On Valentine’s Day during my senior year of high school, I woke up with a peculiar rash on my chest. I went to the nurse’s office after Mr. Spunkmeyer’s homeroom class. “It looks like the shingles,” the nurse told me. “You need to see a doctor.”
My mom picked me up that afternoon during calculus and we drove to my clinic. I thought the rash was just some kind of allergic reaction, but I wasn’t going to take any chances. It was red, bumpy, itchy, and developed horizontally across my chest.
When we arrived, my nurse put me in an individual room just in case I was contagious. A doctor entered the room soon after, looked at my rash and immediately knew what it was. “You’ve got the shingles, pal.”
“What is shingles?”
“Shingles, or herpes zoster, is a viral infection caused by the same virus as chickenpox. You’ve had chickenpox, right?”
“I don’t know. Mom, have I?”
“Yeah, you had a small episode when you were younger," she said.
“Well, that’s it. Once somebody has chickenpox, the virus stays in the nerves and usually does no harm. In your case, it’s been re-activated.”
“Many old people get shingles, but also stress or a weakened immune system can re-activate the virus.”
“Well, I don’t get stressed out. But I thought my immune system was normal? It has been five months since I received any cancer treatment.”
“It takes about a year for the immune system to completely normalize, so you’re right in the range for re-activation. Do you have any pain or tingling at the site?”
“Some tingling, but no pain.”
“Over the next day or so you may begin to feel some pain.”
“I’m going to have the infectious disease people come in here and scrape a small amount of skin from the rash, just to make sure it is zoster. First, we have to figure out what to do with you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Ben, you have two options. We can send you home with oral medication. You’d need to come back here each day and have someone look at the rash and make sure it’s not getting much worse.”
“That’s fine, I have no problem coming back after school.”
“Here is the problem with sending you home – if the oral anti-viral drug Valtrex doesn’t hit the virus hard enough, then it can leave you with permanent nerve damage wherever the rash spreads. Years from now you may suddenly feel intense nerve pain or tingling. I’d like to keep you here and admit you to the hospital. We’ll give you Valtrex through an IV and make sure we hit this virus hard.”
“How do you know for sure it would leave me with nerve pain?”
“I don’t know. I just want to be safe.”
“How long will I be here?”
“Three or four days.”
“Days? Are you kidding me?”
“There is one more option; we can send you home with a PICC line and give you IV Valtrex that way.”
“Wait…what’s a PICC line?”
“We put an IV tube in your arm and thread it all the way to your chest. It’s very easy.”
“No, no, no, no, no. Hell no.”
“It’s not as bad as it sounds. Patients use these all the time, and it’s not very painful.”
“That’s okay, I want nothing to do with your PICC line. I guess I’ll stay here. Maybe I can even get my math done.”
“Good decision. Wait here and someone will be up shortly to get a skin sample.”
Once he left, I looked over at my mom. “I can’t believe this. I don’t have any pain, I think he’s full of crap.”
“I know you’re upset, but you don’t want nerve pain the rest of your life. It just wouldn’t be worth it. What a way to spend Valentine’s Day, huh?”
“I don’t care about this stupid holiday.”
I couldn’t believe that chickenpox’s first cousin was going to force me to spend three to four days in the hospital. I was already pretty pissed but I got even madder when I was told all the pediatric rooms were occupied. I normally didn’t like adult nurses; they were often meaner, less sociable, older, and rarely attractive.
Later that night I called Zeke from my hospital room. “Yo, I got that shangly shangly.”
“Say what?” he replied.
“I have the shingles. It’s like chickenpox. I have to stay here for three to four days.”
“You’re kidding. For the chickenpox?”
“That’s what I said! At least I have my book bag, so maybe I can get some math homework done. Tell me what I miss in calculus.”
I didn’t do one math problem the entire four days I was there. I just watched TV the whole time. If the Winter Olympics hadn’t been on I would’ve lost my damn mind.
After being released, I still wasn’t allowed back at school for three more days. Luckily, at home I was able to watch the Olympics all day with the help of MSNBC and CNBC. My fucking hospital still hadn’t gotten cable.
My rash had spread across my chest, stomach and back. It disappeared a few weeks later, and I was left with a circular scar on my back, which has since mostly gone away. I never had any pain or tingling afterward like Doc had mentioned. I still say he was full of shit.
Postscript: I nearly threw up searching for pictures of the shingles and PICC lines. Don't try it at home.