Varicella: A Personal Story
By Jeanine Whitney, RN
EDITOR’S NOTE: A study recently published in Pediatrics confirms the chicken pox vaccine is effective and long-lasting. Read the LA Times coverage.
Jeanine Whitney, RN, is a public health nurse for the Oregon Immunizaiton Program. What follows is her personal account of getting chicken pox as an adult:
Blindness doesn’t mean everything is dark and you can’t see. Blindness means that your visual sense has been literally turned ‘off.’ Your sight is suddenly absent. There is no light. There is no dark. There is only air touching your skin—sometimes bruising you when you run smack dab into the bedrail of your hospital bed. At least being hospitalized gave me time to review how I had gotten there.
Fourteen days before I had taken swab cultures of infected facial lesions on an older male gentleman. At the time I thought of him as borderline-ancient. He must have been at least 50 years old. Why was I doing the cultures? No one else wanted to go near him. There were whispers of shingles. My uneducated mind saw roofing tiles. Not having had chickenpox and not knowing what shingles was I volunteered to do the cultures. After all, I was gowned, gloved, masked, and shoed. All that remained open to the air was my hair. He wasn’t my patient and I wouldn’t be in his room that long.
The subsequent headache was unlike any I had ever had and believe me, I’ve had headaches all my life. It was late in the afternoon and my five-year-old daughter was playing outside. She had a golden halo around her, something I thought was a trick of the sunlight beneath the cloudy sky. I turned my head to see her more clearly and lightening exploded at the base of my skull. The next thing I knew I was on my knees searching for the phone.
When you’re a nurse you develop an awareness of those physicians around you whom you would like to take care of you if you got sick. I called Dr. S_____. All I could say was that my head hurt. He must have asked me questions but I don’t remember them. I don’t remember driving to the hospital either but I do remember the excruciating evening sunlight. The next thing I knew I was in the ED. One of my friends was sitting with Raven. She told me my father was on his way.
I was turned to my side and someone pulled my knees up to my chin. I must have passed out because my next awareness was the sharp pain of a needle being inserted into my lower back.
I didn’t hear any voices. There was no conversation around me. I was floating somewhere quiet. When I opened my eyes there was nothing. I blinked. Still nothing.
The blindness lasted four days. People came and went; over four days they did blood tests every four hours. I came to detest the tightness of the blood pressure cuff as they searched for veins. A blood pressure of 60 over nothing didn’t help. They kept me flat after the spinal tap. I felt like I was always in slow motion, falling over a cliff.
On day five, everything began to lighten. I went from seeing nothing at all to a soft fuzzy gray. Dr. S____ came in (I recognized his voice). He checked me out and with an ironic smile in his voice said “you’ve got chicken pox!”
He must have seen the question in my unfocused eyes because his next words were “all your spots are on the inside.” That at least explained why all the young doctors had worked me up for Lyme disease and tick fever while Dr. S____ was out camping with his kids. Then Dr. S____ continued with “you can’t be here.” At first I thought he meant the hospital. He did, sort of. He really meant the med-surg floor as there was no isolation room available.
They literally double-bagged me and covertly took me out the service elevators.
Somewhere along the line my father had come for Raven and taken her home to my mother, who was a pediatrician. She figured if Raven was going to get sick she would be better off with her rather than me. Raven stayed with grandma for the next 3 months while I missed work. The blood bank people came and took my blood to make a vaccine for kids with cancer. At least I think that’s what they said.
The headaches came and went and then one day I tried the first Acyclovir. That’s when I realized that even though I never had any spots I had headaches due to varicella viral flares.
I was lucky.
I can see and didn’t need glasses until I turned 50. I can usually keep the headaches away with regular doses of anti-virals. But the scarring in my brain will always be with me. I got my Zostavax vaccine (The Shingles Shot) on my 60th birthday! More than a year passed before I had another shingles headache. Even now, I don’t have to take the anti-virals daily.
Back in 1977, there was no vaccine for varicella.
I was healthy.
I spent less than 10 minutes in the room with the client.
The bottom line?
Some do not.
For more information on chicken pox, please visit our website.