Tuesday, July 22, 2014
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HOFBERG: On Shingles

Let me give you all a free piece of advice that I wish someone had given me: if you can help it, don’t ever get shingles.

Before last week, I didn’t even know what shingles was. If you had asked me, my best guess would have been that maybe it was a technical term for roof coverings.

Today, however, after lying on what I practically considered my deathbed for the last week-and-a-half, I could give you a much more informed explanation of what shingles actually is.

Shingles is an extremely painful skin rash that is caused by the varicella zoster virus. It occurs when the virus that causes chickenpox starts up again in your body and usually appears in a stripe across one side of your body. After you recover from chickenpox, the virus “sleeps” in the nerve roots of your spinal cord.

For some people — and lord knows I envy them — the shingles virus stays dormant forever. For the less fortunate, like myself, the virus “wakes up” and results in the most miserable days of your life. It’s not completely clear why the encore of the virus, which is not contagious, occurs in some people, but doctors guess that it may be due to weak immune systems or heavy stress.

What started out for me as itching and tingling on the left side of my torso Thursday in Feature Writing class, quickly escalated into the most horrifying skin rash I had ever experienced. In the beginning stages of my shingles breakout, friends and roommates reassured me that it was probably nothing.

“It’s just a bug bite!” They assured.

“You just have dry skin!” they projected, throwing lotions, ointments and Benadryl tablets at me. “You’re fine!”

I knew something just wasn’t right. Still wanting to believe that my friends knew best, I swallowed the Benadryls, lubed up with creams and went about my normal business. I’m no a doctor, but I am almost certain that a night of drinking on Saturday night did nothing to help my worsening shingles virus. It did, however, make it difficult for me to decide if I spent all of Sunday in bed because I was hung-over or because shingles was rapidly starting to make me its next victim.

When I woke up on Sunday evening from my all-day recovery slumber, I was mortified when I looked down at my stomach and found a cluster of blisters that resembled a third-degree burn. There was no way that this was merely a hangover. It was something much worse.

I needed to see a doctor. Immediately. So I dialed the number for Student Health Services. The ring of the phone that was answered with a prerecorded voicemail greeting was, perhaps, one of the most devastating moments of my life. Damn you SHS for being closed on Sunday!

It wasn’t until Monday morning that I was able to see a doctor, and at that point, not only was my skin horrifying to look at, but I was in so much pain that it was nearly impossible for me to stand up, walk, dress, even move without feeling chronic pain in every cell of my body and wanting to cry out in agony.

“Looks like a classic case of shingles,” my doctor told me, after only glancing at the skin on my stomach for a mere moment. She drew me a picture and explained the symptoms of the virus and how to treat it. The doctor wrote me enough prescriptions to open a pharmacy. When I went to pick them up at the CVS across the street and my total came to $210, I wasn’t sure what hurt worse, my shingles outbreak or my bank account.

At my appointment, I had been warned that the pain I was feeling was going to get much worse before it got better. Worse? No way. Yes way.

For the next three days I lay in my bed in a state of such pain, that at one point I considered calling a priest. And for those of you who know how seriously Atheist I am, you can understand how much pain I was in. Even the simplest tasks like rolling over and sitting up proved more challenging than I could ever imagine. I couldn’t shower. I couldn’t attend class. I couldn’t eat. I cried for two solid days.

But God bless pharmaceuticals. Without them, I’m not so sure I could have survived the itchy, aching, burning, numbing, debilitating virus that I seriously only believed existed in sci-fi novels.

Please take my warning seriously. Take care of yourself and do what you can to avoid stress and weakened immune systems in your life. Take it from me: contracting shingles, a virus that I wouldn’t even wish on my greatest enemies, at the expense of worrying about paper deadlines or test scores, is certainly not worth it.

Kate Hofberg is a graduate student in the College of Communication. She can be reached atkwhofberg@gmail.com.

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