Saturday, December 3, 2016

Misadventures in Not Running: Shingles?!

tl;dr: Get the shingles vaccine. Yes, even you.

I completed my eighth marathon in October in Melbourne, Australia. Between high winds and being misdirected by well-intentioned course marshals twice, it was a long day. Still, I finished, and was free to enjoy the rest of a two-week stay capped by seeing the Little Penguin Parade—look it up if you’re having a Cute Emergency.

After returning from Oz, I took a complete break from running, both for recovery and to heal a sore Achilles I had tolerated for too long. I got back into the rat race at work and was hit with some standard-issue family aggravation along the way. My impatience with everyday annoyances was mounting. I realized how much I used running to manage daily stress; even mid-distance walks weren’t cutting it.

Just before Thanksgiving, I started having chest pains. I had just had my annual physical two weeks before the race, and my doctor said my chances for a cardiac event were extremely low. What the hell? The pain was more pressing than stabbing, so I decided on self-monitoring rather than panicking. I headed out of town for the holiday.

Over the long weekend, the pain became more constant, and I started breaking out in a weird rash on my chest. An unrelenting headache tag-teamed with the pain to keep me from sleeping properly for several nights--adding to a fatigue which was was out of proportion with my minimal activity level.

Back home, I went straight to the doctor. By now the rash had broken out on my back as well. All of it was only on my left side. The doc took one look and said “Yep, that’s shingles.” The pain was intense and constant. He put it at 7 on the 10-point scale.

I’m nearing the end of a weeklong antiviral regimen, coupled with severe pain meds. I'm on the mend now, but am still only 1.5 weeks into a condition whose typical duration is 2-6 weeks. I’ll spare you the gross details, but just don’t do a Google Images search on shingles, ok?

My point in detailing all this for runners, in particular, is in hopes you’ll do something to help avoid this super-common problem: Get the shingles vaccine.

The one-time shot isn't "recommended" for people under 60, so I always figured "that's something for old people." Nah. Depending on which source you check, 1 in 3 or 4 adults will have shingles. It mostly affects people over 50. I’m 46, but even younger folks aren’t necessarily safe; I have a cousin by marriage who got it when she was 11—in her eye. She can’t wear contacts because of the damage it caused. Another good friend--centurion cyclist, 6min-miler, and general badass--got it when he was 24.

The science is still out on what exactly activates shingles, but most researchers think that a low immune system releases dormant chickenpox virus. Whether that low immunity is caused by running 26.2 miles, or by unmanaged stress from a running hiatus, runners can be especially vulnerable. As can those with cancer or other conditions that cause lowered immunity. Or runners with cancer.

The shingles vaccine doesn’t guarantee you’ll never have an outbreak, but even if you still do, it lessens the severity. My doctor said I can safely get the vaccine a year from now. You can bet I’ll be at his office first thing when they open the doors that morning.

CAVEAT: Consult with a medical professional before getting the vaccine. For instance, according to the Mayo Clinic's site, you shouldn't get the shot if you:

  • Have ever had an allergic reaction to gelatin, the antibiotic neomycin or any other component of the shingles vaccine
  • Have a weakened immune system due to HIV/AIDS or another disease that affects the immune system
  • Are receiving immune system-suppressing drugs or treatments, such as steroids, adalimumab (Humira), infliximab (Remicade), etanercept (Enbrel), radiation or chemotherapy
  • Have cancer that affects the bone marrow or lymphatic system, such as leukemia or lymphoma
  • Are pregnant or trying to become pregnant

Saturday, May 28, 2016


The sound was like a dozen metal trash cans dropped at once from ten stories up. A car-crash sound. It was after 2 a.m. I scrambled down four flights and looked out the front door. A car had barreled through the fenced-off area in front of our brownstone and up onto the stoop next door, pinning some poor guy up against the front of his building. Just some guy, out for a smoke.

He was struggling to breathe, his crushed ribcage unable to expand enough to inhale. The car was on top of his legs as well, but moving it could have made things worse. Neighbors surrounded the car, preventing the driver and his passengers from fleeing. I couldn't tell what the people in the car were on, but their eyes were glazed in a mix of shock and chemical confusion. They weren’t really taking it in.

The guy’s cigarette smoke still hung in the air.

I looked at the guy, who clearly was about to pass out from the pain. I told him “Stay awake, buddy. An ambulance is on the way. You need to keep your eyes open.”

Several people were making 911 calls, and a team from the fire department a few blocks away arrived quickly and got to work sawing the fence so they could get a gurney to the patient.

I could tell he wasn’t gonna make it.

The EMTs asked everyone to clear the area, so I went back upstairs and looked out the front window. The firemen dismantled the last of the fence with the Jaws of Life. The guy was loaded into an ambulance and taken away. The car’s occupants had yet to be dealt with, but blue flashing lights had joined the red, so the cops were on the case.

The next day I asked a beat officer about the crash, and he said the driver had been speeding and lost control of the vehicle. He pointed left up Vanderbilt Ave. to Grand Army Plaza, noting how traffic lights synced as drivers built a head of steam on their way downhill to Atlantic Ave.--often passing 60 in the 35 zone. Even if everyone drove sober all the time, mayhem was inevitable.

I asked about the guy—did the officer know which hospital they had taken him to? The cop said they couldn’t say anything because of privacy laws, but indicated it was unlikely someone could survive something like that. That was the most closure I got.

It was so random. I had staggered through the car’s path on the way to my own front door not ten minutes before the crash. My girlfriend or other neighbors could have easily been taken out. Was there anything to be done, or was this just the price of life in the big city? I had been in the building for a little over a year; it was my neighborhood, but I wasn’t a native.

A few months before, I had seen a cyclist hit when a car ran a red light turning onto our street. She was wearing a helmet, but had still been thrown up on the hood and smashed her head against the windshield. Even from bystander distance, you could see blood in some of the windshield cracks. Chilling. Again, passers-by quickly surrounded the vehicle so the driver couldn’t hit and run. Apparently this happened so often the neighborhood had developed a protocol to deal with it.

The car crash ate at me for several days. I found myself keeping one eye on traffic at all times, plotting crash vectors and picking safe points to dive in case a wayward vehicle had my name on it. I suggested my girlfriend do the same. I was getting kind of crazy.

I kept seeing the guy’s eyes, wide in fear. I was looking at someone with minutes left to live. Killed by an impaired driver, but also by chance. This happened a lot. Too much.

I wrote our city council rep and asked if there was anything to be done. Not about intoxicated drivers; there will likely always be someone who drives high. But the speeding—couldn’t something be done about that?

Surprisingly, she said the traffic light timing could be adjusted to keep drivers under the speed limit, and that “traffic calming” could make it less likely cars would cross over lanes. Within weeks, I noticed the lights were no longer all green at the same time. Within a few months, road crews had laid down raised concrete lane dividers—some with trees and landscaping!

It’s not like our neighborhood was suddenly free of all calamity. I saw a man stabbed in front of our building that very summer. The next year I saw new red spots on the sidewalk, leading to where someone had apparently bled out. Every time the temperature passed 90, you could count on street fights breaking out. But at least the cars were tamer. That was something.

I still think of the guy sometimes, pinned.

Written for an exercise by Chuck Wendig.