made no sense that someone like Amy, who'd been eating meat all her life, would suddenly somehow be allergic to Alpha-gal.
Amy Pearl: I just was like, this was so stupid.
Amy Pearl: So one day it's getting to be barbecue season. I usually have a couple of barbecues where I just do a whole pork pot and a brisket and just hang out all day doing it. And I was like very wanted to do that. And I was like, I'm just going to not eat meat and not even know. So I was like, forget it. My doctor will test me, I'm going to test myself. So I was going to be very careful. I got a thing of Benadryl. And I was like, I'm not going to do it alone. I'll do it with my mom, my poor mom. And so I went up to my mom's and she's like, really into food, too. So she was like, oh, it's so exciting. I got two porterhouse steaks on salad, stews...
Dan Pashman: Wait, did you explain what you were testing?
Amy Pearl: Yeah, I did because I had talked a little bit about it with her. So fire up the grill, do the porterhouse. I even think I like Instagrammed it as a joke like, ha ha ha. This might be the last time you hear from me.
Amy Pearl: But so, you know, we're having a nice summer day, just me and my mom having our steak. I only ate like a couple bites because I was slightly nervous. And I was like sitting in the grass with my dog and reading a book and trying to think like, "Do I feel normal?," which try it folks. It's hard to figure out. When you start asking yourself, "Do I feel normal? Does this — am I breathing? Does my stomach hurt? Is something wrong." And I was like, after a while I was like, oh, I feel pretty good. And the neighbor came over and was like chatting with us. And it was in the middle of that conversation where I was like, ugh, I kind of feel like I have to go to the bathroom, but maybe I just have to go to the bathroom. So I went to the bathroom. I was sitting there and I was like, oh, God, something feels bad.
Amy Pearl: And then I was like, oh, God, I definitely — this is not right. Something's wrong. And I went in to get the Benadryl and I took the Benadryl and I went on my bed in the guestroom at my mom's. And I was like sitting on there and I was like, whoo, I just don't feel right. [HEAVY BREATHING] Maybe I just take a deep breath. I'll just stand up. Maybe I'll just put my hands over my head like this. Oh, that does feel slightly better, I think? Ahhh. Then I was finally like, I think we should go to the hospital. And I went outside. I was like, "Mom, I think you have to drive me to the hospital." She was like, talk to door neighbor like, "What? Oh, my God, honey. What? Oh, let me go change my clothes." Change my clothes. Like Mom, you know, she's not wearing the hospital level clothes. So I'm like, "OK, hurry up, Mom. Mom, are you ready? Mom?"
Amy Pearl: And then I was like, while she was changing your clothes, I suddenly was like, Oh my God. Got my wallet out of my cell phone. And I like, threw it towards my mom's bedroom door. And I was like, "Here's my insurance card! Call an ambulance! And I just like, hit the floor.
Dan Pashman: Oh.
Amy Pearl: Eventually, the ambulance arrives and I got stabilized. I was strapped to the thing. I was in the emergency room like they were shooting me full of, I don't know what, epinephrine and adrenaline and the little like twelve-year-old's emergency room doctor runs in. And he was like, I looked it up on the internet, Alpha-gal! Fascinating! What? That's terrible. I've never heard of that. Could it be true? Yes, it's true. Like they're having this discussion there. Then when I went back to my doctor after that and I was like, "Hey, just get out of the emergency room because they tested me for Alpha-gal and I'm allergic to meat."
Robert Krulwich: So this is an allergy.
Thomas Platts-Mills: Yeah.
Latif Nasser: So all of a sudden you're looking at the "crazies" and they're not so "crazy" anymore.
Thomas Platts-Mills: Absolutely. We suddenly had a blood test. And of course, what turned out is all these patients, who'd been telling us this story, were allergic to Alpha-gal.
Peter Smith: But it's still like a mystery.
Thomas Platts-Mills: Right. There are...
