Snowed Under with Shingles

Judith in Snow

A post by my friend Judith Gray:

Midway through the Boston snowmageddon, I decided to shovel the family room roof before the predicted eighteen inches fell on the three feet already there.

The next day I woke up with wrenching pain in my lower back. I read up on all the cures for a strained back – anti-inflammatories, ice then heat, stretching exercises, rest – and tried them all. Even with the maximum doses of ibuprophen I couldn’t sleep, but lots of folks at work were complaining and carrying around little bottles of pills so I figured this was just something to be borne.

Then I noticed a rash on my stomach…a dreaded allergic reaction to ibuprophen, I thought. So I switched to naproxen and acetaminophen. The pain was unrelenting and I was exhausted, so I finally called my health clinic and insisted I needed stronger pain meds. They made me come in.

The doctor took one look and said, “It’s shingles.” The rash had spread around my back in a broken line of red bumps. Shingles has nothing to do with roofing materials – it comes from a the French and Latin for belt and girdle, and typically makes a half-circle around the trunk (never crossing the mid-line), though it can occur elsewhere.

Rash Front

Rash on Back

But wait…I had the shingles vaccine when I turned 60. “Good, that should keep you from getting postherpetic neuralgia (pain that can last for years), “ the doctor reassured me. “It’s probably too late for an anti-viral to work (72 hours from first sign of the rash is the effective zone) but if you’re desperate and want to try anything, I can prescribe it.”

Yes, give me all the meds I can get! She prescribed the anti-viral valtrex, and percocet for the pain, and told me I must quarantine myself until 24 hours after the rash stopped spreading. “ You can’t go to work. Your husband will need to keep an eye on your back to let you know when the spots stop spreading. He’ll also have to take the written prescription to the pharmacy and do the grocery shopping.” Having a retired husband home 24/7 wasn’t looking so bad.

While shingles is not contagious, I could infect someone with chicken pox, particularly dangerous for the elderly and pregnant women. Both diseases are the varicella-zoster virus; if you’ve had chicken pox, the virus is lying dormant in your nervous system, waiting to travel along neural pathways to your skin. Stress, trauma, and a weakened immune system can trigger it. Maybe the trauma to my back from the snow shoveling was the cause, though the doctor was skeptical.

Shingles last 2 to 4 weeks, and I’m at the end of week 3. All the stories you’ve heard about the excruciating pain of shingles are true. Some of my friends have seen a Terry Bradshaw clip where he compares the pain to the worse NFL linebacker hits he took – that has bought me a lot of sympathy. It’s an ad for the shingles vaccine, which though not totally effective at prevention, does offer some protection. According to the ad and other reports I have read, one out of three people get shingles. Not sure how accurate that is, but the disease is very common and risk increases dramatically with age as our immune systems weaken. Take a look at the National Institute of Health and the Mayo Clinic for more information.

If you think you might have shingles, get checked out right away to get the anti-viral medicine within the 72 hours window. If you have a bumpy rash (like poison ivy) and/or severe pain, get it checked out; these symptoms can occur in any order. I had the pain for at least three days before the rash appeared. Don’t get sidetracked by a stubborn self-diagnosis or misguided confidence to power through pain.

I’m stilled snowed under (100 plus inches), but I’ve yielded control of the shovel and given in to the need for powerful pain killers. I spend hours under an afghan reading books I’ve been trying to get to for years and look forward to the brighter days of spring.

Judith Gray has worked as a librarian in public and university libraries for 35 years, most recently as Head of Reference at the Concord (Massachusetts) Public Library. She retired from full-time work three year ago, easing the transition by working part-time, while she reinvented her life.  She lives in Bedford, Mass. with her husband of 35 years, and shares a beloved lake cottage with her brother and sister.  She enjoys cooking, reading, traveling, all forms of exercise, and visiting her children in Connecticut and New York.

Check out Judith’s Friend for the Ride post on Lydia Pinkham, who created an early cure for women’s complaints!



Guest Post: Lydia Pinkham’s Compound–Reverse the Curse!

