All the shingle ladies, all the shingle ladies…

I trust you have read my own personal version of Bill Bryson’s A Walk In The Woods. Because then you’ll remember how I wrote: “…a weird little rash beginning on my abdomen – presumably the bite of a forest dwelling transitory tick summoning me toward a career in Lyme disease.” Which was incorrect. I do not have Lyme disease. Instead, I have shingles. Shingles. It deserves full capitalisation. SHINGLES.

All the shingle ladies, all the shingle ladies…


What a weird thing. You can only get it if you have previously had chicken pox, something I remember clearly, having woken up itching at the age of seven on the day we were to go to the Royal Melbourne Show. Obviously I told no one, possibly starting a pandemic amongst every child in the city, and spent the following week feeling vile as my parents took turns shouting; “Don’t ITCH. You’ll get A SCAR.” I did end up with just one scar, but the only time you can see it is when I pull my hair right back. A little crater of showbag memories.

Since I was seven, the varicella zoster virus virus has been hanging out in my nerve cells. Just waiting. Biding its time. Waiting for my maiden solo excursion overseas to check out the first house my brother ever bought, absorb all the kookiness of the Hudson Valley and cruise through the cultural attractions of New York city. Yeah.

How shingles erupt

It waited until I got to JFK and was driven to the lush verdancy of the Catskills. It lurked under a mask of jet lag. Even when I woke up, drenched in sweat, something that had never happened to me before – I didn’t twig that something was wrong. I was just not used to sleeping under a doona/duvet/eiderdown. Right?

My brother left me at his place, with the keys to Bob the Jeep and there I was. Solo in Kerhonkson. On the Monday morning I looked again at that interesting patch on my stomach. It was bigger. It had bubbles. I googled ‘shingles’ and saw an identical rash. The only thing I knew about shingles, other than the chicken pox connection, was that there is a short window of time in which to take the medication to try and combat it. Or at least reduce its longevity.

Everything takes longer in a different country. The first urgent care walk-in clinic I drove to had moved. I drove to another (this is a vastly abbreviated version of what actually occurred, given that my first proper day out driving on the other side of the road was filled with increasingly furious U-turns) and was looked over by a nurse, who took the particulars. She then exited and in came what I thought was a doctor, but in retrospect was a nurse practitioner – presumably a result of cost-cutting.

He walked into the room, looked at me, and said, “Hello! The one thing I can say to you is that you do not have shingles. You’re too young.”

He sat down. I was irretrievably reminded of an episode of House M.D, and wished briefly for Hugh Laurie.

I lifted my top. “They look like shingles to me.”

There was silence. Then…

“I have to concur. A classic case.”

Hooray for me and my googling! Well, sort of hooray – it was the correct diagnosis, and it wasn’t sarcoidosis, but I would have preferred him to say, “No, not shingles. Just a local allergic reaction to jet lag.” Anyway…

He asked me if I’d been under increased stress.

“Not particularly.”

He suggested that leaving the Smalls behind might have been more traumatic than I realised.

“Interesting, but no. I am supremely happy to be solo.”

I told him that I was worried I’d missed the window of time in which to take the antiviral medication.

“Doesn’t matter – better to take it anyway and hope for the best. You’re in for the long haul.”

We chatted about his son, who is my age and working in New Zealand. We talked boats and adventuring. He kindly told me where the pharmacy was and the most straightforward route to get there, and I listened, hoping that he hadn’t glanced out the window and observed my haphazard effort at parking. He called the pharmacist to forewarn them of my arrival.

I coughed up $125US/$160AU and was handed a prescription for famciclovir. As left I heard him telling the original nurse, “Did you take note of that? An absolutely classic case – the rash following the dermatome.”

Onward to the pharmacy. Even though I know the deal with pharmacies over here, it’s as if I have to see it to believe it all over again. A pharmacy over here is basically a supermarket without the fruit and vegetable section and the wide selection of baked goods. This place sold BEER.

My fascination with this evaporated as the pharmacist told me that the 21 tablets would cost $209US/$250AU – nine dollars more than the Apple watch I’d been coveting. I must have blanched, because she told me if I went for a walk, she’d try and apply some discount cards. Having no idea what they might be, but clinging to the word ‘discount’ I took myself for a moribund investigation of the real supermarket, just down the block.

When I returned, she had managed to lower the outlay to $104US/$125AU, for which I was grateful. I googled how much the same medication would have cost me in Australia – $6.50AU/US and decided that, despite how lovely it was here in New York State, the health system and the gun laws – to say nothing of the ‘president’ – made it too ridiculous to contemplate.

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