Robert Krulwich: Thomas Platts-Mills couldn't figure out why people like Amy, who had lived for 40 years eating porterhouse steaks at Peter Luger's with a credit card, why would she suddenly develop an allergy? Now there has got to be some kind of trigger.
Thomas Platts-Mills: Yes. So we were looking for anything that could explain it.
Peter Smith: It could be a mold? It could be a nematode?
Thomas Platts-Mills: A worm or a fungus?
Robert Krulwich: But then he looked again and noticed that all the people who had had bad reactions to the cancer drug —
Thomas Platts-Mills: They were in a particular area of the country. It was Virginia, North Carolina, southern Missouri, Tennessee, Arkansas. No cases in Salt Lake City. No cases in Denver. Just smatterings down the west...
Robert Krulwich: So he turned to his technician, Jake, and he said....
Thomas Platts-Mills: I said, you've got to Google every map you can find and say what matches that area?
Robert Krulwich: Creatures or diseases that appear wherever the allergy appears. So Jake starts Googling.
Latif Nasser: Googling and Googling and Googling and...
Robert Krulwich: And eventually he comes across a map that...
Thomas Platts-Mills: Matches where the cases are very beautifully. The maximum area for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
Peter Smith: So he made this little map and it's like the shaded, dark areas of the country are places where the Rocky Mountain spotted fever. And then there's like some stars where, you know, this allergy had appeared.
Latif Nasser: Yeah.
Peter Smith: And they overlap.
Thomas Platts-Mills: Oh, very interesting.
Peter Smith: And then all of a sudden it clicks.
Peter Smith: Rocky Mountain spotted fever is a tick borne disease.
Thomas Platts-Mills: This is the distribution of the Lone Star tick.
Robert Krulwich: And actually just a little before this, it turns out and allergist down in Australia, Sheryl Van Nunen...
Sheryl Van Nunen: First name Sheryl, S-H-E-R-Y-L, Van Nunen, V-A-N and then N-U-N-E-N. I'm from the Tick Induced Allergies Research and Awareness Center in Sydney, Australia.
Robert Krulwich: She says she was now being visited by all kinds of people, who claimed suddenly to be allergic to meat.
Sheryl Van Nunen: And whenever I take a history — so for example, I'd ask them, was there a family history of rhinitis, eczema, asthma, stinging insect allergy? And they say they've all been bitten by ticks.
Thomas Platts-Mills: When we started asking patients, we suddenly heard the stories just out the kazoo.
Robert Krulwich: But at this point, Dr. Platts-Mills, all he has is a map, some stories, and a hunch.
Latif Nasser: Right.
Robert Krulwich: So so what does he do?
Latif Nasser: He decides, well, maybe I'll just do this to myself.
Robert Krulwich: He does what?
Latif Nasser: He decides to test it on himself.
Robert Krulwich: Oh, my God.
Latif Nasser: He sort of like denies that he did it intentionally.
Thomas Platts-Mills: I know I had no intention.
Latif Nasser: I mean, I think he also likes to walk and amble and think about things.
Thomas Platts-Mills: Right.
Peter Smith: So he goes for a long walk along the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Thomas Platts-Mills: And I knew I wanted to be off trail because I'm actually rather allergic to humans.
Robert Krulwich: So he's walking and walking and walking. And along the way...
Thomas Platts-Mills: Ahhh.
Robert Krulwich: He bumps into a whole bunch of ticks.
Thomas Platts-Mills: And if you walk into a nest of those things —
Latif Nasser: Oh, my goodness.This sounds like a nightmare.
Thomas Platts-Mills: Yeah, absolutely. I got 200 sea ticks.
Peter Smith: Oh, boy.
Thomas Platts-Mills: And then in November of that year, I was taken out to dinner and the lamb chops were particularly delicious, and the French wine was delicious. And six hours later I woke up covered in hives.
Peter Smith: He's got an allergy to red meat.
Robert Krulwich: All just because of a tick.
Thomas Platts-Mills: Tick bite.
Peter Smith: Tick Bite.
