So it turns out Tam and I picked up a nasty case of poison oak while on that camping & hiking trip over the 4th of July weekend. Took ten days for the poison oak's oil to work its way through our immune systems. But boy, when it did—WOW! Just about an hour before boarding a flight to Chicago we both began experiencing painful pain beyond measure. Like, incomprehensible pain. And blisters. Enormous blisters.... that soon became open weeping sores.
Before boarding the flight we pounded a pile of benadryl in an entirely pointless effort to STOP THE ITCH. Didn't help. So we rubbed pink goo on our screaming limbs. Didn't help. Upon landing we rushed through our walk-thru of the events grounds and then hauled ass to an urgent care facility on Michigan Avenue. Five hours of paperwork, poking, prodding, speculating, and swabbing. This only sorta helped. The doctor determined us to be suffering a systemic reaction to poison oak. The oil is coursing through our blood, hair, teeth, skin, eyeballs, and central nervous systems. What to do? Well, he gave us a mountain of Prednisol steroids and antibiotics. Side effects? Sure. Several.
Heart palpitations, lethargy, blurred vision, nausea, cotton mouth, euphoria, excessive sweating, joint pain, drowsiness, insomnia, sensory hallucinations, chills, fever, hot flashes, swelling and... itching. Oh the itching.
But a kind of itching you cannot fathom until you've experienced it first hand. An itch so deep and so existential you begin to think the core of it can only be reached via the spirit world. A ghostly itch. A phantom itch, ever-present but always just out of reach. Fingers futilely clawing, clawing, clawing....
For the next five days we worked on an event production in the sweltering 90-degree Chicago heat. Fourteen-hour days. Pants saturated in sweat, blood, pus, and dirt. Scabs scabbing, pus running, legs bloating to the point of cankles. Talking like crazy people. Walking around like dazed crackheads. Telling anyone within ear shot to ignore everything we said and all of what we did. Guzzling gallon-jugs of water but somehow never pissing.
Exhausted, we returned home each night to cold baths of baking soda and white vinegar... chased by ample helpings of hydrogen peroxide, rubbing alcohol, ibuprofen and hydrocortizone cream. Such mess. Such itching. Such surprise! Such sadness and bewilderment.
Soon as we got back to Los Angeles we went to our doctor. Kolleen, unable to hide her shock at the expansiveness of our wounds, sternly pronounced, "If this doesn't at least get a bit better by next Monday, I may put the two of you in the hospital. You're at serious risk of contracting secondary bacterial infections. No smoking, no new vitamin supplements, no sugar, and no caffeine. If Strep takes hold in those wounds you're gonna be in for a much longer and much more painful recovery process."
Right. Flesh-eating Strep. Unfortunately, I had it years ago while living up at Whistler BC for a summer. Not fun. The only thing that got rid of it that time was a week in hospital.
I'd been wearing a Rector pad to "protect" an open wound on my left elbow. We were coaching shredders at a summer camp. Daily pummeling ourselves at the town's public skate park and in the icy salt-filled half-pipes up on the Horseman Glacier. Sun, sweat, bacteria and a dirty elbow pad created the optimal environment for the flesh eating Strep to overwhelm the arm and lugubriously slug its way to my heart. An unbroken red razor line running from wrist to left breast. Raised and hot to the touch. Neck flush with hives and fever. Lymph nodes hard as walnuts. The forearm reduced to a mass of white blisters and raw pink meat.
I was young and just about as dumb then as I am now. It was only when Danny Sullivan took a spiral fracture to his ankle and I drove him to the emergency room that I sort of nonchalantly asked the admitting doctor what he thought of the red streak running up my arm. He asked me to take off my shirt. After examining my everything, he said, "You're toast, and if you're not—you soon will be."
To which I said, "What does that mean, I'm toast?"
He replied, "You're going to die. See that red streak? If it hits your heart, your heart will be infected with bacteria and you will likely die. Die, got it? Toast. We need to admit you to ICU immediately. Kid, I'm not joking with you, so you can get that smirk off your face. We may already be too late."
