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He died from a horse allergy

Published: 2/23/2012
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By Maddy Butcher

The news of his death struck me as completely unfair.
First, Anthony Shadid was a brilliant journalist in the prime of his career, covering one of the most important stories in the world.

Second, horses were to blame.

Shadid, a two-time Pulizter Prize winning reporter for the New York Times, collapsed near the Turkey-Syria border after having an allergic reaction to horses.
I admired Shadid for years. He worked for the Boston Globe when I was a correspondent there. In 2002, he was shot while on assignment for the Globe in the West Bank. I remember when he was arrested, held, and physically abused by Libyan authorities.

To cover the civil war and state crackdown in Syria, Shadid sought help from smugglers and guides. They had crossed the border from Turkey by horseback and under cover of darkness. He had a moderate allergic reaction then, but recovered after resting, according the Tyler Hicks, the New York Times photographer who accompanied him.

On the return trip, the team took measures to stay away from the horses, but Shadid nonetheless reacted to the horse allergens on the smugglers’ clothes. He struggled to breathe and collapsed. Hicks administered CPR and was unable to revive him. It was unclear if any medication was available or administered.

Of course, horses are not literally blamed. But horse allergens and the lack of intervention are what killed Shadid.

As horsemen and women, we deal with certain risks associated with handling big, powerful animals.
But allergies?
Asthma attacks triggered by our beloved equines?

According to an article in Slate, 20 million Americans have asthma; less than 4,000 die from attacks annually. That’s a tiny fraction considering asthma’s prevalence. The death rate is fewer than one per 100,000, less than those who die in accidental drownings.
With so many asthmatics and so few mortalities, it’s clear that prevention and treatment have been effective.  Most of the deaths occur because the individuals lacked ordinary medication or failed to take it correctly.
Dr. James Sublett, a fellow at the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, told the Washington Post that about 10 percent of Americans are allergic to animals in general. Sublett said much more is known about dog and cat allergies; there's not a lot of research done on horses in this field.

I’m guessing most of you know if you’re allergic to horses and deal with it.
But what if you’re with someone who’s allergic?

What to do? I'm not really allergic to anything and this scenario tested my training as a Wilderness First Responder.

My friend, Tom O’Grady, did the right thing when he first saw his daughter react to horses:

“We were apple picking with friends, and one of the options at the orchard was to go on a horse-drawn wagon ride.  Just getting close to the horse put Siobhan into really bad shape--eyes red and puffy, difficulty breathing: I had to race off and find a pharmacy to buy some Benadryl.  Scary.”

  • Be aware that some folks can have sudden, severe reactions. Have Benadryl in your first aid kit, your saddle bag, your home medicine cabinet.

Tom's daughter, Siobhan O'Grady, shared her history, experiences, and treatments:

"The symptoms I feel are completely asthmatic. Within a few minutes of being near anyone who is wearing clothes with horse hair on them, being in a house where horseback riders live, or being near a horse, my eyes get itchy and red, and my throats gets scratchy as well.
I can usually maintain the reaction with Claritin during the day and Benadryl at night. If I were to actually ride a horse, I would get a strange rash of perfect dots all around my eyes, and my eyes turn puffy. My throat closes up, and my chest starts to feel trapped and I can't get any kind of oxygen. My immediate instinct is to lie down on my back with my arms straight out, which opens up my airways.
I also need to take my Albuterol inhaler immediately and a triple dose of Benadryl. My symptoms usually subside within an hour or two of me being away from a horsey environment.
If I couldn't treat myself and was in a horse environment, then I honestly wouldn't be surprised if I had a similar fate to Anthony...I feel seriously desperate when I'm near a horse."

Dr. Cynthia Dechenes, of Topsham Family Medicine, told me most asthmatics are treated like Siobhan with inhalers (like Albuterol) for mild cases and oral steroids (like Prednisone) for more serious bouts. 

  • In a wilderness setting like Shadid’s, it would be important to have those medications available as well as Benadryl and even an Epipen (a treatment for anaphylactic shock, it is a medical device used to deliver a measured dose of epinephrine. Anaphylactic shock is a severe allergic reaction characterized by a sharp drop in blood pressure and difficulty breathing.)
Most of us can get to an emergency room within the hour.
But what if you can't?
Who knows if Shadid’s death could have been prevented?

