karen and the poison oak

Posted: June 7, 2014 in Uncategorized

A thousand angry fire ants quietly took up residence under my skin 17 days ago.  I felt the sharp impact of their stealthy entrance on a Wednesday afternoon – I was digging a flower bed the length of our house, and as I ripped out one of the many weeds and vines, one of the leaves felt serrated, sharp as it slashed across my right forearm.  I paused for a moment, wondering if this was some of the poison oak our landlords had warned us about.

But the sun was bright and the dirt was black, and I was slicked in sweat and humming joyously, digging and ripping away so that I could put in a mixed bed of herbs, ornamentals, and vegetables.  I hadn’t had a garden in years now, and the happiness in me was LOUD, much louder than the small warning note.  After all, it had been more than ten years since my last problem with poison ivy – long enough ago that I didn’t tap into the memory of how awful it can really get.

Afterward I came in the house and showered, breaking the rules I know to follow when one has perhaps been exposed to urushiol, the resin that lurks in poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac.  The rule is IMMEDIATE washing (within 10 minutes of contact, that evil substance starts bonding with one’s skin); I finished my 4 hours in the plot, setting every last plant, before I came in.  The rule is COLD water (warm/hot water opens the pores and lets the poison in); I took a very warm shower.  The rule is to use a special washing agent, or at least rubbing alcohol; I just washed with regular soap (which tends to spread, rather than clear, the urushiol.)  Having encountered this problem many times in my life, why did I break so many rules?  I can only blame complacency.  It had been so long since my last encounter.  I was so darn happy about the garden – I had picked G up from work that evening still coated in dirt, crowing, “I am amazing!”  I just wasn’t thinking clearly.

Thursday morning, I woke up with about 5 itchy bumps on my forearm, right in the spot where the leaf had slashed.  I scrubbed it with hand sanitizer, but told myself that it looked like I had gotten off easy.

Friday morning, the 5 itchy bumps had doubled to 10.  I still wasn’t terribly worried.  Then, at breakfast, my hand wandered to my face, just beside my right eye, and I stopped mid-sentence.  “Are these bumps on my face like the the bumps on my arm?”  I asked G.  He nodded solemnly.  We dropped everything and rushed to the urgent care center.

“It’s going to get worse, before it gets better.”  The doctor was solemn, and I knew he was right.  He wrote me a prescription for Prednisone, and told me to get some Zyrtec for the itching.  We stopped at the pharmacy, and then I had G drop me off at work.  I was ready to muscle through this.  I settled in at my desk at 9 AM, took my Prednisone and my Zyrtec, and got busy.  I did take a few moments to warn some of my coworkers:  historically speaking, Prednisone makes me want to punch the world in the face. 

By lunch, I was loopy.  In an after-lunch meeting, I had no filter between my thoughts and my words.  My coworkers chuckled at me.  When G checked in on me in the mid-afternoon, I could no longer string coherent sentences together.  He persuaded me to let him drive me home.  At this point, the ants were still pretty quiet.  My only problem was how quickly and completely the Prednisone robbed me of my ability to think.

Over the weekend, the rash exploded.  One entire side of my face, including my eye starting to swell toward being shut.  Then the other side.  Oops, my entire neck.  My right forearm.  Then the back of it.  The back of my left arm.  Then the forearm.  Several fingers and a thumb  My chest.  Every time I managed a little rest, I woke up to whole new areas exploding into angry, wet blisters.  That’s when I swear a thousand angry, vicious fire ants got busy under my skin.  They crawled incessantly around under my skin, itching, itching, and itching some more.  That was hard enough, but what pushed me over the edge was the times when they just started stinging, stabbing me, sinking red-hot pokers into me relentlessly, first in one spot, then in five, then in maybe twenty locations at the same time.

I missed a week of work.  The routine was a nightmare.  I’d take my daily dose of Prednisone and Claritin at 9 AM – by that point I was a jittering, twitching, weeping wreck from spending the nights not sleeping and trying not to scratch.  The hour or so that it would take for the meds to kick in was the longest hour of the day, and G nursed me through a number of weeping, wailing, desperate breakdowns as I begged the meds to do their job.

When the meds would hit my bloodstream, it was like I’d been hit in the head with a baseball bat or something.  My whole world would go into slow motion, I would mostly disconnect from ability to speak or move with any grace, my arms and legs would turn to lead, and the itching would mercifully relent.  I’d crash into unconsciousness for a couple of hours.  Those were my only real rest, each 24 hour period.

I’d wake up and spend my days mostly just sitting around drooling, literally.  Too drugged to think clearly enough for reading orr writing.  The sores on my fingers too much an impendiment for any cooking or household projects.  The sores on both sides of both arms making it impossible to find any comfortable resting position at all.  The swelling in my neck pronounced enough that if I didn’t stretch my chin up high, the skin would rub and then I’d have big, bloody, sore spots to contend with.  I played podcasts on my iPhone and sat around, drifting in and out of consciousness.  I can’t remember my time ever feeling as completely wasted as it did that week.

