Red meat allergy hits Minnesota woman after tick bite

A Wright County woman who loves burgers and bacon can’t eat them anymore because of what happened to her on a camping trip.

Theresa Heimkes loves red meat.

"Give me ribs, give me a cheeseburger, and bacon," she said.

But all her favorites literally make her sick to her stomach now.

It started on the last day of a school field trip in western Minnesota.

"I found a tick and said that’s an interesting white dot on it," Heimkes said.

Heimkes is an experienced camper, so she’s had ticks before and removed this one like any other.

"Immediately flushed it down the toilet and didn’t think about it again," Heimkes said.

But she’d have to think about it again.

About two weeks later, the true consequences of the bite started bugging her.

"Are some pork, not thinking anything of it, and about two hours later I was sick," she said.

And the problem repeated for several days, usually at the same time of day.

"Happened on Monday, happened on Tuesday," she said.

The symptoms disappeared for a couple of days, so she thought she’d kicked a flu.

But she’d only eaten granola and chicken in that timeframe and her illness came back with a vengeance when she returned to red meat.

Allina Health allergist Dr. Pramod Kelkar ran some tests and confirmed she’s suffering from alpha-gal syndrome. 

"The first response is surprise because most patients have not heard about it," Dr. Kelkar said. 

Alpha-gal is a sugar molecule found in most mammals.

Scientists say alpha-gal syndrome is primarily associated with the bite of a lone star tick creating an antibody response to the next exposure to meat or dairy from mammals.

The Minnesota Department of Health doesn’t record the number of AGS cases, but told us they had counted only 58 lone star ticks in this state as of 2021, so they don’t expect AGS to be as common here as in the southern and northeastern U.S.

A Centers for Disease Control report last week estimated 450,000 Americans are suffering from the potentially life-threatening allergic condition.

"People will have a steak," Dr. Kelkar said. "They will go to bed. And in the early morning hours they will wake up with throat closing, lip swelling, face swelling, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting abdominal pain."

So what seemed like a simple tick bite actually forced Theresa to flip her diet — leaving behind burgers and bacon and eating chicken and turkey because white meat doesn’t come from mammals.

Dr. Kelkar has had several AGS patients and says it can go away in months or stay for years, even forever.

He says another tick bite can make it worse, and emphasized the importance of preventing tick bites by wearing long clothing and insect repellant in woody areas.

"I don’t want to not be outside because of a tick," Heimkes said.

She says she’ll do more tick checks next time she camps.

And for everyday living, she has an epi pen but hopes to never use it, which means crossing red meat off her menu.

"Not being able to breathe, I don’t want to experience that," she said. "I don’t want it to get that bad so I’ll stay away from the steak."