As told to Nicole Audrey Spector
I was overdue for a vacation. Working five to six days a week for 15 months straight as a public health nurse responding to the needs of Covid-19 patients was the most fulfilling work of my career. But it was also stressful. Even I — someone who feels her best at her busiest — must admit that my job was intense.
And then you add caregiving for my mother, raising a teenager, maintaining a strong and happy marriage and it was just … a lot.
Hawaii, we decided. We would take a family vacation to Hawaii.
The day before we were scheduled to leave, I noticed a red blemish on my forehead. Great, I thought, a pimple. Exactly what I needed on my first getaway since Covid-19 shut down travel: a big fat zit.
I had just gotten my eyebrows done, so I figured I was having a strange reaction to that and thought nothing more of it until I was on the plane, where I noticed the supposed pimple was really puffing up and spreading over my left eyelid. Over the course of the flight it worsened, and I resorted to putting my husband’s sunglasses on to conceal it.
By the time I got off the plane, I had a full-fledged breakout all over the left side of my face. The blemishes were blistering by then, and they were painful. My face was inflamed. I looked like a prizefighter after a beating.
My husband, a dentist, took a good look at me and said, “I think you have shingles.”
Shingles? That was absurd. Shingles, I believed, only affected elderly people — and I was only 53 years old. Plus, shingles only struck the sides and/or back of the body, right? Not the face!
As soon as we got off the plane in Hawaii, we went to an urgent care center, where I learned that indeed, I did have shingles. I was shocked.
Because shingles is a viral infection that can be contagious in the blistering phase, and because my left eye — soon swollen shut — was potentially in danger, I was admitted to the hospital right away. I spent the rest of our eight-day trip there, receiving pain medication and antiviral medication through an IV. I was scared much of the time, worried that I could lose my left eye or have damage to my vision. Fortunately, those things did not happen.
Once the blisters scabbed up, my doctors decided I was good to go and we went straight to the airport to head back home. I never even opened my luggage. This certainly hadn’t been the vacation of my dreams, but I have to say that I received excellent medical care and feel extremely fortunate to have had access to it.
Since the rash appeared to be healing, I was expecting to be back to normal within a matter of days — or weeks. But that wasn’t the case. For nine months after my initial infection, my face was red and irritated, with the scabbed-off blisters deeply dug in and dark. My left eye was still a bit puffy and droopy. Perhaps worst of all, I had a gnawing ache in the top of my head like I was wearing a crown of thorns.
I’m not a vain person, but I’ve always had clear skin and was pretty happy about that. But now I was embarrassed to show my face on video calls, and because my skin was still inflamed, I didn’t want to put on makeup and potentially worsen anything.
Now, more than a year after coming down with shingles, my skin has mostly cleared up, but there is scarring on my forehead. And, even though others say they don’t see it, I notice that my left eye still droops ever so slightly.
To think this all could have been prevented by the shingles vaccine — which is recommended by the CDC for people 50 and over — infuriates me. Shingles isn’t typically shown in commercials and other media I’ve seen as affecting someone under the age of 65 or so, and I had no idea that I was a candidate for the vaccine, let alone that it was recommended for people my age. As far as I could recall, my doctors had never mentioned it.
Though anyone who has had chickenpox can get shingles later in life (both are caused by the varicella-zoster virus), some research has found that there is a link between shingles and stress in people 50 and over. Had working so hard all day every day while caring for my family triggered my shingles infection? It was quite possible.
I could spend the rest of my life angry that I didn’t receive the vaccine in time to prevent my case of shingles, but instead, I’ve taken action by changing how I live. A natural overachiever, I now seriously consider what I can and can’t take on. I say no to people often now — something I always struggled with in the past.
So much of my adult life has been about taking care of other people, be it my mother, my daughter, my husband or even strangers in my role as a nurse. These days, I take time for myself. I meditate every morning and am more mindful of what I eat. I don’t eat a lot of sweets, but when I do, I savor them as well-deserved treats for myself.
I never thought I’d be an advocate for a vaccine, but now I find myself spreading awareness about shingles at every opportunity I get, and am also part of a study on shingles. I want people to learn what I was never taught and, hopefully, take the safe and widely available measure to protect themselves.
Through self-care and advocacy, I have learned to embrace my skin as it is. I no longer think about wearing makeup to conceal it. I love myself the way I am.
This resource was created with support from Merck.