‘I hope my experience of having to deal with this problem will alert others to this allergy. Hopefully few other colleagues will experience this degree of incapacity.’
So wrote Albury nurse Susan Free in a letter to The Lamp in October 1995.
Susan, an RN with a critical care certificate, had been driven from her hospital job after developing severe anaphylactic reaction to latex.
‘My whole life has been affected by this allergy,’ she wrote. ‘Not only do I have to avoid hospitals and carry a never-ending supply of resuscitation equipment and drugs including adrenalin with me, but I have to always be alert to where latex may be. It is an extremely common product in the community.’
Today Susan has resurrected her life and career. Twelve years after being diagnosed with latex allergy in 1993, she is breathing easy and back at work in the ICU of Albury Base Hospital.
The removal of powdered latex gloves and introduction of non-latex gloves have allowed her to restart her career. She now wears blue nitrile gloves and dermaprene gloves.
Susan’s long struggle with the allergy played a big part in forcing the NSW Health Department to take the problems of latex seriously.
With legal support from the Nurses’ Association, Susan became the first person in Australia to sue for workers compensation for illness caused by latex.
After a legal battle stretching over 2 1/2 years, the NSW Compensation Court awarded Susan substantial damages in July 1997.
Three years later NSW Health ordered the removal of powdered latex gloves and recommended use of non-latex gloves.
Susan’s first anaphylactic reaction occurred at Melbourne’s Alfred hospital in 1987.
‘I was doing a burns dressing when I anaphylaxed. I was itchy, swollen, bright red and had difficulty breathing. I felt so weak,’ she remembers.
‘At first I thought I was allergic to the SSD cream we were putting on the patients, but I didn’t react to it when tested. No one knew what was wrong with me until 1993.
‘For the next few years I continued working in a powdered latex environment with latex gloves. I would have anaphylaxis two or three times a week. Sometimes I’d go to casualty and get antihistamine, but quite often I’d just keep working. We were usually super busy and I couldn’t just walk out.
‘I finally had to quit working in hospitals in 1994. By that time I was anaphylaxing just walking through the wards.’
Susan found work in the powder-free environment of community-based palliative care. She was able to resume ICU work in London where hospitals were powder-free much earlier than Australia.
US authorities issued a warning on latex allergies as early as 1991. But in Australia, the Therapeutic Goods Administration and other authorities continued to claim there was no problem.
Susan said she spoke to the TGA in 1993. ‘They told me latex allergies were not a problem and said I didn’t know what I was talking about.’
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