My own curious sidebar to the coronavirus story

During a recent 15-day sojourn in San Antonio, Texas, for Stew to undergo knee-replacement surgery—and for me to play his personal Florence Nightingale during his recovery—we both got the booster Pfizer shot and the annual flu vaccine at a Walgreens pharmacy. 

Taking both vaccines simultaneously was perfectly safe, or so we had read. That was true in Stew’s case, who had hardly any reaction, but which in my case triggered an odd flashback to an unpleasant episode from my childhood: What seemed to be a form of chickenpox. 

If you expect an anti-vaccination screed you won’t find it here. From what I’ve learned from reputable sources—government health organizations and medical researchers, as opposed to conspiracy mongers trolling the internet—vaccinations are the most concrete and effective weapon available now against the spread of the coronavirus and its variants. 

What I did learn from my experience, though, is that end of this health crisis is nowhere near and indeed may never come. Individuals are different and so may be their reactions to vaccines and various viruses. 

Viruses of all types, and how they operate within the body’s immune system, are phenomenally complex and elusive organisms. They don’t just vanish but rather hide or go dormant, as in a game of Whack-a-mole, to perhaps reappear years or decades afterward.

A depiction of the chickenpox virus which, hmm, looks strangely familiar. 

My symptoms began about 15 days ago, when I developed aches in my head, ears and throat, but curiously only on the right side of my head. 

The volume of my chronic tinnitus, a slight buzzing in my ears, also increased noticeably, but only on my right ear. 

My initial stab at self-diagnosis was that I had an abscess in my upper-right  gums that was somehow causing the pain in my ears. 

A quick visit to the dentist, which included X-rays, quickly shot down that notion. She found a slightly loose implant but nothing else wrong.

Again trusting my instincts—and the advice of Dr. Google—I started taking, every four hours, antibiotic pills left over from a previous infection. Combined with ibuprofen, I figured that would take care of the problem.

It didn’t and in fact the pain began to keep me awake.  I went to the emergency room, and a young doctor peeked in my ear and confidently diagnosed a gonzo ear infection, and prescribed a strong antibiotic and some ear drops. He said the problem would clear up in a couple of days. The pain did ebb for a day or two, but then returned.

Stew’s replacement knee had pretty much healed up by now but I was getting sicker. 

Meanwhile, small, suppurating skin lesions appeared, particularly around my chin and earlobes—but only on the right side of my face. This was getting strange. Another visit to Dr. Google suggested that the antibiotic I was taking perhaps was too powerful and had triggered an allergic reaction.  

Back at the same emergency room, I was attended by a different young medic who concurred with Dr. Google, and wrote a prescription for a milder antibiotic, and suggested I cut back on the ear drops from six to four times a day.  That didn’t help either.

By now I was wondering if had contracted the coronavirus somehow, except I wasn’t running a fever and my symptoms were not related to my lungs or breathing, but were clustered around the right side of my face and throat. 

On day five or six, and increasingly cranky from the lack of sleep, I went to see an ear, throat and nose specialist whom I probably should have seen in the first place. 

From pre-Covid days I remember her as a slight, quite attractive, confident woman, who was very thorough in her exams, though she’d only checked my ears for excessive wax buildup.   

Now she was dressed head-to-foot in a pandemic battle gear: Her head and neck were covered with a brightly colored silk scarf, like devout Muslim women wear, her eyes with oversize plastic goggles, mouth with a thick mask, hands with blue rubber gloves. 

At first I found the get-up a bit over-the-top until I realized that her specialty exposed her to patients’ noses and throats—the main avenues of transmission for the coronavirus—and her preventive concerns made perfect sense.

She questioned me about my exposure to chickenpox, mumps and other childhood diseases. Then, as if to rule out a Covid infection, I said I had recently received the Pfizer booster and the flu vaccine on the same trip to the pharmacy. Aha. 

She came up with a diagnosis which, like her outfit, at first I found a bit out-there, but made sense when it sank in. I went from skeptical to impressed by her thinking.

The lesions on my face, she said, looked like chicken pox, which like shingles, herpes and other viruses go dormant in the body, and reappear maybe years later, rather than vanish. My double vaccination in San Antonio, she surmised, likely had triggered a response in my immune system that had caused the reactivation of the chickenpox. No, it was not an generalized infection, she said, because it seemed to be contained to the right side of my face. 

She prescribed pills for treating herpes-related infections; advised me to take the rest of the antibiotics prescribed by the second doctor, along with an analgesic and an ointment for my skin lesions. 

Things are better. The earaches have receded, along with the headaches, but the pain on the right-hand side of my throat persists. Blemishes are also disappearing. 

I’ll go in for another exam next week and vow not to do a double-take at her strange but timely outfits. 

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