Doctor, I feel like my skin is on fire, my flesh is being eaten, and I have thousands of knives beneath the surface jabbing at my skin.” The doctor gave me a knowing look. Moments later, upon examining the affected area, she announced, “You have shingles.”
My agonizing pain and sleepless nights now had a diagnosis.
Shingles is caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. Once a person has had chickenpox, this virus remains dormant in the body and can reawaken at any time in the form of shingles. Whereas chickenpox affects the entire body, shingles affects one part of the body, either on the right side or on the left. It runs along a nerve line, causing excruciating nerve pain in addition to a topical rash.
I had experienced mysterious random pains days before the rash broke out. Something funny was happening on my left side, from the waist down. One day it was extreme joint pain in the groin; the next day I thought I was coming down with a UTI, and so it went. I didn’t pay much attention to it, though, because the pains were inconsistent. Nobody likes a hypochondriac, so I just let it slide.
The pain worsened, but I had to prepare for Shabbos. My skin was burning and had blistery bumps. I applied bacitracin and tried to ignore it, but it was not an ignorable situation. As Shabbos descended, my agony was indescribable.
On Sunday morning I finally went to the doctor, and she diagnosed me right away. Mystery solved—but unfortunately, I could no longer take antiviral medication because it was more than 72 hours since I had started having symptoms. If I had gone to the doctor sooner, I could have started the medication; it doesn’t heal the virus, but it keeps it from progressing.
The doctor prescribed Neurontin, a medication for nerve pain, but it sent my head spinning, a side effect I couldn’t handle. Instead, the doctor recommended that I take four Motrin tablets at a time, alternating with extra-strength Tylenol. Then advice started pouring in. I was urged to try sprays, honey, creams and gauze, but nothing did much to relieve the pain.
During this ordeal, my married daughter went away to a Shabbaton and met my cousin, who asked why I hadn’t joined her. My daughter said, “My mother is very sick with shingles,” and my cousin blanched. Her doctor had just recommended that she and her husband both get the shingles vaccine, because they were over 50 and thus more prone to the illness.
This cousin had suggested to her husband that they stop at the doctor’s office on the way to the Shabbaton to get the shingles vaccine since they had plenty of time. “It’s not usual for us to be out together on an ordinary day when the doctor is available,” she had said to him. “Let’s go now.”
But her husband had railed against “those money-hungry doctors who want to push anything and everything on patients just to make a quick buck.” He asked her, “When’s the last time you heard of anyone who had shingles?” And now she was standing face to face with my daughter, who was describing how sick I was.