On August 12, 2021, musician Ken McCullick tragically died in an emergency room after receiving the blood thinner heparin, to which he was unknowingly deathly allergic. Heparin contains alpha-gal, a sugar found in red meat and dairy products, and is transmitted through the bite of a lone star tick. Alpha-gal syndrome, affecting up to 450,000 Americans, is a relatively unrecognized food allergy. Research on alpha-gal syndrome has been limited, and its delayed symptoms make diagnosis challenging. A recent CDC study revealed that 42% of surveyed doctors and nurse practitioners were unaware of the allergy, while another third lacked confidence in managing it. McCullick, who experienced symptoms as late as four to six hours after consuming red meat or dairy, suffered from severe reactions, including anaphylaxis.

Recent testing data suggests there may have been as many as 450,000 cases of alpha-gal syndrome in the US since 2010. The numbers are surprisingly high, and researchers attribute this to a lack of awareness among healthcare providers. The syndrome’s prevalence is concentrated in states with lone star ticks, spanning the South, Midwest, and Mid-Atlantic regions. McCullick’s journey towards diagnosis was arduous and involved repeated visits to the emergency room. His allergic reactions to alpha-gal affected his heart and cholesterol levels, and he experienced distressing symptoms even from inhaling meat cooking. Fortunately, through research and assistance from friends, McCullick eventually received the diagnosis, emphasizing the importance of spreading awareness about alpha-gal syndrome to save lives.