Hitting the Roof

Dr Sarah Boston
7 min readJan 21, 2019

Looking back, it is not at all surprising that I got Shingles. At the time, I couldn’t believe it was happening, because I was only 44 years old. Up until this point, I didn’t really know what Shingles was. I thought it was just an inconvenient little rash that old people get when they are stressed. Shingles is a form of the chicken pox virus. It can stay latent in your nervous system for decades and return with a vengeance if your immune system lets its guard down.

We were in the process of moving from Florida, where I worked as a veterinary surgeon, back to Canada. When we sold our house, the prospective buyer wanted to take possession one month before we were ready to go. We were trying to decide if we could accommodate the possession date, and I remember saying to my husband, “I can’t do it. I’ll die.” We accepted the offer the next day.

The month before the move was a whirlwind. It started with evacuating for hurricane Irma. I know that real Floridians don’t evacuate for hurricanes, but we are not real Floridians and I did not feel the need to experience a hurricane. Ever. We came home to a mercifully intact, still under-contract house. I then headed off for a four-day trip to Edinburgh to speak at a veterinary orthopaedic meeting. Two days after I got home, we put all of our possessions that would not fit into the car in storage and moved out of our house. We moved into an empty house on the farm where my husband worked. We slept on a mattress on the floor and we bought a few random dishes at Goodwill. At first, the simplicity was thrilling. But what started out as minimalism, ended up feeling more like a crack den. Apparently my minimalism has limits and those limits are right about when I start feeling like a character from the original Trainspotting.

I was working in the hospital on clinics for a week and then headed to Indianapolis to speak at our annual surgery meeting. Around this time, my endocrinologist, who has never called me once in the five years that I have been her post-thyroid cancer patient, called to tell me that my thyroid levels were alarmingly low and she wondered how I was functioning. I also wondered how I was functioning. I supplemented my deficient thyroid hormone with pure obstinance.

I had two more weeks of clinics and then I was done. You can do anything for two weeks, right? For some reason that I will never understand, (I am sure I had reasons) I decided that the best plan would be for my husband to pack up the dog and the car and to pick me up on my last day of work so we could immediately start driving to Canada.

On my last few days of work, I felt a bit off. I wasn’t sleeping well. I started getting severe headaches that I had never experienced before. I had some sort of skin situation on my chin, and a tingling sensation around my right ear. Adult acne? Staph infection? Bug bites? Just Florida in general? Head lice from dubious Halloween costume rental? I had no idea. Also, I had no time to think about it as I had to pack up my office and my locker and get ready to move to Canada. I also had to do surgery and see patients and perform other aspects of my job.

By my last day of work, I was feeling pretty rough. The “Staph infection” was getting worse and my home remedies did not seem to be working. I also had some pain in my right mandibular lymph node, which I ignored. Friday afternoon came, and I found myself doing some intense internal coaching to just “get to the car” and “make it to through today”. I could feel that my face situation was evolving, but I didn’t have time to look in the mirror and thankfully, I was wearing a surgical mask for some of the day. I said goodbye to the people I worked with at the veterinary teaching hospital and, conservatively, hugged around 100 people.

My husband finally cameto get me on what felt like the longest day of my life. I crumpled myself into the passenger seat and I took a moment to stop and assess what was happening to my face. I pulled down the sun visor and looked in the mirror. My skin issue had progressed significantly since the morning and my right mandibular lymph node was about 4cm in diameter. It was so swollen, it had distorted the bottom half of my face.

I hit a wall. Actually, a ceiling, or maybe it was the roof. I had Shingles. I called in some (human) medical advice and stopped at an urgent care on the I-95. Although I used to call these roadside urgent careclinics the Doc-in-the-Box, they were amazing. The nurse practitioner I saw was excellent and he started me on antivirals immediately. I was extremely grateful and inexplicably weepy. I cried when I said goodbye to the staff like they were old friends. We wanted to stop to rest, but, due to the UF-Georgia football game in Jacksonville the next day, we couldn’t find a hotel room anywhere. One last dig from the South, a culture that I could never fit in to or understand. We kept driving north.

