A brush with shingles

Read - October 28, 2020

We asked our friend Chris to share his recent experience with shingles to help raise awareness of the virus and the vaccine.

Chris Saye is the Executive Chair of Green School International and former Trustee of Green
School Bali. In 2018-19, after their youngest child finished high school, he and his wife, Galina,
embarked on an “empty nester” global journey to the Blue Zones of longevity and beyond.
Chris’ book about the adventure and what they learned from centenarians and others along the
way will be published soon.


Here’s his story: 


It started as a slight tingle in my front bottom teeth. I assumed it was a cavity developing so I
thought about the prospect of going to see a dentist. I told myself I’d give it a few days and see
what happens. Over the next two days the tingling became slight more pronounced yet it
moved from my front teeth to the back. Odd, but at this point I quickly found a dentist. She
took several x-rays yet couldn’t find anything that looked wrong. Finally, after knocking her
instrument around we found a tooth with a hairline fracture in the filling – the dentist said that
she could replace that filing if it would make me feel better. “Yes, please.”, I said, so the work
was done the next morning and I hoped my problem was solved. It wasn’t.

Even by the time I was lying in the dentist chair I was feeling discomfort in my ear, which I
assumed must have been related to a few recent. My ear got worse over the next few days so I
decided it was time to visit a doctor. I found an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist who
confirmed a bit of an infection in my ear along with too much wax, which she cleaned out.
By the time I was with the ENT some blisters were starting to develop on my face. The ENT
didn’t know what it was but thought maybe a blood test for herpes was in order. So I gave
some blood and we would then wait for a few days until the tests came back negative. The next
day the blisters were worse and now growing inside my mouth! This was getting gross. Back to
the medi-clinic yet again, where I was fortunate to get in to see a dermatologist. She took one
look at me and made the diagnosis – shingles.

Shingles, which is known as “herpes zoster” in Europe, is the re-occurrence of the chicken-pox
virus as an adult. It usually affects people over 50 (I’m 51), although in recent years it has been
showing up in people much younger as well, likely due to generally weakened immune systems
of people these days (a whole different topic). If you had chicken-pox as a child (like me), the
virus stays with you in a dormant state for the rest of your life, unless something happens to
“wake it up”. That woken up virus shows up as shingles. It picks a section of the nervous
system, either on the face, side or leg, on one side of the body and makes itself known for
weeks or months – actually, its symptoms can linger for years in some cases.

My shingles journey, which I’m still on, was now running its course, just over a week from when
I felt its first misdiagnosed symptoms. Scabs replaced the blisters after about another week. An
infection came about a week later requiring eight days of anti-biotics. I was given anti-viral
medication from the onset which is apparently very important in minimizing the long-term
symptoms. This was all rather unpleasant and disruptive, but nothing could prepare me for the
short but extreme moments of pain which would then appear seemingly out of nowhere. I have
never in my life experienced the kind of intense pain which made its way through the affected
nerves. I was hit by it once in a shopping mall and within seconds I was holding my head,
doubling over and screaming out loud while trying to catch my breath. Other shoppers were a
bit perplexed as it looked like I was fighting a demon. My wife did her best to let onlookers
know I’d be ok. Fortunately, I only had four such attacks over the course of the coming weeks
but each left me out of breath and in tears from the intense agony, even though each lasted
only about a minute. Fear of a recurrence was constantly with me.

Aside from the intense pain attacks, which fortunately occurred only over about two weeks, I
had constant ear pain from damage the virus did to my outer ear canal. “You’ve got holes in
there”, the ENT told me on a follow-up visit, and I was put back on second round of anti-virals.
“When will this end?” I kept asking myself as by now, over a month in, I was taking pain
medication (Paracetamol) pretty much throughout the day. Worse, however, was the itching
that came to my face, ear and scalp once the blisters/scabs had healed. For weeks I was trying
various anti-histamines, creams and essential oil mixtures in an attempt to get relief with
varying degrees of little success. This was relentless.

Almost two months in now and I’m happy to say that, at last, I’m off pain medications. My face
looks much better than it did and although I still feel some discomfort, numbness and periodic
itching, I feel that I’m getting better by the day. At this rate, I hope to have this experience fully
behind me in a few more weeks. What a journey this this been.

So what brings shingles on and what brought it on for me? Most doctors attribute stress to the
onset of shingles and/or a weakened immune system. In my case, the onset came just a few
days after we had finished moving from one city to another, combined with a strong dose of
COVID-induced uncertainty about the future, something I think most of us can relate to these
days. I was certainly feeling stressed and, unfortunately, I’m the kind of person who “bottles
up” stress, storing it until it eventually erupts. I got my eruption through shingles this time
around. Virtually everyone I’ve spoken to or read about online who has dealt with shingles
attributed it to stress.

In my recovery, I’ve been focused very much on re-building my immune system (not helped by
the eight days of anti-biotics) through an intense vitamin regime, and eating well (including lots
of salad and root vegetables to feed the gut microbiome). My wife has also been great about
keeping me moving and exercising, even when I didn’t feel like it.
In some countries, including the US, a vaccine is available for shingles. After what I’ve been
through I would strongly recommend anyone over the age of 50 to consider taking the vaccine.
I’m still young and healthy and fighting this has been very intense for me. I can’t imagine
dealing with this at an advanced age and hope that I don’t have to face it again. Shingles can be
recurring so once this is fully behind me I will be speaking to doctors about the vaccine as well.
Not to mention more focus on meditation and stress management!

Stay healthy my friends!


Chris during his recovery period

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