The idea of shunning red meat was intolerable to Don Vinduska, 78, who had been raised a country boy on good home cooking.
A tick bite made his lifestyle change a matter of life and death.
After three episodes of life-threatening allergic reactions in 2018, Vinduska learned he had developed an allergy to red meat after being bitten by a Lone Star tick two and a half years earlier.
If he hadn’t been close to a hospital after his first episode of anaphylaxis in March 2018, he probably would not be alive today.
He and his wife, Jeannie, had just arrived at their store, D&J Liquor in Marion, March 11, 2018, when he began to feel faint and called Jeannie for help. By the time she got to him, he was in shock.
Jeannie rushed him to the emergency room at St. Luke Hospital. The doctor said his blood pressure was dropping rapidly. Don could hear the doctor and his staff as they worked to treat him for a heart attack or stroke, but he couldn’t talk. He heard someone say it was an allergic reaction, not a heart attack.
He thought he was dying, but they gave him allergy medicine and it helped. They conducted multiple tests, and two hours later, he was better.
“It was a miracle,” Don said.
The question remained: What caused the incident? They knew it was an allergic reaction, but, to what?
Don and Jeannie thought it might be a food allergy or an allergy to a food additive or some other substance. They didn’t connect it to the tick bite.
Don is a hunter. He likes to hunt turkeys in spring. He and his buddies say they check for ticks on their bodies and clothing after every hunt.
After a hunting trip March 2016, Don found a reddened tick bite on one hip but said he didn’t think too much about it.
Five days later, his face swelled and hives broke out on his upper body.
At that time, doctors in Kansas didn’t know about the effect of the bite of a Lone Star tick. The tick had spread west from the eastern and southeastern portion of the U.S. It was just being spotted in eastern Kansas.
Doctors weren’t familiar with alpha-gal syndrome, which develops when a Lone Star tick bites a human and injects a substance into their blood that causes random allergic reactions to red meat.
Another seven months passed before Don had another allergic reaction and once again was saved.
He was on a farm close to his home on 290th Rd. in November when he had another episode of anaphylaxis. Jeannie gave him Benadryl and rushed him to Marion. His blood pressure dropped to 40/10 before he was stabilized. Physician Amanda Baxa was present in the emergency room.
“Oh, my gosh, this low blood pressure is hard on your heart,” she said. “We have to get an appointment for you with an allergy doctor.”
Don and Jeannie went home.
“I went home and had a big steak the next day, “not knowing that it was red meat that was causing the problem,” he said.
On Dec. 23, he met with a doctor at a Via Christi allergy center in Wichita.
The doctor, who was a deer hunter himself, asked him if he had ever had a tick bite.
“A light went on in my head, and I said, yes,” Don said. “I remembered the first doctor had said it might be two years before I would know the effect of the tick bite.”
The allergy doctor said he had seen 200 cases like Don’s in the past two years. He drew 10 vials of Don’s blood and sent them to the Mayo Clinic.
The diagnosis finally came. Don had alpha-gal syndrome, the report said, a condition caused by a bite from a Lone Star tick that causes people to become allergic to red meat, including beef, pork, and in Don’s case, dairy.
“If it can’t swim or fly, I can’t eat it,” he said.
He and Jeannie recalled that he had eaten hamburger steak before the last two episodes.
A new diet
Don says he has learned to adjust to a different diet. Nothing he eats can have any contact with red meat.
Everything he eats can have no association with red meat.
Fish cannot be prepared on a grill that that has been used to grill. Food or medicine can’t have any trace of red meat. Whenever the couple eats out, he has to ask how his food was prepared, to make sure it is safe.
“It was life-changing,” Don said. “Jeannie is doing a fantastic job of finding foods I can eat.”
Jeannie said the months leading up to Don’s diagnosis were frightening.
“We tried to figure out what was causing his allergic reactions,” she said. “It wasn’t predictable.”
She does research to learn about foods Don can eat. He is learning to like turkey bacon and nondairy imitations. He can eat eggs, so that is a breakfast favorite.
Don is thankful that he was in Marion when he had the first episode.
“If I had been at the farm, I would be dead today,” he said.
He said his alpha-gal syndrome is severe. Others may have milder cases. He spreads the word about the dangers of the Lone Star tick to everyone he encounters, especially hunters. Everybody needs to know about it, especially firefighters and first responders, he said.
“They might think someone is dying of a heart attack or stroke, but it might be an allergic reaction to a Lone Star tick bite.”
Don continues to go hunting, but he said he makes sure to spray his skin and clothing with insect repellent.