Thomas Platts-Mills: That's right
Dan Pashman: Coming up: more of Amy’s story, and the tick’s story. Then, Amy goes back to the doctor, a year after her first diagnosis, to find out if she’s still allergic. Stick around.
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. In last week’s show, I talk with Kristen Meinzer and Rafer Guzman, hosts of the podcast Movie Therapy. We talk about the some of the best ways food is used in movies, but also, some of the worst:
CLIP (KRISTN MEINZER): One of my pet peeves is the beautiful woman. She essentially is a supermodel. She's either Cameron Diaz or Sandra Bullock. And she's so beautiful but guess what? She's clumsy and she eats too much. She's just like one of the guys. But she still weighs only 110 pounds. Check her out. Ugghhh.
Dan Pashman: In this show, we also take your calls! A couple of you call in with your life problems, and Kristen and Rafer prescribe movies that will help. And you may also know Kristen from her other podcast, By The Book. Anyway, that one’s up now, check it out.
Dan Pashman: Now, let’s get back to my friend Amy’s story. Like before, you’re going to hear Radiolab’s Robert Krulwich and Latif Nasser taking the lead in some parts. When we left off, Amy had just discovered that her allergy to meat comes from a tick bite.
Amy Pearl: A tick bite? Hang on a second, because like a few weeks before all this started happening, as I said, I was foraging for ramps in my mom's backyard and I had a tick on my arm.
Robert Krulwich: Now, it turns out that not only was that tick bite a terrible thing for Amy, it was a kind of double tragedy.
CLIP (NARRATOR): Hidden from view among the trees and in the undergrowth...
Robert Krulwich: And I think it's only right at this point to back up...
CLIP (NARRATOR): Is a fascinating world of wonders...
Robert Krulwich: And consider the story from a tick's point of view.
Graham Hickling: OK, so I'm Graham Hickling, I'm a wildlife disease ecologist at the University of Tennessee.
Robert Krulwich: So I was wondering if you could help us tell the story of, in this case of the Lone Star Tick, that bit Amy?
Graham Hickling: Oh, yeah. Sure. So they start off in this little pile of eggs, perhaps a mass of 2000 eggs under the leaves.
Robert Krulwich: The proud mom who just gave birth.
Graham Hickling: At that point, she's just a kind of a withered husk.
Robert Krulwich: Meaning dead. But anyway...
Graham Hickling: A few weeks later, those eggs will hatch and this mass of 2000 baby ticks emerge from under the leaves.
Robert Krulwich: And could I see them with my naked eye?
Graham Hickling: If you ran into a mass of them all up together, you would feel like you've got a little smudge of dirt and then the dirt starts walking. And so they'll just climb up and they'll, you know, potentially will be on the same leaf or the same twig looking for something to feed on.
Robert Krulwich: Now, one teeny little tiny problem for these teeny little tiny ticks.
Graham Hickling: Is that they dry out.
Robert Krulwich: So when they come up from under the leaves, they come up...
Graham Hickling: Briefly.
Robert Krulwich: And then they go back down, get a little water, come back up, get thirsty, go back down...
Graham Hickling: And rehydrate.
Latif Nasser: So they commute.
Graham Hickling: Exactly. And we refer to the behavior as questing.
Robert Krulwich: Oh...
Latif Nasser: Questing.
Robert Krulwich: Questing.
Robert Krulwich: So if you were one of these little baby ticks up questing for food?
Graham Hickling: While you're up there, you are essentially velcro.
Robert Krulwich: Because on each one of your little legs...
Graham Hickling: You have little kind of hook like structures. And so you're flat against the leaf.
Robert Krulwich: Sort of sniffing in the air with your two little front legs
Graham Hickling: That can detect CO2 heat movement.
Robert Krulwich: So let's say one day you're sitting there on your leaf and you pick up the scent of a nearby mouse.
Graham Hickling: Mice are the potato chips of the ecosystem, everything eats them.
Robert Krulwich: Which means you might be about to have your very first meal.
Graham Hickling: So you basically stand up...
Robert Krulwich: Stretch out all your little legs.
