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Dying Yet Still Blooming with Life, Pollen, and Allergens

By: Henali Joshi


            I don’t know what I was expecting when I came here to Merced. I guess coming from a tiny city that is a 3-mile radius would cause one to expect that the college life and environment would be more city-like, more urban, with lots more to do than back home in Crescent City, California. Even though my high school’s scholarship mentoring program had provided me with the opportunity to visit several of the different California campuses, the realization of my new environment didn’t quite strike me until my first semester here. There were cows, in the hundreds, grazing on the grass or stampeding together in packs whenever one looked out into the grass or drove up into the university. Although I can make the excuse that everything during the summer campus tours went by so fast and the different campuses blended together – really, I can owe it to my lack of observation skills until I am completely forced to be immersed in an environment. Still, deep down I knew that I was sacrificing something when I decided to choose UC Merced over the other livelier college towns that I had been accepted to. 


            Coming from a beach hometown where I had spent much of my time at the ocean and river the summer before my departure to university, I couldn’t help but discern that I had declined my option to carry out my education at UC Santa Barbara or CSU Long Beach, where I could regularly frequent their beaches and finally own that notorious undergraduate partying and social life experience. Instead, it was not unknown that this institution would only have been in existence for a lone decade the year I started enrollment. Ultimately, what prevailed though, was my care for a solid education and the ability to receive one-on-one instructor support in my smaller classroom settings. Moreover, something about visiting and being on this campus gave me a good vibe, a feeling, that this was the one. That was all it took to know that I wanted to be here; I was just clueless to the possibility that it would be my health, that would turn out to be my ultimate sacrifice. Little did I know that leaving the Smith River, which holds one of the cleanest water sources in the world for Del Norte County, and the Redwoods, which assists in keeping our air quality in check, would play such an important role in what occurs in my life when that air is replaced with what I will eventually come to discover is in abundance in the Merced area. 


            When the time came and my father drove my family and I to UC Merced to drop me off for my first semester of classes in Fall 2015, the whole last couple hour drive, after our already approximately 10-hour total journey and a night at a motel before making the final stretch to approach Merced County, consisted of nothing but agriculture both ends that we looked. My dad had already internalized what he had seen; he is carefully observant like that. Me, I was just excited to be going away to university. Despite the environment not having any reputation for being a party school, I had much hope in the ubiquitous nature of college providing me enjoyment. Approaching the county, I can recall my father saying something along the lines of there being nothing here but farmstock. We have reached a world of hot, dry land, grass, and farms. With every passing moment that we are driving, literally nothing awaits outside our windows but a blur of greenery and dry dirt on the lower half of our vision, and an empty pale blue sky near the top. I don’t even think there were many white clouds stimulating the pale blue, sky blue atmosphere. Connecting the horizon was simply a light monotonous blue region and an even duller and more lifeless, almost hay-like, grass. Approaching Merced County in the summertime one wouldn’t even want to call it grass, it was a desert. 


            Despite entering into this environment, it still took me a few months to get over the initial high of being at a university to notice just how bored I am in the city. Craving excitement, there was not even a light buzz to be found. Downtown Merced does not even have a bowling alley. Even tiny Crescent City, California has a bowling alley. Therefore, I didn’t go out into the city to explore; there was absolutely nothing to explore. Furthermore, if you don’t have a car or don’t drive, you can’t even escape to someplace more upbeat every now and then. Moreover, downtown Merced is known to have a lot of homeless and sketchy people young women wouldn’t want to be finding themselves exploring alone in. Even my family told me to avoid the downtown side of Merced. Hence, due to a combination of these reasons, but ultimately because there was nothing to see, I was rarely outside. It’s odd how one doesn’t need to be outside all of the time, though, to develop chronic allergies. Allergens are in the environment that we live in; they are floating in the air. 


            Consequently, towards the end of my first semester at UC Merced, I recall getting more sore throats. I thought that I was just getting sick. I did find it strange, however, that I developed sore throats, but no other symptoms of the flu or cold accompanied them. Then once I arrived back to Merced after winter break for my second semester, my sore throat progressed and did get worse, which followed me and became chronic that summer, and didn’t subside the following Fall. I was going through various anxieties and traumas around that whole time (one of which stemmed from loneliness resulting in part from not meeting in reality my expectations of socialization), so there was no way to sensibly self-diagnose what was going on. Already being a person who drinks a lot of water, I had to drink even more to keep my throat free enough to talk and give presentations during classes. I recognized that I can no longer eat any spicy foods as it worsens inflammation and irritation in the throat and surrounding regions. Eventually, my family was finally able to get me to an Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist in the local area of Merced. This was when I was finally informed of the reality. Doctor Donald Carter has seen this many times in the Merced area. I was lucky to have gone to a doctor in a county that has caused my problems to arise, take over, and cause so much throat pain. After I am given the nasal spray Azelastine, to combat the histamine, I am relieved of the problem. The root cause still exists, however. 


            I am advised to receive an allergy testing as well to figure out what I am allergic to, exactly. Some months later, tired, curious, and almost with no choice but to do this, and after already managing to decline and successfully leave the office of a local doctor who was going to pin what sounded to be 100 possible different allergens onto my back to see which ones caused reactions, my mom’s co-worker, doctor, friend back home offered to conduct a simple blood test to see what the culprit was from the San Joaquin Valley. Results come back in to show a mild to moderate allergy to four grasses: Bluegrass Kentucky, Timothy Grass, Johnson Grass, and Bermuda Grass. Grass, grass is everywhere; my life has to be over. What’s more, besides being everywhere, simply a gram of grass pollen is capable of releasing alarming counts of millions of grains of particles into the air. The pollens from these four grass types fall within being the handful of the most common grass allergy causing agents in the world. 