As Dechenes reminded me, war zones are full of tragic deaths from simple, seemingly preventable causes.
“During wars, think of how many millions of people have died from infection...Think of the aid worker who dies in a bus accident.” she said.

So I’m trying to take a lesson from this sad event:
Be Aware and Be Prepared.

View Reader Comments:

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2/23/2012 Molly
My daughter is allergic to horses - and she is an avid horseperson - I don't know how she does it but one thing she is careful about is taking her allergy medication before working with the animals. If she forgets she really suffers - worse than a cold, seezing, puffy eyes, trouble breathing - just miserable. This article was interesting as I assumed that was all she could do - take allergy medication. I think we'll look into other precautions if and when she has a severe bout. Thanks Maddy.
2/23/2012 Nina Fuller
This is why it is so important to have special clothes that you wear in the barn and around your horses. Different clothes for going anywhere else. People can have allergic reactions to your clothes, which it sounds like it what happen to this poor reporter.
2/24/2012 Gena
tragic loss.... he was a brilliant, fearless reporter of the truth and will be greatly missed. Thanks Maddy, I had no idea he had reacted to horse dander. I still get sad when I think of how young he was, how much he had sacrificed to bring us all out of our neat and tidy lives into the harsh realities and cruelty of the war torn areas that were his specialty. Anthony shone a light on the darkness and brought a voice to the people that he wrote about. I hope that one day humans will get it right and learn to love and respect each other.
5/2/2012 QHFloyd
My first aid kit includes Benadryl melt strips-- available in some pharmacies. Placed on or under the tongue, they melt and can be given to an unconscious patient. Altho not as fast as an Epipen maybe,they are over the counter, cheap, small and we saw someone get relief in ~10 minutes. One caveat-- you need a knife of scissors to get them open-- the foil doesn't rip. Also, they are 25mg each, so 2 is an adult dose
6/6/2012 Dr, Rebecca Gimenez
Always wise to have Benadryl handy. I had a client whose horse reacted to the bug spray they used- we had to give the HORSE the Benadryl and Allegra that was handy - it was almost to the point of asphyxia. It worked - even on a horse.
5/14/2013 SereCowgirl
Anyone reading this article who is interested, know that there are Curly Horses out there who are hypoallergenic. They have a different set of proteins, which has been proven in scientific tests as well as (speaking 1st hand) experiences over and over. Many Curly Horses are not fancy animals, and many owners and breeders are not overly experienced horsewomen, so do your homework if you are in the market. But look into it, the happy endings are wonderful, I have bred them in Montana for decades and have had many allergic horse lovers cry with joy when they visited with these lovely calm-natured intelligent horses. :)
11/13/2014 melissa
my daughter just started riding lessons. I had been around horses before and got itchy watery eyes. her first lesson I got watery itchy eyes and swollen. I left and came back to pick her up, second lesson I stayed in the car and when she got in the car I got an itchy throat, sneezes, itchy eyes. third one, she asked if I would watch her since ive never seen her ride. I took Claritin that morning and again an hour before we went to her lesson. I walked in the barn and watched her saddle up the horse, I made the worst mistake and petted his cute little nose (ok not so litte, but cute) as she mounted to ride my eyes were red watery, I was sneezing and itchy. by the time we left the barn and got to the ring, my eyes started to swell. Within 16 minutes I could barely see out of my eyes. by the time I got home I couldnt see much and my actual eye balls were swelling right out of the socket. I ended up in the ER getting IV of prednisone, Benadryl and epi, as my nose closed, ears clogged and throat was itchy. After 4 hours of medication the swelling went down some airways opened. I walked into my daughters room and her riding clothes and boots were in her closet and I immediately reacted. this is the most insane thing ever. now I have to tell me 12 year old she cant ride unless the allergist can find something that wont have me dying from horses.
2/23/2017 Betty
Thanks so much or this article. My granddaughter reacts if she just walks through a paddock when the horses aren't in it. I do keep separate clothes for my riding, and shower and wash my hair before I can give her a hug. It's very sad because she would love to ride. Other people don't realize how serious this is.

"If the horse does not enjoy his work, his rider will have no joy." - H.H. Isenbart