Sunday, September 21, 2008

Beware The Evil Pumpkin


I've often wondered what would cause me to visit the local hospital for the first time.

Would it be a case of malaria?
Bilharzia from being immersed in practically any body of water in sub-Saharan Africa?
Or a road accident, given the standard of driving around here?

No, nothing so typically African as all of the above.

Strangely, having spent all my life with no known allergies, the first thing that caused me to visit a local clinic here (A&E at 2 in the morning, nonetheless), was none other than an innocent looking pumpkin.

It all started when a colleague mentioned they'd cooked a Pumpkin and Peanut Curry at our other camp, up at Murchison. I'd been thinking about trying to find a suitable vegetarian curry dish, and I love both pumpkin and peanuts, so this felt like a really good idea. A swift google later and I had an adapted recipe from a Channel 4 cookery site using red chillies, ginger, coriander, garlic, peanut butter, lemon zest, coconut milk and of course, lots of juicy pumpkin to complete the recipe.

Together with the chef on duty, we prepped and chopped all the ingredients. When I cook at home, I wash my hands less, but when I'm cooking in the Red Chilli kitchen, I'm fanatical about my hands and scrub them clean before, in between, and after all the different stages of cooking, all to aware how easy it is to tuck my hair behind my ears, or scratch my nose, or something that a professional chef should not really be doing at all. Plus, I was the one chopping chillies, so taking care not to touch any part of me whilst doing so, I washed my hands once again the moment the little red chillies were all done.

Then, we tackled the pumpkin. Godfrey quartered it, then halved the pieces again, the slice becoming slippery with orange sap. He then took charge of peeling the green skin off, and passed me the orange hunks to dice into smaller pieces.

At one stage I held up my hands, dripping in orange sap, like I was Lady Macbeth.

It looks like you have murdered someone whose blood runs orange said Godfrey.

When we were done, I washed my hands even more furiously than before. The orange had stained my nails and was working itself into my pores.

Whilst we then cooked the curry together, I felt a tingle start. My hands were buzzing slightly, the way they do when you've been for a long cold walk and you come back to the fireside.

When the curry was done, I carried a tray with two steaming plates of the stuff down to the house for Rich and I to have for our dinner. Where the plates made the tray hot, the tingling got worse. So much so that I had to put the tray down in a hurry once I got inside.

Twenty minutes later, as we finished dinner, the sensation was escalating rapidly. Now it felt like my hands were scalded. I fetched a bowl of water to place them in to cool them down. It worked fpr a while.

An hour later, and now having to refresh the water every five minutes for some relief, I was starting to worry. This is not a normal reaction.

Did you chop chillies? Richard asked.

No, this isn't chillies I said. I know it sounds daft, but I know the sensation of burning caused by chilli oils. This burning felt different. More internal somehow. And was far more intense then any chilli mishap I'd ever experienced before.

It even followed the pattern where the pumpkin juice had trickled down the inside of my right wrist. On the inside of my arm there, there was a pink 'V' of pain. It felt like I had been properly burnt on my palms, under my nails, and down my wrist. But this caused by pumpkin juice?

It was crazy. I'd chopped plenty of pumpkins and squash before. Never in Africa, granted, but loads in the UK. I'd hollowed one out and sliced scary Halloween face masks in them. How could I possibly be reacting to something that had never had this effect on me before?

I had frozen a wet towel in the freezer. Wrapping this around my hands I went back to the office to try and internet-diagnose my problem. Turns out, some tropical species of squash can cause an intense dermatological reaction. I found pages where some latin name was mentioned for this effect, and recipe blogs where women swapped surprise at their unusual reactions to chopping pumpkin.

Mind you, most of them were complaining about suffering taut, dry skin with skin peeling off on day two. Nobody mentioned feeling like they'd suffered second degree burns.

By now I'd graduated from a frozen towel to a pair of ice blocks. Which I was holding bare-handedly.

Three hours later and I couldn't get to sleep. It was one in the morning and I was meant to be getting up at 6.45am to do a stock transfer and see the trips off.

An hour later and the pain was getting worse, not better. I caved and woke up our tame taxi driver to ask him to drive me to the 24 hr emergency room at The Surgery.

The Surgery is reknown in Kampala amongst ex-pats and travellers. It's founder and main doctor, Dr Stockley, is a trained as a British GP but has been here in Kampala doing his thing for years. He writes on tropical disease for the Bradt guide, as well as local publications here and lord knows what else. He also had a hand in The Last King of Scotland - I believe he helped scout or broker locations - and actually played the role of the Times Journalist sent to interview Amin's doctor.

But of course, at 2am, you don't get the film stars treating you. You get a perfectly nice and competent local doctor, who was very perplexed by my condition. He felt my hands and remarked on how cold they felt. This would be the ice blocks. They felt so hot to me, so sensitive to heat, that when I just placed my palm lightly on my arm I had to lift it off after 30s because the searing hot sensation of burning got too much to bear. Yet there was no scald marks, no blisters, no sign that anything untoward was going on. Apart from the fact that immersing them in water or holding them against melting ice packs was making my fingers as wrinkled as if I'd been lying in a bath for hours.

Both the doctor and I happily agreed i was a freak, I got pumped full of hydrocortisone and given anti-histamines and it still had no effect. He offered me one last option but advised that I would need to have someone awake, watching over me, if I wanted to follow the option.

He said the only painkiller he could give me for nerve pain like this was amyltryptiline. It would numb the pain and make me zonk out for several hours. Only trouble is, that if the allergic reaction left my nerve endings and travelled into my blood, it would start to shut down vital systems, which normally, would be noticed by someone who was awake. But because the drug also makes you sleep, I wouldn't be aware of this, hence the need for someone to watch over me.

I weighed up the pros and cons of waking R in the middle of the night, when at least one of us should be fresh for the morning. If I got him up he'd be grumpy (wouldn't anyone?) and then he'd only half a night's sleep as well. We'd both be rubbish come 7.30am and work.

So I politely declined the doctor's offer of such a massively scary sounding drug and decided I'd far rather stay awake all night with my hands in a bucket of ice than risk vital organ failure and an irate partner.

Plus, this reaction had to stop sometime.

So, back at home, I watched re-runs of So You Think You Can Dance on Mnet and Mega Jellyfish on Natgeo with the sound turned right down. Whilst still painful, the burning started to subside around 5am and I fell into a half sleep wrapped in a blanket with a soggy patch forming on my chest where the ice blocks sat. In my stupor my mind was filled with vivid flashes of Cat Deeley, of divers harpooning gigantic jellyfish and of evil looking pumpkins.

It was a strange night, but at seven am the next morning, as Rich left for the stock transfer (he gallantly confirmed I'd made the right decision in not waking him), I popped two sleeping pills and took my hands to bed.

It was thirteen hours after pumpkin chopping and they were still tingling.

But the curry was delicious and is now a regular feature on the menu here.

The chefs now wear surgical gloves when they are chopping it, rather than ending up in The Surgery...

1 comment:

Marie said...

My hands itch and turn red whenever I touch a tomato. Eating 'em is okay though. Go figure!

Glad you survived your encounter with the evil pumpkin.