Then the nights would come, and they were so long.  The itching and the Prednisone (and probably also the constant doing of nothing at all) rendered me mostly unable to sleep at night.  Poor G got to deal with several middlle-of-the-night bug-outs from me, too.  I’d pace and hyperventilate and cry and wail.  I wanted to tear the skin off of my body.  I thought about what tools might work for that.  I wished for metal talons.  In more practical terms, I really thought about getting out the pliers and just seeing if I could get hold of a corner of skin somewhere and start peeling it off.  It seemed to me that the pain of raw, exposed muscle might be a lesser evil than dealing with all the angry fire ants.  One night I sat up straight in bed all night, and somewhere near dawn a terrible squeezing in my ribcage sent me into a panic attack.  G has spent more time on his knees or on his face for me in this past week, I think, than in all the time we’ve been together.

Six days into the Prednisone, we went back to the doctor.  This was because we were stepping down in dosage, but the rash hadn’t even stopped getting worse until day five.  The urgent care folks were horrified to see my condition, and the doctor tripled my Prednisone dosage (I asked for a shot, but she assured me there is absolutely no advantage to the shot vs. oral steroids).  I switched from Zyrtec to Claritin, based on a recommendation G had gotten (you see, I had snuggled into his neck, that first night, and must have still had Urushiol on my skin – his neck broke out in the rash and he also had to be seen by the doctor that second time.)

The problem is I am acutely allergic.  It’s not just a “poison oak” reaction – it’s a full-blown allergic reaction.  It is my body attacking itself.  After awhile, EVERYTHING made me react.  I had a Bendadryl topical gel – I used it for a few days, then it started causing an allergic reaction – raised, hard red skin that I know from experience will settle in and not heal for many weeks, if I don’t change the course of the reaction.  I carefully scrubbed it away.  When we went back to the doctor, she prescribed a steroid cream.  Within 4 hours of the first application, another allergic reaction began.  I carefully scrubbed the cream away.  At this point I stopped using even soap.  I just rinsed in water and sometimes used the special “poison ivy wash” from Technu that we had found in the store.  But mostly I just used water.

One afternoon, a friend came over to lay hands on me and pray after reading an email in which I shared about wanting to remove my skin with pliers.  After she left, some mental clarity returned and I was compelled to look up the effects of coconut oil on poison oak rash.  It seemed silly to me to be thinking about this, but I did look it up and, lo and behold, some folks said it helps.  I stood in my dry bathtub for 30 full minutes, just rubbing coconut oil into my inflamed skin.  Then I spend 30 minutes rinsing in a cool shower.  RELIEF!  It really did help.

That evening, G brought home all sorts of things from coworkers and friends – everyone was sending things to help.  Against my better judgment, I tried one of the topical sprays that was sent.  Within minutes, another allergic reaction started.  I hurried to the shower, washed it away, and reapplied the coconut oil, which brought relief.

Since then, coconut oil is the only thing I will allow on my skin.  Others have sent other solutions – enough people have urgently recommended Zanfel that I will get some on hand for future use – but I can’t summon the courage at this point.  I just cannot tolerate yet another allergic reaction.

I did go back to work this past week.  It was not pretty.  The Prednisone has continued to make “thinking” a tool that is mostly missing from my toolbox.  The Prednisone has kept me from getting almost any sleep.  The Prednisone has filled me with an anxious, angry, aggressive inner “buzzing” that derails me right after lunch; I had to go home early each day to get a nap.  The thousand angry fire ants have continued to mess with me – sometimes they take a little break for an hour or two, and then they start up with twice as much ferocity, apparently to make up for having relented.  Even now, on day 17, after having taken a full 14 days of Prednisone, I have spent a large part of today fighting to not have another breakdown over the relentless itching that won’t stop in my chest, which is mostly healed but still sports open sores.

There is hope.  My face is almost completely healed.  My neck is probably 80% better.  My arms are about 70% better.  I look at the new-looking skin on my face and know that there will be more of that to replace the hard, scaly sores I am currently sporting.  The end is near.  It can’t come fast enough.

Meanwhile, life keeps pressing on.  Today has been the first that I have been able to compose myself enough to write this blog.  I have projects I need to be working on, but now I’ll need to go sleep – all this thinking has worn me out again.

Life lesson – when something is a known danger for you, don’t take it lightly.  Even if you’ve had no trouble with it in more than 10 years.  Even if you’re so happy you don’t have the patience to think about bad stuff.  When your life brushed up against something that is a known danger – TAKE IT SERIOUSLY – whether that is a physical danger, as poison oak is to me, or a spiritual danger.

Take it seriously.

  1. Jill says:

    Good to see you are well enough to write again sister.

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