March 18, 2020 was a day Donna Holt will never forget. It was the day many Canadians learned of the “lockdown,” as the federal and provincial governments attempted to deal with the rising threat of Covid-19, the new coronavirus that had been spreading across the planet.
For Holt, who lives and works in the Halifax Regional Municipality of Nova Scotia, it was memorable for other reasons.
Beyond learning her downtown office was shutting down, she also discovered plans with friends and family were being cancelled or changed. The world suddenly seemed a scary place.
On top of that, it was the day Holt was diagnosed with shingles.
“It was actually one of the lowest days of my entire life,” she recalls. “I was sitting there in the doctor’s office and there were no other people in the waiting room. The chairs were all distanced. I didn’t know where my people were — my work people. Everyone just scattered once.
As she recounted in a personal diary a few days earlier, she noticed new health issues. What follows is her entry for that day:
“I had a chiropractor appointment. My right shoulder and neck were particularly stiff. Probably just poor posture and tension from work.” – March 12, 2020
“I had noticed a couple of red bumps on my arm,” she says. “I thought they might be spider bites or something. I didn’t feel super great, but a friend was in town, so I rose to it. In the meantime, the pandemic was just starting to hit. The circumstances around that were starting to become all too real. The last thing I was paying attention to was these few red, itchy bumps.”
Within a few days, it became clear that these mysterious marks were more than spider bites. “Could it be possible it was shingles?” Holt recalls asking herself. She was aware of shingles – people in her life had contracted it before. But it was particularly top of mind, she explains, because of an exchange when she got a flu shot through her workplace about six months before.
“The doctor who was doing the flu shots took one look at my age, which was 62, and asked, ‘oh, did you get the shingles shot, SHINGRIX?’ and I said ‘no.’”
“You should consider getting it,” she said.
Shingles – aka herpes zoster– is caused by the same virus that causes chickenpox, which many adults have had in their youth. After recovery from chickenpox, the virus stays dormant, lingering in nerve cells for decades. Shingles occurs when those viral remnants reactivate later in life, often due to a weakening of the immune system.
The chance of that happening increases as we age. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recommends a shingles vaccine should be offered to adults 50 years of age or older, although 100% protection cannot be guaranteed and adverse reactions may occur.
She didn’t exactly discount the advice, she recalls, but she was in no hurry to act on it, either. “I think the thing that was holding me back from doing that was two-fold,” Holt explains. “One was, I believe it’s two shots. That complicates the scheduling.”
Indeed, Shingrix is a two-shot vaccine that helps protect against shingles and is administered two to six months apart. For Holt that was only a minor issue; the cost was a more immediate roadblock.
“The cost is not covered under my plan,” she continues, noting that the series would cost over $300 out-of-pocket. “Those two things made me put it off, even though I knew shingles is not a fun thing. And now, I know for sure.”
Looking back, she wishes she had taken the doctor’s advice. Partly because of the discomfort of the symptoms of shingles – for a three-week timespan she could only wear a tank top so as not to disturb the spots as much as possible.
“By this time, it had spread quite a bit, down my arm, to my shoulder, and was starting to be not very comfortable,” she elaborates. “It’s an unusual feeling, because it combines both itchiness and pain at the same time. You want to scratch it, but of course you can’t. Looking back, she remembers the stress of that time in her life. Stress surrounding the infection, as well as stress from the Covid pandemic that may have even factored into her contracting it.
“I think it was more of a psychological thing for me,” Holt says, recalling an evening at Neptune Theatre with her visiting friend shortly before her diagnosis. “When we came out at intermission, I checked my phone, and there were Facebook posts about the pandemic and the city of Halifax shutting things down. It was going viral on Facebook.
“Then, when I came out at the end of the play, I checked again, and the city of Halifax was indeed shutting down,” she continues. “I felt like during that play everything had changed. We were walking towards the car, and it felt like “The Walking Dead.” The whole world was changing, and people knew it.”
Calling it a “flattening experience,” Holt believes that she might have been able to handle the crisis the world was facing a bit better were she also not having to face her own internal struggle with shingles.
“At those times when it’s very stressful, you don’t want your body to fail on you,” says Holt, who hopes her example might inspire others not to put off getting vaccinated against shingles if they can help it. “It hit me during one of the most stressful times of my entire life.”
Holt is still waiting to set up her first Shingrix shot appointment, but she does plan to get it. She shares her final entry in her shingles diary, where she felt like herself for the first time since that flattening doctor’s visit.
“Today, I felt light. I woke up early feeling the best I’d felt. I showered, dressed, brushed my teeth and went for a walk in my neighbourhood. I felt on top of the world, on top of my work, everything was flowing. What a glorious, sustained feeling. The shingles had finally completely given up. Just a few scars left as a reminder.” – April 15, 2020
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This article is sponsored by GSK.