Graham Hickling: And do a tick dance. And so it's kind of interpretive dance like movements
Robert Krulwich: While you're waiting for that mouse to come just close enough that you can grab onto it. So you're dancing in your waiting and you're dancing and you're waiting and you're dancing and you're waiting and you're dancing and you’re waiting...
Graham Hickling: To to be honest, you are probably going to wait your entire life and die unfulfilled because there are 2000 of you starting off and a stable tick population, there's only going to be two of you that survive.
Robert Krulwich: Oh, my gosh.
Robert Krulwich: So 1998 little baby ticks are born.
Graham Hickling: And then that's it for them.
Robert Krulwich: But let's say that you're one of the lucky ones. And one sunny day there you are hanging out on your little leaf when you detect two incoming mammals. One is a 40-year-old hominid, the other is her dog. So you perk up and thrust your legs out...
Graham Hickling: Wave, do the tick dance.
Robert Krulwich: And say that you're waving and you're dancing and you're hoping and you're waving and you're dancing and you're hoping and your waving and you're dancing and you're hoping... and slowly the dog's getting closer and closer and closer and you reach out with one of your tiny little limbs so you can — grab him and eat and survive but...
Amy Pearl: But the reason that tick ended up on me was I slept in bed with my dog naked. I mean, she's always naked but I was also naked. I mean, that's not gross. I don't — I mean, does that sound weird?
Latif Nasser: No!
Robert Krulwich: But how do you know that's when it happened?
Amy Pearl: Because I know that, like, I did a good tick check on myself and I took a shower and everything. And then in the middle of the night, I woke up with a itching sensation and I went to the bathroom and I couldn't really see what was on — like something was on the back of my arm and it was a tick.
Robert Krulwich: So as the tick is biting into Amy, what is it giving Amy that's going to make her allergic to meat?
Graham Hickling: Well, actually, I need to stop you there, Robert.
Sheryl Van Nunen: Hmm, difficult one Robert.
Graham Hickling: I don't know the answer to that.
Peter Smith: Um, hmmm.
Robert Krulwich: That's Peter Smith. And —
Sheryl Van Nunen: Well...
Robert Krulwich: Rejoining us, is Sheryl Van Nunen, the scientist.
Sheryl Van Nunen: It's all up for speculation.
Peter Smith: We don't really know. But here's the theory.
Robert Krulwich: So normally when you eat a piece of meat, you put Alpha-gal in your stomach and your stomach digests it and it's in your body. There's no big deal.
Sheryl Van Nunen: But the tick cunningly...
Graham Hickling: Will drill into you. Poke into you....
Sheryl Van Nunen: And injects...
Peter Smith: Its saliva.
Latif Nasser: We'll call that tick spit.
Peter Smith: Tick spick into its victims
Robert Krulwich: Straight into its victim's largest organ.
Peter Smith: The skin.
Graham Hickling: And tick's spit has an anti-clotting factor, anesthetic, antiinflammatory compounds and...
Robert Krulwich: We think
Sheryl Van Nunen: The Alpha-gal.
Robert Krulwich: Now Peter says the thing about the skin is...
Peter Smith: The skin is like this enormous surveillance system.
Robert Krulwich: It's always on the lookout for invaders. So when the Alpha-gal comes through your skin covered by all that bad, bad tick's spits stuff...
Peter Smith: That's going to really set off your immune system.
Robert Krulwich: The immune system freaks out.
Peter Smith: Like, oh!
Robert Krulwich: Nu-uh.
Robert Krulwich: And the Alpha-gal covered now in bad spit, almost sort of...
Sheryl Van Nunen By mistake...
Robert Krulwich: Gets labeled bad. And now it's on the bad guy watchlist. So...
Sheryl Van Nunen: Therefore...
Robert Krulwich: The next time you eat meat,
Sheryl Van Nunen: The meat comes in.
Peter Smith: And then...
Robert Krulwich: The body unleashes wave upon wave upon wave of chemical attacks...
Peter Smith: To do battle against this Alpha-gal.
