I went through most of my life thinking I was allergic to penicillin. I’d had hives with a dose of the stuff as a child, and an also-allergic family member taught me to look for an allergy section on every medical form I filled out, and make sure to write “penicillin” on the line.
But the reason I’m telling you this story is that it turns out I’m not allergic to it after all. About 10 percent of us have a penicillin allergy on our charts, but less than 1 percent of us have a legit allergy to go with it. And if you can take that fake allergy off your chart, you’ll likely have an easier and cheaper time in all your future dealings with the medical system.
I have my own tale about this, which longtime readers of Heathen know: Four years ago this November, I was in a pretty ugly bike crash and broke my hip. One of my surgical sites contracted a postop infection. It was NOT the very-scary MRSA; it was just garden variety staph, which is usually quashed with a cycle of garden variety penicillin.
Except I’ve lived my life believing I was allergic to it, which I dutifully explained. Well, sucks to be ME, because when you have a postop staph situation and can’t take penicillin, the next option is something called vancomycin — which cannot be taken orally. I had to get a PICC line and take it intravenously.
Three times a day, for about 90 minutes at a crack.
For seven weeks.
My mother, who was a physical therapist in her working life, had been following my medical misadventure very closely. When we got to this point, she commented, offhand, “well, you know, we’re not actually sure if you’re allergic to it or not. It’s just that your father was, and so we just assumed you were.”