It started, as many things do, at a toga party.
Before you ask, yes, I was wearing a toga. I was also surrounded by high school students, so maybe this story isn’t going where you thought it might be. And really, if we’re being technical about the beginning, it wasn’t at the convention at all, but rather way before that, and it’s just been sitting in me, festering, waiting to break out and wreak havoc on my life at the exact moment when I was the most stressed.
Clearly, I’m talking about herpes.
In my eye.
Now, before you go judging me, let me be clear: eye herpes has nothing to do with the kind of herpes a person gets from…you know…the deed. Rather, it’s a strain of the shingles virus called Herpes Zoster, and it affects, like the commercials tell you, one in three people who have had chicken pox. I’m just one of the lucky few who contracted it in the ocular region. If you’ve never heard of eye shingles, you are not alone. Although I have encountered more people as of late who have heard of it and/or actually experienced it, the vast majority of people are surprised when they hear about it, resulting in responses that are some variation of, “In your eye?” This is quickly followed by something like, “You don’t mess around with your eyes,” or, “Eye sight is really important.”
These are, of course, completely obvious observations. It’s like saying your legs are really convenient for walking, or that lungs are the preferred method for breathing. But it’s one of those things, right? It’s obvious, but we all have the same totally unoriginal thought when confronted with the reality of potentially losing something we take for granted.
So I’ll start at the beginning of this ordeal, work my way to the now, and, should you stick with me during the entirety of the journey, maybe you’ll win a little something at the end. Probably not, but it’s good to have high expectations in life. And if nothing else, you get to see some super unflattering pictures of me, because what is a medical drama without photographic evidence? Let me know if you like what you see, fellas. I’m s(h)ingle.
Incredibilis Oculus Ardescens
Latin is not now, nor has it ever been, my forte. I took it for one year, and that was because it was mandatory for all eighth graders at my all-girls Catholic high school to take it as part of the honors program. I remember precisely four nuggets of Latin wisdom: the beginning of the Hail Mary (“Ave Maria, gratia plena…”); a song with helpful prepositional information (“Every preposition must have a case!”); how to sing Happy Birthday and wish the birthday boy or girl many more (“Et magnus magna!”); and, perhaps most importantly, how to call someone a vomit head (caput vomo…I think). Summa cum laude, ladies and gentlemen.
Clearly due to my classical prowess, my coworker asked if I’d join him and twelve girls at a Junior Classical League Convention. I said yes not only because he is my friend but, more so, because I cannot say no to my students. It’s a sickness, and I never thought I’d be that person, but it turns out I am. So there I was, driving a big ass Chevy Yukon with tinted windows and leather seats to Baton Rouge with six high school girls in the back, singing along to my Spotify hip hop mix because, well, that’s what you listen to when you’re driving a big ass Chevy Yukon with tinted windows and leather seats.
The convention included pretty much what you would expect from a high school Latin convention: geeky costumes, a toga run around the hotel, academic tests about topics ranging from art history to mythology, and, of course, an awards program where our students killed it in every category. I know what you’re thinking right now. Lefante, you promised us a story about eye herpes. Where is the eye herpes. Give us the eye herpes! And while I promise you it’s coming (as well as caution you about how you phrase things), I need to tell you, for no other reason than pure entertainment, that this convention also included some activities that I would never have expected at a Latin convention: a techno dance with strobe lights, a talent show with twerking, and, my personal favorite, a karaoke room. You, my friend, have not lived until you have walked into a brightly-lit room with one boy, not possibly over the age of twelve, soulfully singing “Hey Jude” while an appreciative pre-teen audience sways softly in hotel folding chairs.
It. Was. Magical.
The problem, though, was my eye wasn’t feeling right. I had been having what I thought were allergy problems the entire week before, problems that didn’t seem to be anything new. For several years, I’ve periodically experienced flare-ups where my left eye reddens, becomes sensitive to light, tears up profusely, and swells. Every other time, I’ve seen an eye doctor who has prescribed me steroid drops, which clear it up. But as I sat in a strobe-lighted room, watching teenagers awkwardly dance, I found myself sitting slumped against a wall, my left eye closed and watering so much that I had to hold a tissue to it. It’s one of those things where, looking back, you realize how serious a sign of something wrong that is, but at the time you’re just like, Stupid eye, stop watering! You need to chaperone these awkwardly dancing Latin-loving children!”