Robert Krulwich: And this reaction gets way out of hand. You got so many antibodies, multiply, multiply, multiply, multiplying, making you, rather in this case Amy, feel just —
Peter Smith: Horrible, right?
Amy Pearl: I mean, it's very weird. It sounds like a science fiction movie. It sounds like the beginning of a science fiction, at least kid's book. Let's not go to movie, but it's...it's just strange.
Robert Krulwich: Which all goes to say that this really is a kind of double tragedy for Amy and her tick.
Peter Smith:Yeah. Because ticks can evolve to bite humans.
Graham Hickling: Right. We're a mistake.
Peter Smith: Like we have opposable thumbs.
Graham Hickling: We're either going to pull them off...
Amy Pearl: I actually woke my mom up and she helped get it off...
Graham Hickling: Or if they drop off, they're going to drop off in an airport terminal or Wal-Mart car park or something....
Robert Krulwich: Or a shag carpet or something.
Graham Hickling: Or a shag carpet indoors and and they're doomed.
Robert Krulwich: And for us, well, we lose something that historically anyway, is a big part of who we are.
Peter Smith: Yeah, because we have — we adapted in the grand evolutionary scheme of things to like eat flesh, to eat meat.
Latif Nasser: Yeah.
Peter Smith: Yeah.
Amy Pearl: I mean, I'm actually sitting here picturing a steak. But actually the thing — I mean, hot dogs like wrapped ramps around a weenie and — yum, that sounds so good. My mouth-watering. Weenies and ramp's.
Dan Pashman: Yeah.
Amy Pearl: But I am going to my allergist tomorrow because I did, you know, I was reading about this allergy a lot when I first got it and I read that for some people the allergy can fade away. So I'm going to get a blood test to see what my blood level of Alpha-gal is. So I'm a little…
Dan Pashman: What are you hoping for tomorrow?
Amy Pearl: I want to be normal....again.
Robert Krulwich: That was the end of the Dan and Amy conversation. She was going to go to the doctor, get herself tested, find out whatever. So we asked her back in...
Amy Pearl: Okay.
Robert Krulwich: To find out what happened.
Amy Pearl: So I actually did get an appointment with my allergist, Dr. Korn.
Amy Pearl: Her name is Dr. Korn. She's really nice. So I got the appointment, I got the blood draw or whatever. And a few days later, my doctor called me and she said that my numbers were still really high. And I was like, well, how high are they? And she was like three. And I was like three? That's not high. And she was like, they're supposed to be like one or something.
Robert Krulwich: Hmm.
Amy Pearl: So they had gone down, but they were still many times more than they should be. So...
Robert Krulwich: But when you left and you were waiting for the call, were you waiting with the hope that you would soon be eating a bit of hotdog?
Amy Pearl: I mean, honestly, I was hoping, no.
Robert Krulwich: No?
Amy Pearl: No. I don't —
Robert Krulwich: Wait, you are the... you...
Amy Pearl: No, but I was afraid that she would be like, oh, my God, your numbers are so low. I think you could probably eat meat. Let's do a food challenge. I would be like, ahhh, because that's such a scary memory. Yeah. I don't — you know, actually, just the other night I was eating in an Indian place and I was eating vegetarian, but like I felt something and I pulled it out. And in the dim light of an Indian restaurant, I was like, was this bacon? And I suddenly — you know, like, you just get this drop in your stomach. And I'm like, what time is it? Four hours from now if I — you know, because it's there's something about it being delayed that makes it so difficult. It just is like...
Robert Krulwich: Like a suspense movie. Like you're the victim.
Amy Pearl: It is. It's like it could happen in the next three hours or maybe not? I don't know. I mean, honestly, the only thing that — the real reason I want to be able to eat meat is so that I will be prepared to eat it in case of emergency. I mean, I went on a canoe trip in the Adirondacks and I was like, well, what happens if I get stranded out here? And like, what if I have to hunt but I can't even eat meat? I would have to hunt fish. But then when the lake freezes over, what would I eat? I can't survive. Something's wrong with me. I feel evolutionarily challenged.
