An Expat's Painful Experience with Shingles

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This is the year of the snake and so it isn’t surprising that snakes are featuring in my life, although I have to say that, despite my neighbours’ caustic comments about my “jungle garden,” I haven’t seen one there. But I have been plagued by an iron snake. Not the ancient African tribal prophecy about the iron snake crossing the land of Kenya, which came true when the Europeans built the railway from Mombasa to Nairobi. No, this was much more personal – an iron arm band of a snake. Let me explain.

A few weeks ago, I noticed a sharp pain running down my left shoulder and arm. I wondered idly if I was having a heart attack, and then I noticed a rash appearing on the skin of my wrist. A friend mentioned the possibility of shingles, so I went to a nearby doctor’s surgery. “I am 90% certain it isn’t shingles,” he told me confi dently. “Indeed, as you have told me that you are a gardener, I think it much more likely that that when you were pruning the upper branches of one of your trees and you accidently rubbed against some foliage that you were allergic to.” Armed with Piriton and Panadol, I made my way home. But I didn’t feel better and, over the next couple of days, actually got decidedly worse.

So I went to the Emergency Department of the Adventist Hospital. Now, of course I know that I wasn’t an emergency case in the strictest sense of the term (although I felt like it), but it was a quiet morning and they very kindly fitted me in.

“Herpes zoster,” was the doctor’s immediate diagnosis. “My father also had shingles, so I know how painful it is. I am going to give you the same treatment he had.” That was very reassuring. Anti-virals and industrial- strength painkillers were prescribed. Unfortunately I had, because of the fi rst doctor’s gardening fantasy, missed the 72-hour window during which anti-viral treatment has its maximum effi cacy. As with most illnesses, the sooner medication is started, the better the outcome generally is.

The real worry with shingles is that the nerve-shattering pain can persist for months and sometimes years after the initial attack. I say “initial,” but really shingles is a manifestation of a much earlier illness.The childhood chickenpox that most of us have had in the dim and distant past never really goes away but lies dormant in our central nervous system. It’s a bit like a coiled snake waiting for the moment to pounce on its prey.Which is why, in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), shingles is known as “the iron snake.” I can feel the coils tightening.

Some friends who have a café in George Town dropped by with a batch of their medicinal jam tarts. Rudy, who had shingles himself at the tender age of 24 (it usually doesn’t strike until middle age or later), explained it to me. “TCM is a different system from Western medicine. It deals with bodily deficiencies rather than germs or viruses.The iron snake is about fire in the liver or damp heat in the spleen. A person’s life force, or qi, stagnates in the weakened organs which is why you get the pain. I was cured with some herbal powders but sometimes a practitioner will ‘blind the snake’ by applying joss sticks to the rash and ‘stabbing the snake in the eyes.’ It’s metaphorical, of course, but it does seem to work.”

I am sorry to say that my snake is still sighted, although its fangs are weakening slightly. My advice to everyone and anyone is to get a shingles vaccination: this is one illness you really want to avoid. Sadly, my iron snake caused me to miss most of the George Town Festival, which was exceptionally good this year.You can still see its aftermath in the Secret Gardens project (they’ll be around for the next few months) and, if you’re not already living here, make sure that you plan a visit to Penang to take in the 2014 Festival.



Oxford and Cambridge Society

There is a flourishing Oxford and Cambridge Society in KL but nothing in Penang, so a group of us have decided to get together to form a Penang Chapter.The object isn’t to be an exclusive club but rather a network which can meet and occasionally put on events that might be of intellectual interest. For more information, email Louise Goss-Custard ([email protected]) or visit OxbridgePenang.

Snow On The Streets Of Hanoi

Janet Nisted’s article in the last edition about the plight of women in Vietnam – Snow on the Streets of Hanoi – was much enjoyed by many of our readers. However, some commented that perhaps her characterisation of French colonialism was one-sided. Although we encourage a variety of views in Penang International, we also like to strike a balance, and we recognise that we may not have succeeded in this instance.



Source: Penang International Aug 2013 – Sept 2013

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