Having shingles is the pits. It’s bad enough that chicken pox attacks you as a child, slamming you with fever, rash, blisters and itching. If you are lucky, you have a hovering mom to soothe on the calamine lotion, give you chicken soup, kiss your feverish forehead and make it all better.
Who knew that the nasty childhood illness withdraws into a body nerve where it hides and waits? In my case, it waited 60-some years until it decided I was vulnerable to attack. No one knows what causes the virus to activate, except most of the million cases a year occur after trauma or stress.
Pre-shingles I was: caretaker to my 95-year-old partner John, picking him up when he fell, feeding him, sometimes showering and dressing him, doing the household chores, paying the bills, shopping, cooking, doing PFLAG business, getting the taxes out, balancing both our bank books, writing columns, helping others with personal problems, and making the run of doctors and dentists – always the dentist because John’s false teeth have taken a year to be made and fitted (don’t ask). Coming out of a We the People meeting one night, I fell and jarred my system. Nothing broke, just pain and neuropathy occurred in my left thumb and up my arm. I went to a chiropractor.
Alas, one week into the treatment, the virus stretched, yawned and decided this was the perfect time to wake up and wreck havoc.
We were driving home from the San Francisco Airport and dinner at Sausalito with John’s son Michael and our grandson Sean when the pain started, a twitch in the right arm muscle. I blamed John. In our hurry to get to the airport, we had left his walker home. When we got to the restaurant, he froze as Michael and Sean tried to help him walk. John is so used to trusting me, I had to be the one he leaned on, and he’s a heavy leaner. I had to help him out of the restaurant as well.
The next day, the twitch turned into an ugly ache in my arms and in my chest wall. God, I really did hurt myself this time, I thought. Being a good martyr, I made breakfast for everybody and started cooking a pot roast for the evening meal.
Cathy, John’s daughter, and Randy, her husband, came to my rescue after breakfast. The men took John for a haircut and lunch while Cathy sat me down in a recliner, brought me tea with lunch and put on a movie for us to enjoy. Thank God for compassionate, competent women.
The pain got so bad I began to think that my Lipitor was causing that rare muscle disease you hear about. My imagination flared. Oh, no, it is ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. I would stiffen and die a painful death! Cathy assured me that I was just imagining the worst – that this was something we could handle, and aren’t you enjoying the movie? I was. The minute the men left, and I wasn’t responsible for John, I could feel the stress draining from my body. Even with the pain, all I wanted was for Cathy to stay and for the movie, her blessed reassurance and her attention to go on forever.
The next day, the rash appeared. It was on the right side of my back, under my arm, in my armpit, and in my right breast. Ugly though it was, I was relieved. It’s shingles, I said. The doctor confirmed my diagnosis the next day and gave me Valtrex.
Shingles is a herpes virus (herpes zoster). If you’ve had chicken pox, as 90 percent of adults have, you are at risk for shingles. As you age, the risk of getting shingles increases . A vaccine, Zostavax, is recommended for shingles prevention in people 60 and older. People with weakened immune systems, such as those infected with HIV, should not get the vaccine. I wish I had been vaccinated.
For two weeks, I suffered pain and was very tired. I slept as much as I could, canceling all my appointments and duties, except taking care of John and myself. As the blisters from the rash began to dry out and crust, I became more and more aware that I had chronic pain, centered particularly in my armpit. This pain, that some people, mercifully, don’t experience, is postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). Because it is a nerve pain, it doesn’t stay still. Mine has danced up and down my arm and in my chest wall. It’s in my back, too, but not as bad.
During the third week, I felt like shooting John and myself, I was so miserable. I now have a deep appreciation for people who suffer chronic pain and still manage to function. My doctor wanted to give me narcotics, but I refused those. He gave me lidocaine patches, which numbed the pain where I placed them, interrupting the flow of pain around the nerves.
I still have pain, but not as bad as it was. The pain can linger for months or years. Shingles can affect your eyesight and hearing and cause paralysis, bacterial skin infections, muscle weakness, and in addition to the PHN, allodynia—pain from the slightest touch of the skin, even a breeze.
As I said, having shingles is the pits. Consider vaccination.
Kay Mehl Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.