Last night I dreamed of airplanes. Again. Every night I dream of airplanes. Every night for the last seven nights, anyway. Big ones. Little ones. New ones. Old ones.
But my dream planes aren’t soaring high and wild in blue skies like they were built to do. There’s always something wrong with them. They’re broken down. Out of fuel. Victims of weather. My dream planes are trapped, barred from their natural environment. In my dreams, they are prisoners of the ground.
This morning as the fog of dreams lifted, I put it all together. My subconscious is processing the fact that I, too, am a prisoner.
Oh, Lord, where to even begin this story? The last week is such a blur of confusion, and fever, and pain, and fear that a coherent tale is not within my grasp to tell. But if I don’t remember the course, I do remember the start. And it started on Christmas Eve, on my drive home from the clinic.
Do you know that peculiar deep, dull ache that signals the fact that a virus has successfully established a beachhead in your body? Yeah, that’s right, the one that triggers your brain to say: Oh, fuck, we are going to get sick and there’s not jack-shit we can do about it. I got that pain, but in a very strange place. In my right hand.
By the time I got home, both hands throbbed. And I got sleepy. I actually took a nap. I never take naps. By Christmas noon, it felt like all the bones in both my hands had been smashed to bits with Thor’s hammer. My body was wracked first by chills, then by sweats. I broke out my emergency Tamiflu.
The next day, briefly, I felt better and went out to run an errand. It was not overly cold nor overly windy, and I had my wool coat and a scarf, but with little warning I felt as if I had been thrown into a pool of ice water and then kicked into a wind tunnel. I have never, ever felt such cold. For the first, time I understood the phrase “chilled to the bone.”
That night I was catapulted into the depths of the Amazon jungle at the peak of summer. My body gushed water from every pore. I drenched my t-shirt, my sheets and blankets, even my mattress cover. At three in the morning I had to dry off my legs with a bath towel. And the next night was worse. Then, the following morning, strange blisters greeted me:
A few on each arm. A few on my legs. What the fuck? They didn’t itch. They didn’t hurt. Still, it’s one thing to be sick—if you have a virus there’s little you can do but ride it out. But weird blisters out of nowhere? That’s another thing altogether. And I quickly developed a red rash, as well. I texted my boss with a concise history of the present illness and a description of the odd visitors to my skin. He replied within five minutes, saying get your ass to the emergency room NOW.
Well, he’s actually a bit more linguistically reserved than I am, so I think his exact words were something more like, “If I were you, I would present myself to the emergency room without delay.”
So I did. Whereupon I was misdiagnosed with viral exanthem, a fancy word for any rash caused by a virus, was told to have a nice day, and was sent home with the friendly advice to come back if anything changed.
Something changed, all right. By the next day I itched. Everywhere. Did you know your skin is your largest organ? I used to know exactly how large it is, if you were unfortunate enough to have someone remove it from you and stretch it out on the ground in front of you, but I can’t recall the figure and I’m way to sick to look it up right now. But trust me on this, when every square inch of it itches, you appreciate the sheer scale of your skin and how small your hands are in comparison. Two hands are not enough when you itch everywhere.
So, like a good patient, I went back to the ER. This time, after triage, the nurse ushered me out of the lobby through a different door. Huh, I thought to myself, I didn’t realize they had two complete ERs here. Then it dawned on me. We weren’t in the ER any more.
We were in the Intensive Care Unit.
And I was taken to room 16, which had a large red-lettered sign next to the door that said: ISOLATION. Oh fuck. I think my day is about to get worse.
After a time, a different doc from the one who saw me the day before came in. He looked me over, head to toe, while keeping a respectful distance. His scribe cowered in the corner, as far away from me as she and her tablet computer could get while actually still being in the room. Finally the doc said, “I’ve haven’t seen this in twenty years, but I’m sure I know what it is.” Then he gently reached out one finger and traced the expanding line of clear, hard blisters that ran down my arm, and as if quoting Shakespeare, said: “Like dew drops on a rose petal.”
“That’s how our medical school textbooks described this in the old days,” he told me. “You have chickenpox. It’s rarely seen in adults, and almost never in children since we started immunizing them in the 90s. Did you have chickenpox as a child?”
At which point I had to admit that being child number three in my family, my mother was often vague on such points. Then the doc asked if I worked in an environment with a lot of children, especially, perhaps, of the undocumented type?
I told him I worked at a rural clinic, and he said simply, “Well, there you go.”
Now you might think that chickenpox is no big deal, but you’d be wrong. To children it is an annoyance, to say the least, but to adults it is a potentially deadly illness. My discharge documents said, and I’m quoting verbatim:
is a very serious illness in adults. There is a higher risk of complications,
infection (septic arthritis).
with balance and muscle control (cerebellar
experience any of these I should return to the ER at once. So if I die I’m
supposed to go to the ER instead of to the morgue?
