Ejo #84 – Girl On Fire

Something very unpleasant happened to me earlier this month. Something so unpleasant that I feel the need to record it for posterity, before all its unpleasantness washes away and I’m left with nothing but a dim memory. I WANT to remember how bad it was, so please excuse the indulgence of this ejo.

So, on the plane home from Australia in the first week of October, David and I sat across the way from a fellow who spent the entire flight trying to barf up a lung. Dude was sweating, coughing, sneezing, spluttering and downright acting as if he had Ebola. My heart sank. Two days later I started getting sick.

First I got the chest infection. Coughing, a slight fever and congestion. A week into that I got hit with a ferocious stomach bug. For four days, everything I consumed rapidly evacuated my body in liquid form. I was gouged out. It was not very nice. And then, to top it off I got a cold. Sore throat, runny nose – and my cough worsened. I was off work for several days and visited the doctor who did a blood test to determine that it was all viral, so no anti-biotics (which is great because I think they’re over-prescribed anyway). By the third week my gut was better and the cold was gone but I still had a persistent, dry cough. I wasn’t feeling “sick” anymore though, so I went back to work – just in time for my annual competency check.

The first day of the check went great. But the next morning, when I got up, I was alarmed to see some red spots on my neck and arms and torso. Not many, but alarming nonetheless. I googled chicken pox to see what they looked like. Doing this was not an overreaction. A couple of months earlier, a work colleague had come to work with chicken pox. I’ve never had them before so I was terrified (I’d heard some pretty disgusting horror stories of the pain and indignity of adult chicken pox). But no, my spots didn’t look like that. Thank god.

I sucked it up and went to work to complete day two of my competency check. During the course of the morning, two things happened. First, my cough got a whole lot worse, very quickly. And second, the spots started to spread and get hella itchy. Luckily I’d done the most important, operational part of my check the day before, and all that was left was the tape review (where my examiner and I listen to a random recording of my work in order to assess my phraseology). Everything was fine (naturally) and we finished up early. I drove straight to the doctor’s office where he expressed concern about my cough and diagnosed my spots as urticaria, otherwise known as hives.

I’m not new to hives – I’ve had them twice before. The first time was when I was fifteen. I’d begged my parents to let me get a perm for my birthday and I guess I had some kind of reaction to the chemicals. The second time was during a New Year’s camping trip with friends on the coast of New South Wales. I was 25 years old. My friend Svetlana caught some kind of stomach bug and was projectile vomiting everywhere. And I had an allergic reaction to sunscreen and broke out in hives. A couple of hours after 1996 limped in, we were both in the emergency room at the local hospital. I got a painful jab of anti-histamines in my butt cheek and, when they finally figured out that Svet was actually sick and not just drunk, they took care of her too.

So, it had been twenty years since I last experienced the joy of hives. Even though I was anxious about them, the doctor seemed more concerned about the cough and he insisted I get a chest x-ray. Turns out I had mild pneumonia. I was prescribed a course of antibiotics for my cough and some Telfast for the hives and sent home. And, naïvely, I was actually hopeful that they would just go away. Because the trauma of the other two times had been whitewashed by time. Sure I was a little itchy now, and I remember being itchy the previous two times but…. whitewash.

What happened next seemed to me like the ultimate betrayal of my body. The hives kept on coming, kept growing, kept joining together on my skin to create super-hives. And the itching was maddening. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but it was one of the worst things I’ve ever experienced. I’ve torn two ligaments in my knee in a skiing accident. I’ve had emergency surgery for burst ovarian cysts. And I’ve chopped the top of my finger off with a butcher’s knife. None of these things come close to the sheer torture of hives. My skin felt like it had red-hot, razor-sharp, blood-sucking leeches crawling all over it. It was relentless, and there was no reprieve. I tried to take my mind off it, but there is nothing that brings you more into the present than the irresistible urge to scratch off your own skin. I honestly still don’t understand how my own body could have turned on me so viciously.

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This was Day 1.  Shit got a WHOLE lot worse.  Even my palms were itchy.

I spent the next thirty six hours on the couch, getting up only to go to the toilet. David brought me tea and water. I retreated into myself, to a dark place.  Like a wounded animal. I wasn’t reading. I wasn’t watching TV. I could barely speak because speaking meant breaking the concentration required to not scratch. And I’d learned early on that to scratch, while providing a miniscule moment of relief from the itch, ended very badly for me. Once (just once) I fell into the itch/scratch abyss, going absolutely nuts on the back of my neck, shouting at myself to stop, stop, stop and being completely unable to. It took an hour lying face down on the couch not moving before I recovered from that. It was excruciating. So I gathered my fortitude and I faced down the itchiness.

But then, to add insult to injury, my face started doing weird shit. My forehead swelled up and became blotchy. Red and yellow veiny lines appeared. I looked like an extra on Star Trek, no special effects required. The bridge of my nose started getting puffy. And then… well, then my eyes started swelling shut. I was NOT in a good way. Obviously the Telfast wasn’t working so David drove me to the clinic. A new doctor quickly assessed the situation and hooked me up to an IV so she could inject me with some serious anti-allergens, and fast. I spent several hours of that day, and the next, lying on that clinic bed being shot up with all sorts of things, to no avail. Nothing was working, and the doctor was flummoxed (bless). She sent me home with some new meds, and instructions to call an ambulance if I started having trouble breathing. Heartening.

Over the next four hours I actually did start improving. Which is great because we had overseas guests arriving that evening for three days. Perfect timing, huh? By the time they arrived my eyes had miraculously opened up and my welts had mostly receded. I wasn’t in the best of health for their visit but it sure could have been a whole lot worse. It’s taken nearly a week for the itching to completely subside (though in the writing of this ejo, I’ve suddenly become afflicted with full body phantom itches). The doctor still doesn’t know what caused the whole thing – all the blood tests came back negative for allergies. She guesses it was just my body going berzerka after being sick with so many different viruses.

Whatever it was, I’ve made peace with my body and we’re buddies again. I’m treating it real nice, with some good healthy living and I’m hopeful that everything will be just fine. But it was scary to experience how quickly and easily your body can turn on you for no apparent reason. I’m better now, but my body still carries ghost marks of the welts, and I look kinda kooky naked. The marks come and go, but they are gradually receding. Thanks to this ejo, the memory will not.

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