            For this, I have continued using the antihistamine spray and taking Allegra, it was Claritin before that. I have also tried Zyrtec and Benadryl, anything that might help to discover what works the best, the most. I was also informed of allergy shots that I can take. But not wanting to go into the office to take a shot every week and continue to do so less frequently for the next five years, I have thus far not received this treatment. Though not a complete and permanent solution, I have made progress with the nasal spray in which it works to mask and cover up, almost numb, the pain. And going from no treatment at all for an extended period of time, this meant something, and was enough to keep me going. It’s an everyday application that I go to upon the start of increased pain, and it works to suppress the sensation and provide relief almost immediately. Therefore, it is usually applied when leaving the apartment and taken with me in my purse when I am going to remain on campus all day. If enough hours have passed it has generally been used to make myself more comfortable before engaging in Socratic style sessions or extensive speeches. It becomes a matter of consistent lifestyle modifications to manage the symptoms which I never want to see rise again to pre-medication times. Other than that, I have no choice but to remain hopeful that once I leave the San Joaquin Valley at the completion of my bachelor’s degree, my allergies will decrease. 


            The University of California, Merced is surrounded by various types of grass and allergy causing agents. Interestingly, out of the 32 agents that I was tested for, consisting of various tree leaves, common household allergens, bugs, and mold, I came out to be allergic to all four of the only grass types that I was tested for out of the thousands that there are. This leads me to believe that I am probably allergic to other types of grass as well. Why must a top new university, a research institution, get to be located, built, and expanded, where there are so many allergy causing agents? Where there is so much grass. Didn’t anyone do any research into how severe health disparities grass is capable of causing. I guess the many students lured into this new research institution’s location who have suffered from its many environmental induced allergens are supposed to be the ones who conduct this research and create case studies through their own examples to put out a cautionary tale about the types of places that are at risk for causing allergies. Isn’t that what we are being trained here to do, anyways, research. Unsuspecting potential students need to be forewarned, so that they may enter the dying grass territory – which is yet somehow still blooming with life, pollen, and allergens – at their own risk. 


            As observed, allergies don’t just have to display symptoms of only sneezing and itching of the eyes and nose. This is what I was not familiar with and so never suspected a possibility of any serious allergy that could be contributing to any sore throat symptoms. Therefore, I initially never even took any over-the-counter allergy pills. I saw plenty of students display symptoms when crossing the campus bridge or heard mention during class about their watery eyes or scratchy nose, but despite their inquiry into what allergy tablet should be taken, didn’t have it registered that my allergies could also be responsible for my condition. Allergies can also cause secondary conditions such as post nasal drip, which makes the throat pain worse and is why my nasal spray works to benefit me more. Furthermore, this is also why the water that my dry mouth seeks out revives me on many fronts. Nevertheless, I do recollect also presenting typical symptoms of allergies, as well. In any case, if you come to Merced County and experience the onset of any sudden new health disturbances, it’s quite well possible that it could be the result of some pollen thriving in your body from the San Joaquin Valley. 


            Retrospectively, it does make complete sense now as my slight symptoms of itchy eyes and nose began when I had started to be more outside on the field a few days a week for my drill team junior year of high school. Additionally, that one day many years ago now when our family had decided to join some other families from the community for a picnic and a special gettogether in another city, as soon as my mother had spent some of her time sitting on the grass, she had broken out into mild hives on her arms and face which made it necessary for us to have to leave the park early. Allergies, I guess, can be hereditary, but mostly, allergens, are from the grass. The hints of my environmental allergies had already started before my arrival to this allergy prone place. After coming here, though, everything just multiplied and got out of control; it took over, perhaps with the possibility of never leaving me until I moved back out of Merced, or ever. I must avoid all grass. Although I have now avoided sitting on the grass and laying my crushing weight on it, when possible, the grass has not stopped residing in and planting its impact on me. The water that my system now thirsts for, is like it’s enough to sustain both me, and the remains of the poor dying grass that has managed to make its way on over to me in search of its hopes for survival. 


            Presuming that I was provided with the opportunity to go four years back and attend one of those non-pollen emitting, grass encompassing, allergy prone free schools, in exchange for an erasure of my allergy condition yet also my experiences at UC Merced, then there is no way in which I would accept. Though I did sacrifice in my early expectations and this component of my health, UC Merced has always given me above and beyond what I had ever hoped for, and truly cared the most about – which is the fact that I had received the solid academic experiences, and all of the training that I could have ever asked for from any institution at the undergraduate level. Interestingly, shortly after I was prescribed my nasal spray, was consequently also the time when many other life elements started to fall into place, both professionally and personally; and I began to bloom. As the dry hay-like grass in Merced which is dying and needs more water, I too started to die in many ways while always having the backdrop of the persisting pain in my throat that also requires more water – but the truth is, even an organism that is struggling to live can emit and consist of so much life, along with its pollen, and allergens. And just with the more water that it is given the opportunity to consume, it can better bloom.