Alpha-gal syndrome

I learn about new disorders all the time here in MRI. Normally I’ve at least heard the name of the disease or disorder before, or I know a teeny bit about it.

I have never heard of alpha-gal. At least, I’ve never heard the name.

Turns out, I have heard of the disorder before. I had a patient once tell me he was allergic to pork because of a tick bite.

Alpha-gal is a “sugar molecule found in most mammals (except in people, apes, and monkeys)” (CDC.gov, 2019). Turns out there is a tick (lone star tick) that can transmit the molecule in blood from the animal to humans. We humans don’t normally make the molecule but apparently we can make an immune response to it. If we develop an allergy then we can no longer eat meat from cow, pork, rabbit, deer, lamb, essentially the animals work hooves! The odd thing about it, and what makes it kind of hard to diagnose, is the fact that the reaction tends to take place 3-6 hours after the ingestion of meat. It’s hard for a lot of people to make the association between meat and their allergic reactions.

I found a good podcast about the disorder. Lots of information about how it works and the ongoing research around it.

One of the things I realized while looking further into the disease is how important it is to ask your patient about allergies. Alpha-gal is uncommon, however, patients with it can’t have certain medications. Heparin is typically derived from pork. Some insulin is derived from pigs and cows as well. There are quite a few medications that have porcine or bovine derivatives. A nurse would have to make sure to take this into account for their patient with this particular allergy.

Then again, when is the nurse not taking safety into account, right?

Look at your labs

You have drawn blood, or phlebotomy has come and drawn blood for you. Great. Labs are sent and you go on about your shift. The lab doesn’t call you with any critical values so you figure things must be ok.

And then your patient starts to have more ectopy. His rhythm has definitely changed. Or maybe her blood pressure seems to be lower than normal. Maybe he is more altered than he was.

What’s going on?! This doesn’t make sense. Then you look at your labs… Four hours later…

The values weren’t critical but they are abnormal for your patient. His potassium is 2.9. Her H/H is 7/21, a full three points lower than it was on her last set. His glucose is 61 and he normally runs in the 200’s.

Oh. Ohhhhhh…. Well, shit.

That is four hours that your patient has had abnormal but totally treatable lab values. That is four hours of treatment that your patient did not receive. That is four hours too long. When you send labs or have labs sent for you, you need to remember to check the results. Do not assume that the lab will call you if something is wrong. The lab is responsible for calling when the values are critical or dramatically different than the previous set. However, for some patients, it does not take a critical value for them to exhibit changes. Each person is different, while a hemoglobin and hematocrit of 7/21 may be totally fine for one patient it may be too low for another. One patient may function totally fine with a glucose of 61 while someone that lives higher may exhibit altered mental status. This patient may show no signs at all that their potassium is 2.9 while that patient begins to throw all the ectopy EVER whenever their potassium is less than 3.3. Each patient is an individual and should be treated as such.

Your patient and their labs are your responsibility. Take the minute to give them a check, that minute could save a life.