Amy Pearl: This is what I think about before I go to bed every night, what I be able to survive if I had just what's on me right now, a pen underwear, my dog. And so, yeah, I mean, that's a real issue is like, it's not a real issue. Obviously, it's never going to happen. I live in Brooklyn, but I do for some reason, I always think like I want to be prepared in case. But, yeah, you know, I don't think I would go back to eating meat necessarily.
Robert Krulwich: Like you are still more more frightened than game, so to speak?
Amy Pearl: Well, also, like, I wish I could be a vegetarian for ethical reasons, because it's not so much just the eating meat, but just like, you know, the factory farming and that kind of stuff. So I feel like morally superior. Now I can be like, well, I don't eat red meat. Of course, I'm forced to not eat it but at the same time, I would if I had the — if I had the willpower, I'd probably go that way anyway. And then also, I think it's great. It's like we're all evolving to be on this planet, which is getting harder to be on. And we know that meat takes a lot of resources. And like now I'm not doing that. So, like, the tick is helping me evolve into a better human being.
Robert Krulwich: So one could, instead of thinking of the tick as your teeny weeny, irritating enemy, you could think of it as a guiding light, making the world safer to share with your fellow earthlings.
Amy Pearl: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: So you may have lost your relationship with meat, but at least you have your moral superiority.
Amy Pearl: Yeah, I mean, I am superior. Yeah.
Dan Pashman: So that was Amy and me with Robert Krulwich and Latif Nasser, from Radiolab. As you heard, Amy got tested to see if she was still allergic to meat. And even though her Alpha-gal number had come down a lot, it was still too high. She was still positive for the allergy. But a year later, Amy decided to go back and try again. Just one hitch. Since that last test, she had gotten bitten by another tick. The research shows that could make her allergy worse. But as she headed to the doctor, she was still hopeful.
Amy Pearl: I guess, I feel like the numbers went down so much. And it's not like I would go back to eating meat, but I do want to know so that I won't be worried. I don't want to worry. Worrying is such a burden. It's like praying for something bad to happen all the time. Anyway...
Amy Pearl: So, now I don't want to go — I love Dr. Korn, though, but I don't want to go. I hate the doctor.
Dan Pashman: But you're going?
Amy Pearl: Yeah, I'm going right now. It took me so hard to get this appointment.
Dan Pashman: You’re like forcing yourself to do something you don't want to do?
Amy Pearl: Yes, Dan. That's being an adult. You'll get there, eventually. No, I just — I mean, did you read? There is a great recipe in The Times for steak tartare, and it was like rustic steak tartare. And I like the image that that brings up of like a raw egg and a bunch of raw meat sitting outside somewhere in the south of France.
Dan Pashman: Like in a forest.
Amy Pearl: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: Lots of ticks around.
Amy Pearl: Yes. So I would love to be able to be like, oh, I want to express who I am by eating steak tartare. But maybe that in itself is just a pathetic way to look at eating, which is really just fueling. But that's not true. I mean...
Dan Pashman: I don't think it's a pathetic way to look at eating, but I do wonder whether that's really who you are now.
Amy Pearl: Am I steak tartare or am I kabocha steamed with brown rice? I don't know.
Dan Pashman: All right. Amy. Good luck at your doctor's appointment.
Amy Pearl: Thanks, Dan. Bye.
Dan Pashman: A few days later, Amy got a voicemail from her doctor with the results. We went into the studio together so I could hear it.
Amy Pearl: I hope it's either conclusively lower or conclusively higher.
Dan Pashman: Why would you want it to be conclusively higher?
Amy Pearl: Because I wanted clarity. It's responding to the fact that I got bitten by a tick and going up. That means it's a real thing that's like scientific and not some kind of space age weird spiritual issue that's making me not eat meat. I don't know. Like sometimes it just feels like, why is this happening to me?
Dan Pashman: Right.
Amy Pearl: So if it actually responds to science, then I feel like, oh, it's science.
