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shingles

i blame my undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering for why i’m a hypochondriac. when you learn about how complicated things like renal clearance, action potential propagation, or even cellular duplication are, it’s not hard to imagine some small biological cog coming loose and your body’s processes slowly grinding to a phlegmy halt. come to think of it, it probably didn’t help either that my father, who worked in the pharmaceutical industry, gave me a red merck manual one childhood christmas. i read that book for hours; i was horrified how many bad things could happen to my private parts.

a fascination and a willingness to embrace one’s pathologies can come in handy. case in point: in late may, around the anxious period during which i was looking for a thesis committee, i started feeling a strange tingling right below the skin of my chest after an afternoon swim. later that evening, christina noticed a small rash on my back. about a half-a-dozen little red bumps in a diagonal cluster — a red philippines erupting from my brown skin.

[enter my hypochondria stage right.]

a little intuition and a lot of google-image-searching convince me of a likely culprit: shingles. reading up on the disease is oh so unpleasant; it turns out the chickenpox you get as a kid lysogenically inserts its own DNA into the DNA of the cells in your nervous system. basically, part of you becomes related to the herpes-zoster virus. i was embarrassed by my slutty nervous system — why the hell did they get busy with the herpes virus?! suddenly, i felt so dirty.

it’s now 11 pm at this point, but fortunately, mit medical is open all night. in fact, this turns out to be the best time to head to the urgent care clinic, as there’s no line to see a doctor. i see a doctor immediately. he’s curiously alert and very talkative. he’s also a bit perplexed by my rash.

“i’m not sure what that rash is.”

“doctor, i think it might be shingles.”

“hmm … ok, let’s be safe then. i’ll put you on some anti-viral medication.”

i’m a bit torn at this point. i’ve basically self-diagnosed and that doesn’t really inspire a lot of confidence. but, i also got what i’ve come for: drugs. i take my drugs and leave.

the next three days turn out to suck a lot. i definitely had shingles: my abdomen is just consumed in a paroxysm of teeth-grinding pain. apparently, when you get shingles, the latent herpes simplex viruses in your nervous cells wake up and bust a cap on your nerves. confused by the nonsensical signals it’s receiving from your trunk, your brain decides to play things safe by calling attention to that part of your body with an all-hands on deck siren. it’s a bit hard to explain what that feels like, but if you’ve ever done a bunch of sit-ups, recall that burn you feel midway through your last sit-up, as your back is halfway up from the ground. that’s what shingles feels like, non-stop, for days.

meanwhile, my philippines-shaped rash has declared war on the mainland. by day 3, it’s turned into russia.

thankfully, because i started taking the anti-viral medications relatively close to the onset of my shingles, most of the pain subsides after only 3 days. [apparently, in folks who get treated less expediently, the debilitating pain can last months.] and, as google images so graphically informed me, i was quite fortunate that the rash didn’t spread to my face or my eyes. i could have been blinded.

still, the whole experience has its amusing moments. for one thing, there’s the sense of irony i feel when i recall that only days before getting sick, i had whined to christina about how much better it was to be 4 than 24. life was so fun and carefree back then. fate had a real mean way of reminding me that i also got chicken-pox when i was 4.

there was also the memorable afternoon when i wandered into the lab to pick up my papers, so that i could work at home. eric catches me walking by the lunchroom

“you think you’ve got shingles? i had shingles too when i was 21. can i see?”

my boss then proceeds to lift up my shirt, as i turn to see a couple of scientists lose their appetite. spying the red, bumpy road crossing my back,

“oooh yea, that’s shingles!”

[if you're curious what the shingles rash looks like and have a robust constitution, feel free to check out the photos christina took of my back. they're sorta gross though.]


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One Response to “shingles”

  1. on 18 Aug 2008 at 5:55 pm butt exam » from the desk of stinkpot

    [...] think i’ve joined AARP or something. last month, i’m struck by the bane of geriatrics: shingles. today, i underwent the universal rite of senior citizenhood — the colonoscopy (a fancy word [...]

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