A guest post from Judith Gray:

Barbara invited me to blog about Lydia Pinkham, since I have a personal connection (my aunt married a Pinkham descendant), and I have always been interested in her story. I was probably the only junior high school student to write a report on her, based on the  book Lydia Pinkham Is Her Name (c.1949)  and original source material from the company president.

Now there is another book about her, Female Complaints: Lydia Pinkham and the Business of Women’s Medicine (c. 1979),  and lots of information  on the web, ranging from scholarly articles  to  drinking songs spoofing the alcohol content of her “vegetable compound” (You can listen to one at

During the nineteenth century the standard treatment for menstrual cramps was the removal of ovaries, which had a 40% mortality rate.  The most popular drug of the day was calomel, a mercurial toxin.

Medical care was expensive and many women couldn’t afford it.  Lydia appealed to women’s desires to take care of their own health instead of leaving it to male practitioners, who charged big fees and usually did more harm than good.

Lydia suffered from the curse of menstrual cramps and brewed up a mixture in her kitchen to ease the pain.  It consisted of black cohosh, life root, unicorn root, pleurisy root, fenugreek seed, and a substantial amount of alcohol.   She gave it away for free, and it was quite popular with her neighbors.

Of the ingredients, black cohosh, is suggested by the alternative medical community as providing  relief from menopausal symptoms due to its  natural oestrogens. Perhaps that, combined with the alcohol and power of suggestion, made the compound effective.

In the Panic of 1873, Lydia’s husband, Isaac, was financially ruined and narrowly escaped prison for debt; his health was destroyed by the stress.  Lydia, at the age of 55,  urged on by her son,  decided to make a family business of her product,  expanding from stove-top to  factory production.

She excelled at mass marketing, and was the first woman to have her photograph appear on a product label.  She published the “Pinkham Pamphlets” providing answers to women’s medical questions and using testimonials from grateful women.

The company was extremely successful, peaking in 1925 with annual profits of $3.8 million.

While she was ultimately motivated by financial need, Lydia Pinkham deserves  credit for drawing attention to women’s health issues and reaching out to women who were not being served by the  medical community.

Her daughter created the Lydia E. Pinkham Memorial Clinic in Salem, MA in 1922 to provide health services to young mothers and their children, and it is still operational today.

I recently discovered that Lydia lived for a short period of time in a house a couple of miles from mine in Bedford, MA and dispensed her compound from there.

Her family bought property on a small secluded lake in New England and built five grand houses to share, known as the Pinkham Family Compound.  My uncle grew up in one of these, and my dad built a small cottage on the same lake, where I have been enjoying summers since childhood.

Once we found an old Lydia Pinkham medicine bottle on the bottom of the lake.  Thanks Lydia, and thanks Dad!

Judith Gray has worked as a librarian in public and university libraries for 32 years, most recently as Head of Reference at the Concord (Massachusetts) Public Library.  She retired from full-time work a year ago and is easing the transition by working part-time, while she reinvents her life.  She lives in Bedford, Mass. with her husband of 32 years, and shares a beloved lake cottage with her brother and sister.  She enjoys cooking, reading, traveling, all forms of exercise, and visiting her children in Connecticut and New York.

Bottle Photo:  Lydia Pinkham  bottle, circa 1880-1890, found by Judith’s scuba diving brother-in-law, off the shore of the Pinkham Family Compound.

Lydia’s Photo is from the cover of Female Complaints: Lydia Pinkham and the Business of Women’s Medicine

Photo below:  Judith Gray!  Judith and I worked together years ago at the Dedham Public Library in Massachusetts.

And finally…

Judith thought this picture worked well on a post about the female curse, but it really refers to another curse. Here’s her explanation:”Reverse the curse'”was a rallying cry of my local Boston Red Sox fans.  The “Curse of the Bambino” referred to the dramatic downturn of the Red Sox and the upturn of the New York Yankees after Babe Ruth was sold to the Yankees in 1919.  The Red Sox went 84 years before winning the championship again in 2004, coming back from down 0-3 in the playoffs against the Yankees in a memorable series and then sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series.  This sign on Storrow Drive in Boston was a local landmark until it was replaced after 2004.