The next morning, I could barely open my eye. After popping two allergy pills and three ibuprofens, the eye opened and stopped watering enough that I could drive the girls home. I sent this picture to a few friends who I’d been texting during the trip with the caption, “Improvement! Phew!”
That was the face of improvement.
The morning after returning from my Latin adventure, though, in the comfort of my own home, it became clear something wasn’t right. When I woke up, the left side of my face throbbed. My eyelid was swollen, and my vision in that eye blurred, almost like there was fluid sitting in it that needed to be suctioned out. After going to an urgent care office where I saw someone who may or may not have actually been a doctor, I got pink eye medication and waited until the next morning for improvement. When I woke up the next day, vision in that eye was sepia-tinted.
In times of medical duress, there are three people on my immediate call list: Mama Lefante and mtwo high school best friends who also happen to be a dentist and a pharmacist. All agreed a trip to the ophthalmologist was necessary, and my dentist friend, A, recommended hers. With one eye closed, I drove across the Mississippi River to the West Bank, to my ophthalmological destiny: Dr. G.
Me and Dr. G: Or, How A 70-Year-Old Man Told Me I Have Herpes
Our relationship started off a little rocky, me and Dr. G. A had warned me about him, saying, in her usual delicate way, “He’s a hard ass.” What I soon learned, though, is that Dr. G isn’t a hard ass so much as he just has questionable bedside manner. And it’s not like he’s a bad human. He just doesn’t know how to talk to women. Or patients. Or people.
I sat in the waiting room, hoping that I didn’t look as bad as I felt.
It was a hilarious hope.
In a nutshell, this is how my first visit started: waited fifteen minutes, had someone check my eye pressure, waited another thirty minutes, got eyes dilated, waited another thirty minutes, had eye pressure taken again, finally met Dr. G, found out I had a cat hair in my eye (embarrassing, but not entirely unexpected), found out the cat hair had nothing to do with the problem, failed to be told what the problem was until at least an hour and a half later, after I’d had multiple drops put in my eyes and several photos taken of my eye. During all of this, Dr. G came and went from the room, each time muttering to himself as he left, “An interesting lady, an interesting lady.”
Had I not been in pain, I would probably have been more annoyed. Had I possessed full faculties of my eyeballs, I would likely have rolled them more than once. As it was, I was hoping he would just tell me I needed some steroid drops or something and I’d be on my way. But finally, he entered the room and stayed for more than five seconds. He showed me the pictures of my eyes. The right one looked perfect; I even had a moment of vanity where I thought to myself, “God, my eye is pretty. That’s my eye? That eye is pretty.” This brief self-esteem booster quickly dissipated, however, when I saw the next photo. I didn’t even realize it was my eye at first because it was black. Just black.
“Do you see your eye?” Dr. G asked.
“No,” I said, feeling stupid.
“Of course you can’t. Protein.”
“Protein,” he grumbled impatiently, waving his hand in front of his own eye. “Protein, it built up and it’s sitting there. You let this go, you get glaucoma. Glaucoma! You understand? You’d go blind. Blind! Very serious. You probably have herpes. Girls,” he yelled out the door to his technical assistants, “girls, I need a tech in here.”
This is how Dr. G operates, I would later learn. There’s very little privacy in the office; everyone hears everyone else’s diagnosis unless it’s something serious, in which case they close the door and call you sweetheart while explaining that you might have a mysterious disease that can show up in the eye 0.2% of the time. When Dr. G needs a tech or a nurse, he yells, “Girls,” and a woman shows up. At the end of the visit, you have to listen carefully as he records your diagnosis into a handheld tape recorder. He might say things like, “Patient was educated on proper eyelid hygiene,” and even though you weren’t you just go with it and promise yourself you’ll be better about using hypoallergenic eye products. It’s like paying a $25 copay to take a time machine to the ‘50s.
At this point, when I see him for checkups, I don’t find any of this alarming. As a new patient, though, it was incredibly alarming. In a matter of seconds, I went from thinking I had allergies to finding out I had protein in my eye, might be going blind, and possibly contracted an STD in my eye. I felt hopeless, sitting in this dark room with blurry vision and a seventy-year-old Italian man in scrubs telling me I might be going blind from herpes. I wanted to cry but forced myself not to. Dr. G did not seem like the type of man to entertain tears. After he left the room, I gathered my courage and turned to the nurse. “So,” I said, trying to sound casual, “when he says herpes, does he mean herpes or, like, herpes herpes?”