I was put on a more powerful anti-viral called Valacyclovir. My insurance declared it an uncovered medication. It cost me $222.29 for twenty-one pills. Oh well, at least the bastards will have to pick up the tab for two ER visits in the last week of my policy’s existence on earth.
Now, law requires pharmacies to give patients something called a “Prescription Information” sheet with your drugs. It’s very long, very technical, and in very small print. As someone who works in a clinical environment, I rather hate them, as they serve as primers for hypochondriacs in most cases, rather than as useful sources of patient education.
That said, I do read them myself. But rather than telling me that the drug might give me an upset stomach, cause ringing in my ears, and make me pee blue, it told me it was important to wear a condom. Excuse me?
Welcome to the happy world of viruses. Chickenpox, shingles, and genital herpes are all cousins and Valacyclovir is used to try to beat them all into submission. Oh, and the real side effects of Valacyclovir include, “rash, hives, and itching.”
That night the assault by the Varicella virus began in earnest. The next morning I looked like this:
And it all went downhill from there. Chickenpox in adults is a bigger, meaner, tougher son-of-a-bitch than it is in children. It lasts longer, covers more of the body, and heals slower. And apparently its also bigger, meaner, and tougher in men than it is in women. Oh, and on top of that, it is bigger, meaner, and tougher the older you are when you get it. I hit my fifth decade this fall, and Varicella was itching for a fight.
And I got my ass kicked by it.
Wave after wave of new blisters appeared. My scalp feels like cauliflower. My skin feels like a braille dictionary. Every part of my body is covered with blisters. No square inch has been spared above my knees and the march of the Varicella continues down my legs. I have blisters inside my ears, on my fingers and palms, and on the soles of my feet. And, yes, I even have blisters on my you-know-what, as well.
I’ve slathered myself in calamine lotion to the point where I look like a gay-pride Druid priest, and have nearly overdosed on Benadryl. My blood sugar is crazy-high and insulin might as well be water. My energy has abandoned me. I sleep more than I am awake, and like all prisoners, I’ve lost all track of the days of the week.
But oddly, the worst part, the most unexpected part, is the assault on my vanity, which I didn’t actually know that I had. Now, I’m sure the opinions of the fairer sex as to my appearance vary, but I’ve never regarded myself as particularly handsome. And that has never bothered me. I’ve been able to compensate for my average looks by being conscious of style, and by exercising considerable charm, as just about any lady who’s met me can testify to. So that being the case, it never occurred to me that I might be vain.
But I look revolting. I look so fucking gross I can barely stand to look in a mirror. Maybe there’s a big difference between accepting being not-particularly-handsome and being hideous, or maybe I have a more shallow personality that I thought I did. Something to think about. Later. Assuming I live through this. And at times I’ve been so sick it seemed easier to succumb than to go on.
But that’s just part and parcel of being very sick, and damned if I’m going to die from a cousin of genital herpes.
So here’s how it works: The virus comes in waves. And each wave has a lifecycle. First a red dot. Apparently I never noticed the first wave of those, but now I’ve learned to recognize them. Next the poison dew drop. Pretty little thing. Then it gets ringed by a blood-red circle and the dew drop turns milky. Not so pretty now. Then the top caves in like a lunar crater, and a scab begins to form. Once the blister fully scabs over, the virus in the blister is dead. When all the blisters have scabbed over, I am no longer a threat to society, and I’m free to move about the planet again. Well, more correctly, at that point I’ll be no medical threat. There’s still the possibility that my movie-monster appearance might scare the shit out of people.
So when will all the blisters heal over? Well, I’m seven days into this and so far only three of my blisters have scabbed over. Meanwhile new ones are cropping up like desert wildflowers after the rain. Each time I think there can’t be room left on my skin for new blisters, they seem to find themselves space, crowding in on their neighbors, forming little Varicella condominiums.
Clearly, this is going to be a long road.
Now I start my day with an assessment of my battered epidermal landscape. I guess I’m getting healthier because at this point my own clinical curiosity has overcome my revulsion. God help me, it is fascinating. I just wish it weren’t me. But then again, I can’t think of anyone in this world I hate enough to wish this off on.
Today is bright and sunny. The blue sky beckons. It’s a new year. Time to fly off into new adventures. But the outbreak continues unchecked, with new spots sprouting on my hands and feet. So for now I’m trapped well short of the runway of life, along with my dream planes, yearning to break free and fly again.
And no doubt, tonight I will dream again of grounded airplanes.