Il fuoco di Sant’Antonio

This is your brain on shingles.

Geoff Currier on the edge of the MV Hospital roof deck holding a pair of pickle socks.—Jamie Kaegleiry

It was Sunday, June 11. I was feeling a little flu-ey, kind of discombobulated. The next day I decided to go down to Vineyard Medical Care, thinking perhaps I had Lyme disease. My wife Joyce and I sat with the doctor, and I was having a hard time concentrating on our conversation. I was later told that the three doctors at the clinic had a consultation, and were alarmed at the fact that I didn’t even know who my wife was.

From there I was sent to the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, where I had a CT scan and an MRI, the MRI being notable for showing a number of “shadows on the brain,” so MV Hospital arranged for me to be admitted to Massachusetts General’s neurology department. The next day I was taken by ambulance to the ICU at MGH, where teams of doctors tried to diagnose my problem. In the meantime, they were just treating me for everything under the sun.

After a day or two, I developed a rash on my back, and Dr. Urday at MGH asked if I had ever had chickenpox. When I told him no, a light went on, and Dr. Urday said, This could explain everything. When they did a spinal tap, however, the test came back negative. The hospital then ordered biopsies on one of the blisters, and the next day Dr. Urday came into my room and said, “Great news, you have chickenpox!” Actually, he said, I had Herpes zoster, also known as shingles or chickenpox, a viral disease characterized by a skin rash.

I bumped into an Italian friend of mine last week, and she said, “Oh, you had fuoco di Sant’Antonio, the fire of Saint Anthony — shingles.” The virus had gone up my spinal column and into my brain. And the reason this diagnosis was good news was that at least it allowed them to concentrate on one specific virus, rather than trying to treat everything, across the board. I ended up staying at MGH under a nearly steady drip of antibiotics and antiviral drugs until June 21. Then I was released back to MVH to continue the drugs, and for two weeks of physical and cognitive therapy.

The last few days at Mass General I was deemed mobile enough to get around on my own; at MVH, however, tired from having made the trip from Boston, I was back to square one and had to have a nurse accompany my every move. I was desperate to have the freedom to be able to move around unassisted. Given all my medications and the near constant drip of my IV, I had to urinate about every half-hour — and it was downright embarrassing to have to ring the nurse every time nature called.

Finally, after a couple of days I was given the right to go free-range, and the first thing I did was to go across the corridor and out the door to the magnificent roof deck that awaited outside. The deck was a field of gardens and beautiful flowing grasses and benches, and off in the distance lay the lagoon and Vineyard Haven Harbor.

As I was approaching the deck on my first solo trip out, I was listening to a voicemail from a friend of mine, Will Luckey. Caught up in the exuberance of being outside in such a glorious setting and the realization that I was actually going to be all right, I called him back and left my own message. “I’ll tell you who’s lucky,” I yelled, “I’m lucky to be alive, I’m the luckiest guy in the world!” There’s no real explanation for what I did next except that perhaps my brain was not fully operational, but I jumped up on one of the benches, in obvious defiance of the rule that said you should not do anything that could cause you to fall over on your head. I then brayed into the phone, “You should see this, you can see all the way down to the end of the Lagoon!”

That’s when my pajama bottoms fell down to my ankles.

If someone had been looking out of the nursing station at that moment and saw me standing on a bench with my backside hanging out, all my solo privileges would have been canceled for life, but as it was, this was a breakthrough moment. I knew from that time on that I was going to be all right.

I would go on to spend another two weeks in rehab, and I’m extremely fortunate that I’m making great progress. I’m gradually getting my strength back. My brain is actually firing on all cylinders. All things considered, I feel pretty damn good.

I would be remiss in not acknowledging the great care I received; my wife (whose name I can now recall) and family were with me every step of the way. Martha’s Vineyard Hospital and Mass General worked in tandem just the way they should have. MVH was terrific until the time when they handed me off to MGH. Mass General, with its teams of diagnosticians, was able to identify the problem, and then I came back home to MVH for rehab. And trust me, there’s no place that I’d rather be. The nursing staff was compassionate and professional. The artwork lining every wall was inspirational and therapeutic. The food was delicious — we had lobster rolls on the Fourth of July — and the roof deck, well once you got up on the bench, it had a really nice view.