This nurse, I could have kissed her. She explained the types of herpes they would test me for, zoster and simplex, and she explained that zoster was the shingles virus. Then, because I was nervous, I just started word vomiting (verba evomui), and told her my entire romantic history and explained that there was no way I could have the STD herpes, and that I am also very careful about drinking after people, and that even though I told Dr. G I get cold sores I just meant I’d gotten them in my lifetime, and it wasn’t like I was going around the city of New Orleans just kissing a ton of boys, let alone boys with cold sores. She nodded her head as this squinting, swollen-faced girl spewed neuroticism and Catholic guilt at her, and when I finally stopped for a breath she said, “We’ll see what the blood work says. Don’t worry. We’ll take care of you.”
When Dr. G returned, he started recording my diagnosis into the handheld recorder. When he got to the end, he said, “Patient advised not to return to work indefinitely,” and that’s when I started to straight up bawl. He turned off the recorder, confused.
“Why are you crying?” It wasn’t a mean question. It was a genuine inquiry of surprise, like he honestly couldn’t work out why I’d be having this emotional response.
I could have said any number of things. I’m scared about what’s happening to me, my face hurts, if I miss too much work I don’t know what will happen with my classes, we have research papers, my eighth graders need me, I’m totally going to miss the faculty karaoke contest and I was so going to crush the competition, my seniors will be okay but they have an AP test coming up and I need to prepare them, what if I go blind, the yearbook isn’t going to produce itself, I can’t pay for medical bills when I just bought a car, this is obviously somehow my fault, I worry too much, what if my eyesight is permanently damaged and I can’t teach or write anymore, I can’t just record things like you do Dr. G, this sucks, all of this really, really, really sucks. All of these things I could have said at that moment, but what squeaked out between sobs was, “Lesson plans.”
He squinted. “Lesson plans?”
“Let them watch a movie,” he said, with the attitude of a person who clearly doesn’t know how teaching actually works. “You can’t go back. This is serious. You have to sleep sitting up, you can’t exercise, you can’t read, you have to relax. This is your vision.” When he saw that I was still crying, he awkwardly patted my knee. “I have a daughter,” he said, and then proceeded to tell me about his young daughter, but not in any way that was relevant to my situation. Just, I think, as a way to get me to stop crying. That, and he really had no idea what to do with me other than to talk until I stood up.
By the end of my 12:30 appointment, it was 4:45, and I was one of the last people there. Mama Lefante, in her infinite motherly wisdom, ignored my texts saying I could drive myself home and arrived to pick me up. There may be nothing more comforting to a person than walking into a waiting room and seeing your mama there, ready to make things better. I gave my blood and then went to my parents’ house for convalescence, where I slept sitting up on the couch with a cold compress on my face. My nurse, Como, stood watch.
He took his job very seriously.
The Vampire Diaries
Dr. G wanted me to return the following day to see the retina specialist, just to make sure nothing was wrong with the retinas considering my situation. A had informed me that this other doctor was nice, but his retina test was pretty painful. And she wasn’t kidding. In case you’ve never had the pleasure of having your retina endure a comprehensive test, here’s what happens: you lean back in the reclining chair and the doctor shines a very bright light into your eye. He tells you to look up, then down, then left, then right, all the while shining the light directly onto your eye. Then, he peels back your eyelid with a silver tool that probably shouldn’t be as sharp as it is considering it’s right by your eye, but who are you to question? After doing this to both eyes, he swipes gel on a glass lens and suctions that lens onto your eyeball to check out your macula, retina, and other parts of your eye that you haven’t had to actively think about since you took ninth grade biology. When it’s all done, you sit back up and you can’t see anything for a few seconds. Everything is black, which is particularly alarming when you weren’t told this would happen and less than 24 hours ago you were told you could go blind.
This doctor had a limp handshake and a careless demeanor. He walked in without introducing himself and said, “Alright, sweetheart, lean back.” After performing ocular torture, he wrote several things on a notepad, all the while saying, “Okay, okay, okay,” without telling me or Mama Lefante why he was saying those things. Finally, he told me that they were going to test me for more diseases. After asking me numerous questions, including whether I had backpacked in a Mexican jungle during my 2008 trip to San Miguel de Allende (I hadn’t) and whether I had ever frozen my eggs (entirely irrelevant), he handed me a blood order with too many tests labeled for me to count. For the second time in two days, I went to the lab to give blood.