Dan Pashman: It feels like there's an order to things.
Amy Pearl: Yes, order is important.
Dan Pashman: You got the results. Before we play them. Just remind us what your numbers were. Like after your first huge incident when you were rushed to the hospital and almost died. What was your Alpha-gal number?
Amy Pearl: Oh, I think after the first incident, my number was like in the 40s or something.
Dan Pashman: OK, and then last year, a year ago, you had it tested and what was it?
Amy Pearl: 3.1.
Dan Pashman: What is normal? Like how low would it have to be if you to be able to go back to eating meat?
Amy Pearl: I think 0.3?
Dan Pashman: So you at your worst, you were in the 40s, you got down to three something. But to be able to eat meat again, you have to get down to 0.3.
Amy Pearl: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: All right. Can I play the voicemail?
Amy Pearl: Okay.
CLIP (DR.KORN): It's Dr. Korn, just calling to let you know that the Alpha-gal actually came back at 11. So it's still positive. That's the bottom line. And I wouldn't worry about the fact that it went up. The bottom line is it's still positive and that's what we are really looking for, if it's positive or negative. OK, I will actually put it in the mail and send it to you. Thanks. Bye bye.
Amy Pearl: Yeah.
Dan Pashman: [SIGHS] How do you feel about that result, Amy?
Amy Pearl: Actually, you know, in terms of like chaos and order, I thought it was good because it definitely went way up. And so I feel like, fine. I don't have to think like, oh, it's slightly lower. Maybe I should try a food challenge? Oh, maybe it will — I just feel like I couldn't go for a year without getting exposed to a tick. So I'm not going to get my hopes up again. And I feel like, I mean, scientifically speaking, I — in my obsessive reading about this, I did read that if you are re-exposed, it's much less likely that it will ever fade away. So I kind of feel like I lost that window.
Dan Pashman: But Amy, one option for you would be, you could say, I'm not going to go to the outdoors. I'm not going to go camping. I'm not going to go into tall grass for five years. And I'm gonna see if the number goes down and then I will be able to eat hot dogs and steaks at Peter Luger again.
Amy Pearl: I mean, I don't know. I love being outside. I would never — it would be terrible. Like, I don't want to think that I — no. I would never stop going out.
Dan Pashman: Do you remember the first time it hit you that you might never be able to eat another steak in your life?
Amy Pearl: I have this favorite really nice roasting pan. I used to make pot roast in it all the time. I do remember the time when I was like, you know what? I'm going to store this on top of the fridge now. When I retired that pot, I was like, wow, never going to really use pot again.
Dan Pashman: That, my friends, is the one and only, Amy Pearl. She’s a producer at WNYC, New York Public Radio. Lately she’s been producing a series called “Good Things” for WNYC’s Morning Edition. Her podcast, 10 Things That Scare Me, ended last year, but you should definitely check it out. Vulture called it a “smartly designed, bite-size window into the soul.” We’ll have a link to it at Sporkful.com.
Dan Pashman: One other update. Since we worked with Radiolab on this story, Robert Krulwich retired from the show. Best of luck, Robert. Latif Nasser took over as the show’s co-host. He’s also got a great show on Netflix called Connected. It was just nominated for two Emmys! Congrats Latif! Check out Connected on Netflix.
Dan Pashman: Next week on the show, we are back to talking pasta. Remember, in our Mission: ImPASTAble series we played some clips from the live event that started it all, which was called "The Bucatini Dialogues: A Debate About Pasta Shapes". Next week we’ll share much more from that raucous, fateful evening. All stuff you haven’t heard before. My pasta fairy godmother Evan Kleiman, and Francis Lam from The Splendid Table, join me live on stage to argue with each other and me. It’s a really fun one, get psyched.
Dan Pashman: While you wait, check out last week’s episode. We're talking food and movies with Kristen Meinzer and Rafer Guzman, hosts of the podcast Movie Therapy. If you’re looking for suggestions for fun food films, check this one out. Thanks.