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by Brittany Lindstrom

The trip to Utah had been a wild one. After a mouse-infested cabin and a hair-raising midnight drive, my companions and I were finally safely nestled in a new location. It was the eve of the annular eclipse. Earlier in the day, we had celebrated our friends’ wedding. Now, we were celebrating a roof over our heads. 

Throughout the day, my roommate began complaining of a heat rash. Hard, red cysts bloomed down his sternum, wrapping around his chest to the shoulder blade. We all assumed it was the result of a massage gun used to soothe his sore muscles after a long drive. A couple of weeks after they first appeared, the cysts had burst. The scarring that remained–a souvenir from a very memorable trip. 

Later, I was sitting at my desk when I was suddenly stricken by a bone-deep ache. The kind of ache I usually get with the flu but magnified to an excruciating degree. The next day, the pain was better, but I awoke with a fever that was out of control. I remember lying in bed, sweating, and freezing. Two sweaters, three blankets, and no number of layers helped. By the end of the night, my face started breaking out into large, painful pimples. My fever-addled mind didn’t think too much of it. Breaking out seemed perfectly acceptable, considering how much I was sweating.

Coming Down with Chickenpox

When my fever broke the next day, I almost passed out. I remember standing in the hallway, waiting for the results of a COVID test. Suddenly, I hit the ground with an intense ringing in my ears and my vision tunneling. Thanks to my roommate, I held on to consciousness. When the COVID test was negative, I assumed I had the flu. A small number of cysts appeared, this time on my neck and shoulders. 

It wasn’t until the following day that I finally went to urgent care. The cysts had rapidly multiplied overnight. They now covered my torso, my back, up into my scalp and were starting to make their way down my arms and legs. My roommate and I wondered if I had chickenpox, but it didn’t make sense. While I work in a public library, chickenpox seemed like the kind of illness that requires more prolonged exposure than most customer service interactions. But with so many young children around, maybe that’s all it took.

What Chickenpox Was Like

I cannot downplay the enthusiasm with which the doctor confirmed my ailment. In his entire career, he had never seen a real-life case of it. The vaccine is wonderfully effective, virtually eradicating active illness from most populations. And to see it in an older patient? Why, that was the discovery of a lifetime! My doctor asked if he could take some photos of the cysts, convinced no one in the office would believe him otherwise. To confirm the diagnosis, he brought in a pediatrician who works with populations where the vaccine isn’t readily available. 

Now, antivirals in hand, here I was. In my 30’s, at the precipice of a rollercoaster illness. Without going into too many repugnant details, I cannot overemphasize the misery I was in. For two weeks, misery. The marrow deep, painful itching. The sores in my mouth and throat that made eating excruciating. The inability to sleep for more than a couple hours at a time. I’m not too proud to admit that I cried. A lot. How could I not? Not only was I suffering, but the doctor gave a weirdly lighthearted warning about how this could kill me.

Thanks to the antiviral, the cysts never developed lower than my upper thigh. But everywhere else was densely coated in them. From my scalp to my gums, there wasn’t a single spot that wasn’t marred by a cyst. The ones that developed before starting the antiviral were larger and more intense as well. Oatmeal baths and Benadryl helped dull the edge, but relief didn’t begin until the cysts burst. Which brought a whole new round of horrors and madness.

Chickenpox is Preventable

Now, as to how I received them? Well, they were a wedding favor, courtesy of my roommate’s “heat rash.” The same pediatrician who diagnosed me confirmed my roommate had shingles. At 34. Coincidentally, we found out one of the brides went through her own round of chickenpox, too. Thankfully, she had been vaccinated as a child, so her case was quite mild in comparison.

While we often attribute chickenpox and shingles as afflictions that only affect the young and elderly, clearly, this is not the case. Children cannot advocate for themselves, and much of their future health outcomes result from their caretaker’s choices. While I understand my parent’s decision, I do wish I could have received the vaccine. Today, I have a new collection of scars and stubborn spots that refuse to fade. And a desire to never take another oatmeal bath.

Brittany Lindstrom is a mixed media artist based in the Intermountain West who enjoys a good book and an even better cup of coffee. Her story, like all others on this blog, was a voluntary submission. If you want to help make a difference, submit your own post by emailing us through our contact form. We depend on real people like you sharing experience to protect others from misinformation.

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