May 7, 2021

How my shingles reminded me every day counts

By Barbara Sofer

I figure it’s just a bug bite. Israeli springtime with its glorious weather and burst of flowers is accompanied by thirsty insects waking up from winter slumber. Somehow, I’ve been stung in the narrow strip between my casquette cap and my antiviral mask.

It hurts too much for a mosquito’s sting. Weirdly, I can feel it popping out and sort of creeping across the right side of my forehead. My right eye hurts, too. I rationalize it away: probably spring allergy.

I’m wrong.

Forty-eight hours later, the alleged bug bite has become an alarming cluster of blisters. The eye pain, worse now, wakes me at 4 a.m.

I’m Sabbath-observant. I hesitate before getting in a car, trying to think of possible solutions that don’t require diagnosing and treating my problem. But when dawn rises rosy-fingered on my Jerusalem street, I reach for the keys of our red Honda Jazz and drive to Ein Kerem.

Within three minutes of arriving at Hadassah-University Medical Center’s emergency eye clinic, the ophthalmologist on duty names my disease: ophthalmic shingles. Herpes zoster in my eye!

These shingles get their name from the Latin and French words for belt, or girdle. Most sufferers get shingles like a girdle around their waist. In Hebrew they’re called “belt-like blisters” (shalveket hogeret); in Arabic, they’re “belt of fire”; and in Norwegian, literally “hell’s fire.” Men and women like me who had the itchy childhood disease of chicken pox can be revisited by herpes zoster half a century later.

Now there’s no time to waste. Antiviral medications are squeezed into my eye, and I’m put on an intravenous drip while still in the emergency room. And, although I have given my husband instructions about what to bring as a gift for my sister and brother-in-law where I thought we would be eating lunch “if I’m not home by Shabbat lunch,” I’m informed gently that I’ll be in hospital for at least five days.

Can it spread to my nearby brain? The doctors assure me it won’t.

SCARY AND painful as the condition is, I realize that one area I won’t have to worry about is paying for a hospital stay. This isn’t trivial. Thanks to Israel’s national health insurance, my visit to the emergency room and hospitalization will be covered. I am also grateful to get such fast diagnosis and treatment just post-dawn on a Shabbat morning. I am also glad that through my health fund I have taken the preventive vaccine against herpes at the recommendation of my family doctor. Although it’s considered only 60% effective, the doctors think it will likely cause a lighter case.

I spend the next five days on intravenous treatment and undergoing many examinations in the ward marked “dermatology and sex.”

Lucky for me, in order to make room for the expanding COVID-19 wards, the department for dermatology and sex has been moved from the Hadassah’s iconic 1962 Round Building, which has become the site of coronavirus treatment, to the deluxe Sarah Wetsman Davidson Tower.

Thankfully, the herpes retreats from my eyes. The lesions have spread around the right side of my face and will last longer. The pain isn’t as extreme as a tooth abscess or giving birth. Interesting combinations of non-opioid painkillers are prescribed for the pain. I’m grateful also that Israel doesn’t have an opioid problem.

Another perk of living in Israel. All the hospital food is kosher. So are the goodies with bedside delivery from the mall restaurants, 13 floors below, like the grilled goat cheese on bagel and salmon-green beans-rice pilaf (called, if you’re here, orez briani).

Because reading is difficult, Saturday night my visiting children show me that I can plug headphones into the suspended TV’s remote control.

The next day I discover a previously unknown to me world of morning TV. In a cooking show I learn that I should bake potatoes on a bed of kosher salt. I agonize with the tearful chef contestant who can’t make gefilte fish because it reminds her of her late grandmother. (She’s eliminated.) On the endless property shopping shows, I’m relieved when the British property couple decide against buying any of the ugly vacation apartments they view in Spain. I can spend a whole day like this while the antiviral medications work.

This is Israel, so everyone is willing to share their interesting life stories with someone like me who is always interested.

One doctor is a new immigrant from Andorra. I didn’t know there were Jews in Andorra. A hundred, she says. Actually, 99, now that she’s made aliyah. Another doctor tells me about medical school in Hungary. A nurse who gives the middle-of-night treatment explains how she earned a graduate degree in literature in Romania, how her husband worked in construction while she did the job retraining course and became a nurse, and then it was his turn and he became a nurse, too. She talks about her mother, a teacher, while the intravenous drips on. I think she said Romania, but I’m not sure. It was very late.

FOR THE past year I have followed all the rules for avoiding the coronavirus: wiping down groceries, shoes off at doorstep, no hugging, Seder-for-two, antiviral masks. We allowed no grandchildren in the apartment, dined socially distanced and outdoors, even though we live on the third floor. We used gallons of alcogel and signed up early to get the vaccine. And all this time, the shingles virus was waiting in the wings, dormant in the ganglia of the spinal cord or the trigeminal ganglion at the base of my skull.

What causes the outbreak? That’s a mystery, a professor explains. Some say stress activates it; but in a world with a lot of stress, that’s hard to define.

I remember getting the chicken pox back in Mrs. Haberstroh’s kindergarten class in Colchester, Connecticut. There were dire warnings about not scratching and creating a lifelong disfigurement. I check my ankle for the telltale scar of yesteryear. Over the decades it’s somehow disappeared. Back then shingles (from the German schindle) were only the rectangular black tiles we had on the roofs of our Connecticut wooden houses. Five years old, we believed we couldn’t ever get the chicken pox ever again.

Little did I know that a tiny virus, 125 nanometers long, made aliyah with me and has been accompanying me throughout my adult life. One day I was celebrating Independence Day, and the next benefiting from the befittingly heralded medical achievements that have accrued over the decades while my pockmark faded.

I’m recovering. I’m grateful. Humbled. More aware of the vicissitudes of life. And I’m more determined than ever, in this period of counting day by day the journey from Exodus to Mount Sinai – to make every day count.