Being on the young side and extremely Canadian, the doctor could hardly conceal his disgust and annoyance. Fair enough. While I took the doctor's words quite seriously, it wasn't the first time I'd nearly been killed by a situation so avoidable and so entirely my fault. It also wasn't the first time that some inconceivable twist of fate had intervened to keep me from death's door. For that is exactly where I was. The luck of it was not lost on me. Had Danny not broken that ankle and had I not immediately driven him to the hospital I'd in all likelihood not be typing these words now.
For seven days & nights the hospital pumped two IVs of antibiotics and one IV of saline solution into my body around the clock. Upon discharge, I had two months of oral antibiotics and made frequent visits to a monitoring physician. In every way it was pretty much a total drag. All these years later, if I look closely I can still see the discoloration and scaring along my left forearm and elbow. And in my mind's eye I can clearly recall the white blisters.
So, basically, long story longer... I'll do whatever it takes to not go through that again.
Oddly enough, the poison oak found along California's central coast is somehow more burly than elsewhere. And by burly I mean toxic enough to occasionally kill people. Particularly if burned. The smoke blisters the lungs and can cause one to go into anaphylactic shock.
Perhaps not so oddly, the State Parks don't do much in the way of alerting folks to just how prevalent poison oak is in the region. Far fewer people would probably bring their families to camp and hike in these coastal areas if they knew killer poison oak was to be found along every trail and road side and in every field, stream and riverbed. IT IS ABSOLUTELY EVERYWHERE.
Scrub brush, brambles, vines, roots, trees, and even fibers daintily floating on the wind. If you like camping, just remember these words: "Leaves of Three, Let it Be." Corny, sure. But it just might save you the agony of the all-consuming itch.
If the oil touches you, and if it works its way into your blood... it'll cause the rash to break out all over your body. The rash and blisters are your body's attempt to push the toxin to the surface and out of the body. If you get it on your clothes or your finger tips, everything you touch or rub up against will be left with a residue of poison oak oil. Essentially, this means you're just completely screwed for a good long while.
I knew we'd really descended into a situational hell hole at the moment I realized the rash was beginning to break out on my throat, cheek and eyelid. I awoke feeling the swelling sealing my left eye and burning a hole through my right cheek. It is one thing to have weeping sores on your legs, thighs, balls, wrists, arms and fingers. But it is entirely another to have a massive lesion sealing your eyelid shut. That's when the fear and misery really sets in and death starts to seem like a plausible option. No matter how badly you want to, you cannot itch that eyelid. You mustn't. Bad idea. The worst idea.
Until the day you've had a systemic reaction to poison oak, it is real funny to make fun of the poor bastards who get it. Once you've had it, however, you'll never laugh about it again. It is a truly monstrous plant.
Tammy and I have been at home trying to lay low, sleeping as much as possible, and generally only going out at night for errands and a bit of food. In addition to Prednisone we're now on sulfa drugs which cause a negative reaction with sunlight. Nausea and vomiting. So there's that. Neither of us is fairing too well as it is, so we've been pretty content to stay inside. She's been so sad and in such pain, it breaks my heart to see her this way.
My birthday was on Thursday, July 22nd. Memorable? Sure. I spent most of it on the couch in my underwear and a mangled v-neck t-shirt, scratching bleeding sores, bidding on an ebay guitar, and cracking endless jokes of exasperation with Tammy. That is, until we just couldn't take it any more.
So we gingerly put on some loose fitting clothes and drove over to Joe Donnelly's launch party for SLAKE at Track 16 in Santa Monica. It was nice to be there for a second, saying hi and lending support. Pretty soon though we had to get the fuck outta there. Nothing feels quite so lame as wearing excessive clothing to conceal your open sores, scratching like a maniac, and self consciously detailing your ongoing experience with poison oak to every angel and asshole you come across.
One week down, three more to go.