July 15, 2013

A Midsummer Night's Itch


It's almost time for the midsummer classic. But my fondest memory of the baseball All-Star Game has very little to do with baseball itself. It was the itchiest night of my life.

It happened just three years ago. You see, I'm one of the rare people these days who had the chicken pox as an adult. Before I get into the details, here's a public service announcement: If you are an adult and you've neither had the chicken pox nor the chicken pox vaccine, then GO GET THE VACCINE NOW. Right now. Don't wait. Don't delay. Don't dawdle. Pick up the phone. Call your doctor. Call your pharmacist. Call a second-year med student. I don't care what it costs or where you get it. Just get it now.

Here's how it went down. I was sitting in my office at work on an early Friday afternoon and suddenly started feeling extremely tired. Well, I'm pretty much always tired. But this exhaustion was far worse than usual. I also felt very dehydrated.

I had recently started a new workout regimen. So at first I figured my fatigue and thirst were a result of my body getting used to a more rigorous pattern of exercise. But as the afternoon dragged on, I was so tired that I felt like putting my head down on my desk. I stumbled through the rest of the workday and was happy to go home for the weekend.

I had dinner and drank tons of water to hydrate myself. But strangely enough, I woke up on Saturday morning just as exhausted as I was the day before. I think I spent most of my day on the couch while my wife and daughter did other things. This was turning into a real mystery. And it was about to get much worse.

At some point later in the day on Saturday, I started to get the chills and was shivering. It was the same type of chills you get when your temperature is rising. Uh-oh. How could I possibly have had a fever? I wasn't even sick. I took my temperature and, sure enough, I had a fever. This was odd. It was the only time I could ever recall having a fever without any other cough or cold-related symptoms.

This was extra worrisome because early Monday morning, we were scheduled to take our daughter (who's now a happy, healthy cancer survivor) to the hospital for a follow-up scan. We certainly wouldn't want to infect other kids with whatever mystery illness I had. But at this point I figured the fever may go away by Monday morning.

Now let's move ahead to Sunday morning. The fever was still there, and I was still very tired and thirsty. And the plot thickens: By early afternoon, I started to notice some strange red bumps on the inside of my left forearm. And it was very itchy. It kind of looked like some sort of allergic reaction. (I am allergic to those fabric softener sheets that you throw into the dryer. So Bounce is a four-letter work in our household.)

But as the afternoon progressed, my arm became itchier, and that's when the thought crossed my mind. I've never had chicken pox. Has my luck finally run out?

When I was in elementary school, several classmates had chicken pox since it was much more common back then. But even though I seemed to have been exposed several times, I never actually got it. A few years ago, a coworker was diagnosed with the shingles which can be risky for those who haven't had the chicken pox. But a doctor suggested that I probably did have chicken pox as a kid, but I was one of the lucky ones who had such a mild case that nobody noticed. (Thanks, doc.)

The timing started to get tricky. I had to figure out what was wrong with me. It was getting later on a Sunday afternoon, so the nearby urgent-care clinics were closed. And I didn't want to call our family doctor's after-hours help number, because I assumed the advice would be: Go to the hospital if it's serious; otherwise, tough it out and come in to see the doctor Monday morning.

I looked online and discovered that there was a "retail clinic" at a nearby CVS pharmacy. (Here's another public service announcement: Don't go to a retail clinic at a nearby CVS pharmacy.) The place closed at 5 p.m., so I hurried out the door and arrived around 4:45 p.m.

Photo courtesy: Bioethics.net
At retail clinics like this one, you walk up to a self-service computer, enter your information and then sit and wait for someone with a lesser-rank than doctor to call your name. But since the clinic was about to close, I was the only one there. Great, I thought, I'll get right in. I noticed that the exam room door was open and a very young-looking fellow was in there sweeping the floor. I thought perhaps he was a high school kid working a summer job. But no. This was the medical professional! I didn't catch his name, so I'll refer to him as Doogie Howser.

As I approached the computer, Doogie put down his broom and asked me what I was coming in for; so I showed him my arm and told him I was wondering if I had chicken pox. After a quick glance, he said it looked like some sort of viral rash, and if I officially checked-in for an exam, he'd probably just recommend taking Benadryl. He said I could go through with the exam if I wanted to, but it would probably be a waste paying the co-pay and whatever else my insurance company would pay just to be told to take Benadryl. But one thing was clear: He said it did NOT look like chicken pox.

Excellent, I thought during the drive home. I'll take some Benadryl, the rash will go away and I'll be fine to take my daughter to her appointment in the morning. Boy was I wrong. I woke up in the middle of the night, and reality set in. Whatever I had was rapidly spreading. Everywhere.

So my wife and daughter went off to the appointment without me. There's no way I was going to set foot in the children's hospital and risk spreading my ills. I scheduled an appointment with our family doctor for later that morning.

I was surprised that the doctor's office let me walk in and hang out in the waiting room among the general population. Back in the old days, chicken pox patients were herded away from other patients to prevent spreading. I guess the vaccine does a good job, so that's no longer necessary.

The doctor was a little slow to commit to it, but she did officially diagnose me with chicken pox. I was temped to drive back to the CVS clinic to give Doogie Howser a big infecting hug for his misdiagnosis. But instead, I filled the prescription the doctor gave me and went home to wallow around in misery for the next week.

Even though the doctor said there was very minimal risk of infecting my family (my wife had already had chicken pox as a kid, and my daughter had received her shots), I still tried to keep my distance from them. It was a lonely and isolating feeling spending most of the next several days in bed or, occasionally, in the bathtub. Sure, the oatmeal baths that the doctor recommend provided some temporary itch relief. But that relief lasted about 15-seconds.

I won't give you the daily play-by-play. But let me tell you, I wouldn't wish this kind of discomfort on anyone. I hadn't felt this miserable since the Great Valentine's Day Stomach Virus of 2010.

My 2010 All Star Game watching position - Photo courtesy: goeshealth.com
The worst part of the week was the night of the All-Star Game. I painfully watched it from the couch, although it felt more like I was lying on a bed of needles. As a Braves fan, I appreciated Brian McCann hitting a double to give the National League its first win since 1996. But by the time the game was over, I was a disastrous itchy mess from head to toe. And that's not all. The chicken pox had spread into my throat, so I could barely swallow or eat.

On that particular night, I never went to sleep. The itching was just too much, so I literally rolled around in the bed all night. That pretty much describes my week. I finally recovered and was able to re-join society and go back to work the following Monday. Other than being scarred for life in a few places, the only remnants of my bout with chicken pox are these lovely memories.

So as you enjoy the All-Star Game tomorrow night, or even if it bores you to tears, please take a moment to appreciate that you don't feel like ripping off your skin with your bare hands. Play ball.

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