A 22-year-old gymnast has a rare and bizarre disorder that has rendered her allergic to just about everything, including her own tears and her own growing hair.
Natasha Coates was able to overcome her condition to become an accomplished disability gymnast. [Photo by Natasha Coates]
Natasha Coates suffers through multiple allergic reactions a day, including migraines and itching. Several of these reactions have been life-threatening, and have sent her to the hospital numerous times. She has used over 250 EpiPens since her symptoms began to appear in 2012.
It all began when Coates felt a small tingle on her lip after biting into an apple. Then, the same thing began to happen with strawberries. Some months later, a devastating anaphylactic reaction rendered her unconscious. Before she turned 18, however, Coates wasn’t allergic to so many things around her that she experiences multiple allergic reactions a day.
Doctors took two years to diagnose Coates with an autoimmune disease called mast cell activation syndrome (MCAS), a condition that causes a person to have adverse reactions to certain triggers.
Tears can leave red marks down Coates's face.
Mast cells are a type of white blood cell, and they play a critical role in allergies and the immune system. These cells have over 200 different compounds used to fight foreign bodies that have happened to come into contact with our immune system.
People that have MCAS also have mast cells that react to triggers by releasing histamines and other substances that cause allergic reactions. However, MCAS causes the release of histamine to backfire. There isn’t a single set of triggers; they differ from person to person based on the severity of the disease.
The nature of Coates's condition makes her life quite unpredictable.
For Coates, a 22-year-old gymnast, her triggers are unfortunately things that are largely inescapable. Her own tears cause red rashes down her face. Her hair causes burns and blisters on her scalp when it grows. While she may be able to eat certain foods one day, these same foods may threaten her life the next day. Coates’s allergic symptoms can also be triggered by the weather and even digestion.
Even the allergic reactions themselves aren’t set in stone. “Reactions can vary,” Coates says. “They can be anything from just feeling under the weather, itchy, very tired or they can be life-threatening like tongue and throat swelling.” While Coates experiences life-threatening allergic reactions, other people with the same condition may not even notice that they have it.
Even a severe autoimmune disease hasn't stopped Natasha Coates.
While MCAS is considered to be rare, its rarity may be due largely to the fact that it was only recently discovered. “It’s really only since 2010 that we’ve sort of identified this as a problem,” said Dr. Tania Dempsey, an MCAS specialist. “While we say that it’s fairly rare it probably really isn’t.”
According to Dempsey, it’s possible that a number of people may actually have MCAS, but their symptoms are so mild that they’re not noticeable or bothersome.
For sufferers like Coates, however, the condition is a humongous burden. "It’s really hard to manage the condition because I never know how I’m going to feel hour to hour, let alone day by day," Coates says.. "Eating is a bit like Russian roulette so most days I just eat and do what I feel I am able to and hope for the best."
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