When the tech took my order, she eyed it and made a clucking noise in her throat. I assumed she was judging the amount of diseases that were listed on the order. Really, the list was impressive: syphilis, whipple’s disease, rheumatism, tuberculosis, lupus, HIV, AIDs, tetanus, cat scratch fever, salmonella, diabetes, and eighteen other diseases the names of which I do not presently remember because there were eighteen more of them. This is not hyperbole. I not only was tested for twenty-nine diseases and conditions, but each had its own vial because they had to be sent to different labs. Thus, when I sat down and the tech made that clucking noise, it wasn’t because she was judging my potential diseases. It was because she knew immediately which doctor I had seen, and she hated having to take so much blood.
She put down ten empty vials, and I said, “Wow, that’s a lot.” She eyed me and said “Baby, that’s not even half.” She put more, then more, then more, until the table was overflowing with vials.
“Why is he doing this to me?” I asked.
“He does this to everyone,” she said. “Even the little babies.”
“He’s a bad human.” I didn’t really mean it, but she nodded her head seriously in agreement as she tapped my vein.
I don’t really have a problem giving blood. I’ve given a good amount in my day, and I actually like watching it pour into the vial. I like knowing where it’s going, and it always surprises me how dark it is. You’d think it wouldn’t surprise me anymore, but it does. It also always amazes me how nurses and techs can find your vein so quickly and expertly stick you with a needle without it hurting. I mean, I’ve had some bad needle pokes, too, but for the most part it’s not a problem. And this new friend of mine was excellent at her job.
As she filled the last one, I said, “What have I given, like a leg at this point?”
She laughed. “Girl, don’t make me giggle while I got this in you,” she said. “Wait til we’re done.” When we were finally done, I told her I had a good time.
“Me too,” she said, piling my blood vials into bags.
“We should do this again sometime,” I said. “But with less blood.”
“I sure would like that,” she said. “You’re fun. Now up slowly,” she cautioned, grabbing my arm as I hopped off the chair, “come on, now, don’t be a Tazmanian Devil. Slow, slow.”
If I told you that I’ve been back at that office ten times since that first visit, you might think I’m exaggerating. And if I told you that my blood work ended up being $5000, plus an extra $400 just for the printing of those tests, you might also think I’m being hyperbolic. But then you remember how the medical system works.
Even after all blood work except for herpes zoster came back negative, I ended up missing school for two weeks, and I had to rely on the kindness of my coworkers and friends to help me grade as well as substitute my classes. I wasn’t allowed to read anything until the eye was healed, which meant I watched the first five seasons of 30 Rock, listened to the This American Life archives, and spent countless hours lying in bed and planning how I might survive a zombie apocalypse. I was also told I couldn’t do anything related to exercise, resulting in this very awkward conversation during one of my visits:
- G: Oh, one more thing. Are you married?
- G: So single?
Me: Um, yes.
- G: Okay, so listen. This is serious. No aggressive sexual activity.
Me (thinking, what about passive aggressive sexual activity?): That’s really not an issue.
- G: I mean none. Because what happens is the blood vessels in your eye will expand during…
Me (blushing while trying to scurry out of the room gracefully): Okay, thank you, got it. Not a problem. Thanks.
All told, everything worked out and the school year ended without any big problems, and I didn’t lose my vision or need an eye patch (that last one is kind of a disappointment, honestly). One plus of the entire ordeal was I had an excuse to buy myself a new pair of glasses.
Look, ma! No shingles!
It’s a chronic condition, so I will without a doubt continue to experience outbreaks. This means I have the fun task of always having herpes medication on hand, a fact that some friends find relentlessly humorous. It’s also lent itself to many a shingles joke. My friend LC (who, consequently, also had shingles) came up with the idea to have a dating site just for people with shingles. “We’ll call it Shingle and Ready to Mingle,” she said, and then we spent at least thirty minutes planning shingle-related hashtags like #shingleandlovingit, #the shinglelife, and #shinglehood.
I also get to keep seeing Dr. G once every six months, which really isn’t so bad. A few people have asked me why I haven’t switched eye doctors. A valid question, considering how some of this was handled, but then I point out the obvious: he caught it and correctly diagnosed it from the very beginning. There’s something to be said for an experienced doctor who, though he uses handheld voice recorders and calls grown women girls, knows what he’s talking about.
Now, that retina specialist, he’s another story. He’s a real caput vomo, yaknowwhatImean?
(That was the prize I promised, by the way. A Latin joke. I bet you’re really happy you read this whole thing. Also, while you’re at it, go see an ophthalmologist. I hear eye sight’s a pretty important thing).