"I'm sorry, but I just laughed out loud."
That was the first response I received after telling my friends I thought I might have Zika virus. I was on the train to a wedding in Westchester, New York—taking a selfie of my impeccable makeup—when I first noticed my skin looked unusually bumpy. Maybe it was just the terrible Metro North lighting? Nope. After checking from several angles, I came to terms with the fact that I was breaking out in a really scary rash.
I called my mom in a panic. (She's a nurse so she's always been my first call for any fluctuations in my health.) She suggested I get off the train and go back home, but I was half way to Rye and I couldn't just ditch my friend's wedding. I tried my best to pull myself together, but I was getting increasingly scared. This was day three of inexplicable symptoms since returning home to New York from a vacation in Jamaica, and it felt like my body was slowly falling apart.
I started to Google my symptoms on the train and the word Zika stared back at me, along with all my ailments: joint pain, muscle pain, and a rash. Obviously I was convinced I had it—despite not having every symptom listed. (After reading more, I learned not everyone has symptoms when they're infected with Zika. The Center of Disease Control [CDC] states roughly 1 in 5 people will experience symptoms.)
It all started with some pain in my toes, which I thought was just a result of my feet swelling from the extreme Caribbean heat. Shortly after, I began experiencing a terrible pain in my left thigh—a pain I had never felt before; similar to a charley horse that wouldn't go away, which was also causing pain in my lower back. At the time, my mom thought I might be dehydrated and urged me to drink electrolyte-filled water and eat bananas. I had also noticed a lump growing behind my ear. How could so many things be simultaneously wrong with me?
By the time I reached the wedding venue I had calmed down a bit. Simply knowing that there was a logical (or real) reason for my illness soothed me. I popped some Advil which helped to tame my rash for the next few hours, but as soon as cake was served I knew I had to get home.
Exhausted, I endured the 40-minute train ride as my face started to itch, and then my neck and shoulders. I wanted nothing more than to be in my bed. When I woke the next morning, the rash had spread over my entire body, all the way down to my feet. My eyes were swollen and I knew I had to get myself to a doctor.
After living in the city for five years, I'm still yet to find a general practitioner so I dragged my lethargic body to a CityMD clinic a few blocks from my East Village apartment. "What's wrong with you today?" the doctor's nurse asked me. "I'm pretty sure I have Zika virus," I responded in the tone of someone who has an intimate relationship with WebMD. After the doctor inspected the rash on my body, he told me it was very possible I had Zika or possibly Chikungunya, another mosquito-born virus. Since Zika and Chikungunya are both indeed viruses, prescription medication can't speed up recovery. All I could do was rest, take tylenol and an anti-histamine for the rash. I also had to come back the next day to have blood drawn for the CDC.
That night was the toughest. My fever came on in the middle of the night: one more symptom on the checklist. I spent most of the night shivering under my down comforter and when I had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, it took me 20 minutes to psych myself to get out of bed. My body felt lifeless. Every bone hurt. On my way back from the bathroom, I remember a rush coming over me—I was about to pass out. I called my mom crying and in a sweat: "I'm scared," I told her, feeling helpless. I took some tylenol and went back to sleep, knowing that my mom would come to my rescue in the morning and take me back to the doctor for my blood work.
I woke up in the morning in a pool of sweat—my fever broke. My mom arrived early to make me a little breakfast before I went back to the doctor, even though I had zero appetite. I had a new doctor this time around, whom thought it was "unlikely" that I had Zika even though I now had pink eye—the final symptom on the checklist. He assured me I could have any virus, but after they tested me for the flu and strep throat with negative results, he changed his tune. They made me give a urine sample and took two vials of blood to send to the CDC. They also tested me to make sure I wasn't pregnant.
"When will I find out?" I asked the doctor, but he didn't have many answers. "If you were planning pregnancy you may want to wait a little while," were the doctor's last words after writing my a prescription for Hydroxyzine to help with the itching, which was getting worse.
I went back home and got back into bed, where I stayed for the next six days sleeping as much as I could. My rash healed day by day, but the itching got worse and worse. I would have itching fits that would leave me in tears—not even my prescription could quell my despair. My fingers hurt when I tried to text or type. And my eyes were so sore I could barely look around my apartment.
I didn't tell many people because I didn't want anyone to think I was fishing for sympathy, nor was my virus confirmed—but it was interesting how little people knew about it. Most people's immediate question was, "Are you going to be okay?" as if I had just told them I was diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease. "That will clear up with a round of antibiotics, right?" asked one of my co-workers. Nope, it's not bacterial. There's nothing that can be prescribed for the virus. I also had countless friends who tried to persuade me that doctors are often wrong, and suggest other illnesses I could potentially have. But at that point it didn't really make a difference to me if it was Zika or something else—the virus had already taken control over my body. Even two weeks after the first sign of my symptoms, I learned that a married couple was too afraid to attend a function I was invited to, even though the virus isn't contagious and only spreads by insect bites or by having unprotected sex.
When I was on vacation, I knew that there were some confirmed cases of Zika in Jamaica, but I wasn't really concerned about making sure I had bug spray on at all times. Like my aforementioned peers, I didn't know much about the virus until I started looking it up that day on the train. Luckily, there isn't a huge effect for me as I am not pregnant or planning pregnancy any time soon—and even then, the reproductive impact of the virus aren't as scary as the media has made it seem. A major misconception is that you have to wait two years to get pregnant. But women only have to wait eight weeks after the first signs of Zika. And the virus does not affect future pregnancies. Men, who can be carriers of the virus and transmit it sexually, have to wait six months. (The two-year rule is simply a precaution for those who live in countries where Zika is prevalent.) Still, there is a lot doctors don't know about the virus—especially long term effects and the virus' link to neurological disorders like Guillain-Barré Syndrome. I could also infect a mosquito if one bit me, so it was important to continue wearing bug spray, even at home.
A week after my blood work was submitted, I finally had confirmation from the clinic of what I already knew to be true—I had Zika. My blood test was negative, but my urine test came back positive—another person to add to the virus' statistic. It's now been 19 days since I first started having symptoms, and while my rash and pink eye have receded, I'm still suffering from lethargy. If this experience taught me anything, it's the importance of being informed—and the importance of bug spray.
For more information on Zika Virus go to cdc.gov/zika
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