Being a police officer is a dangerous job – but one woman’s 15 year career in the force was ended by a simple rubber band.
Jo Keeling, 40, took medical retirement in February this year after a near-death experience called into question her future with the police.
A delayed allergic reaction to a concealed elastic band brushing her hand saw her go into full anaphylactic shock while driving, making her swerve off the road and mount a grass verge.
Mum-of-two Keeling, of Bournemouth, said: “I’d taken an antihistamine and steroids as soon as my hand brushed the band, which had been hidden beneath some paperwork, so I thought I’d be fine.
"My symptoms had worn off and, before that, I’d never experienced delayed anaphylaxis before."
Keeling aded: "A couple of hours later, I was driving when my body armour began to feel tight across my chest. My throat was tightening, so I panicked and hit the red button, which alerts operators to an emergency."
"I don’t remember much, but apparently I couldn’t speak. The operators could just hear me gasping for breath.
"There happened to be two nurses in a car behind me, who pulled over to check on me and found me lying on the floor.
"Afterwards, I couldn’t stop thinking about what would have happened if I’d crashed my car into someone else. My job was to prevent loss of life, not to cause chaos."
Keeling’s allergy first flared up in 2004, when her duties as a police officer included assisting with raids.
This involved wearing latex gloves, so as not to contaminate valuable evidence.
She noticed the skin on her hands becoming red and irritated, but thought nothing of it.
It was only when she had an allergic reaction to avocado while dining out with her husband Jason, 48, that she became concerned.
"My lips swelled up like I’d had awful collagen implants," she said.
"I later found out avocado can be linked to latex allergies, as they include a lot of the same proteins."
Referred to a specialist allergy clinic, a skin prick and blood test confirmed Keeling was severely allergic to latex.
Over the next few years, she said her life was governed by "trial and error" as she discovered some of the more unusual everyday places where latex appears.
"I knew to avoid obvious things like car tyres, gloves and plasters, but it showed up in a lot of things you wouldn’t expect, like children’s toys, doorbells or buttons," she said.
"We’ve had to replace a lot of things in the house, getting rid of rubber kitchen utensils, pens with rubber grips and even calculators.
"My allergies have meant I can’t take the children to a lot of the parties they get invited to because there will be balloons. Jason has to take them instead and thoroughly wash their clothes the second they get in.
"I’ve learned not to get complacent, and to carry my EpiPen absolutely everywhere."
Jo Keeling with daughter Isabelle, husband Jason and son Ollie
So serious are Keeling’s allergies that she can flare up just by touching people who have handled latex without washing their hands afterwards.
Hospitals are one of the worst places for triggering reactions, given how much medical equipment includes the material.
One of her most dramatic episodes was in July 2009, when she collapsed after accidentally touching frayed elastic on her now eight-year-old daughter Isabelle’s knickers.
Feeling her throat closing up, Keeling frantically tried to locate her EpiPen, calling to Isabelle to bring through the phone as "Mummy was poorly".
Amazingly, although she was just two-and-a-half at the time, Isabelle called the emergency services, who rushed to her mother’s aid.
"I could hear the loudspeaker on the phone being switched on and started panicking as I thought Izzy was just playing around with it," she remembered.
"I saw her walking away with the phone and felt like I could see my life line disappearing. Then I heard another voice and realised she was talking to an emergency operator.
"My mind was a whirlwind. I injected myself with the EpiPen and couldn’t really speak until the adrenaline kicked in, but Izzy handled it amazingly."
Keeling taught her daughter from an early age to recite her name and address, using the ‘parrot fashion’ technique often employed to teach children nursery rhymes.
The pair also practised making 999 calls when playing doctors and nurses together.
As a result of her experiences, Keeling launched Izzy and Ollie, a children’s safety education project and, in 2012, published her first book, Adventures in an Ambulance, which looks at how to make a 999 call.
She is currently looking for a publisher for her second book, Click Click, Buckle Up Quick, which deals with car safety.
Alongside this, she is working tirelessly to make the general public more aware of allergies and just how serious they can be.
Story continues below slideshow:
"For years, my constabulary handled everything fantastically. My sergeant knew to ban elastic bands from our office and wouldn’t let me do anything like pump up tyres," Keeling said.
"In 10 years, I only had one anaphylactic shock at work. Then, we got a new sergeant and things fell by the way side a little.
“Elastic bands started appearing all over the office. I understand my colleagues had much more important things to worry about, but reasonable measures to protect me should have been taken.
"I flagged it up a few times but it never seemed to make a difference. In hindsight, I suppose I could have taken it straight to the top but I thought it might look disrespectful to go over my direct supervisor’s head.
"After the severe reaction that saw me almost crash my car, we had lots of meetings about what would be best. There was talk of keeping me in an office job and essentially cutting off any contact I’d have with the public.
"In the end, it was agreed medical retirement was the best option."
In her mission to educate the masses, Keeling has persuaded a number of companies to adapt their policies to better handle allergies.
Most impressively, Virgin Atlantic wrote to tell her they’d reviewed their anaphylaxis policy to include changes such as mandatory on-board announcements and pre-flight medical clearance checks, after she contacted them.
She has also launched a campaign called Lose The Latex, aimed at stopping restaurants from using latex gloves as standard.
As a result of her work, in 2014, Keeling was named Most Aspirational at the Inspiration Awards for Women.
Previously, she was also highly commended in the First Aid category of St John’s Ambulance’s Everyday Heroes awards.
Reflecting on her story, Keeling said: "It’s a shame that something as small as an elastic band ended my career. I had so much left to give, and if only I’d have been taken more seriously, the force wouldn’t have had to lose an officer.
"I faced a lot of danger while working with the police. Once, a colleague and I were even held at knife-point.
"It sounds strange, but I would rather that scenario than touch an elastic band. At least if the threat is a person, I can reason with and talk to them.
"It’s been an adjustment, but it’s always been my dream to help people. Now I’m just doing it in a different way than I expected."