So, looking back on the 5 weeks leading up to my last day, it is not shocking that this happened. Shingles is related to stress and I piled it on. There was also the long-term, low-grade toxicity in my workplace that I tried to deny and ignore. I smiled as I told everyone that I was moving back to Canada because I was homesick, or to be near my elderly parents (all true), or I just let people fill in their own narrative that it must be Trump. Okay, you got me, it’s totally Trump. Trump is unbearable. (Also true.) I tried to keep the work stress on the down-low. I pushed it underground, but it recrudesced like a latent chicken pox virus. It travelled along my nerves, wreaking havoc in its wake and causing severe pain along the way, until it finally erupted at the surface. You can try to suppress it, but in the end, it is going to do what it is going to do, and you are just going to be sick until you finally listen to your body and take care of yourself.

At first, I kept the whole thing a bit quiet. I had Shingles-shame. That is a weird aspect of the disease that I wasn’t expecting. Usually when I am sick, I want to tell everyone to maximize the attention. I wrote a memoir about having thyroid cancer. I like the attention.

Why the shame? Maybe because having Shingles suggested that I was not a strong person, that my immune system couldn’t hack it. I have always believed that I can do anything I put my mind to. Shingles put this belief into question. I felt broken. I was broken. There were also the fantastically ugly Shingles lesions on my face. There is shame in looking like that. Even though it is not your fault, you feel the shame of the ugly. I could not overcome my vanity. The facial lesions devastated me. Over the weeks, the lesions on my face progressed through all of the stages: pustules; weeping pustules; scabbed-over lesions; bonus secondarily infected scabbed-over lesions; red healing mess; something that passes for adult acne; and, even now, some souvenir scars. There was no hiding from it. I briefly considered wearing a hijab. Maybe people would think I was protesting the controversial Quebec face-veil ban. I was okay with that. My friends suggested that we go out for Halloween together and all dress as zombies. They would apply zombie makeup and I would just be myself and blend in with the crowd. I loved the idea, and I think my zombie costume was a winner, but, unfortunately, I wasn’t up for it.

Even with the challenges of having Shingles on my face, the worst part of Shingles by far, was the pain. It’s neurogenic pain. That is Latin for “please someone just shoot me”. You can’t talk about it without feeling like you are complaining too much, but there are no words that adequately describe this level of pain. It made any pain I had felt previously pale in comparison. It made me understand suicide in a way that I never have before. I felt hopeless.

So, after this much needed wake up call, I did the only sensible thing. I drove to Canada and then promptly flew to Philadelphia and New York for speaking engagements over a one-week period. Why? Because people were counting on me and because I am even more stubborn than I am vain. Also, in my defense, I had Hamilton tickets. Hamilton. I spoke at two veterinary meetings with festering pustules on my face. That happened. This was a first for me (and hopefully a last). I kept powering through. I had learned nothing. Also in my defense, I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I was ostensibly homeless because I was in-between homes. If I had had a home and a bed, maybe I would have just stayed there, but the road was my home for the foreseeable future. This was all by my design. I couldn’t figure out a low-stress way to get off the train.

Now that I am on the other side of Shingles and my facial scars are starting to fade, maybe I have learned something. I took a career break before starting my new job. The thing is, I had planned this time off before the Shingles fiasco. I already knew that I needed to take a break and, Universe, if you are listening, I really didn’t need you to drive the point home so hard. I got the message. I got Shingles just as I hit the finish line because there should never be a finish line. When I look in the mirror, I have the scars to remind me that there is nothing more important than my health. I try to cover them with make up every day so I can look more perfect.



Dr Sarah Boston

Dr Sarah Boston is a veterinary surgical oncologist,author(Lucky Dog,House of Anansi Press),cancer survivor & comedian https://drsarahboston.com @drsarahboston