So my toe was itching. Don’t stop reading yet. It was itching really bad. At first I thought it was a bug bite because well, what else itches miserably on one’s foot? I asked my husband, “Athlete’s foot”, he said.
“Athelete’s foot?” I said, “But I’m so clean.”
“It’s not about being dirty. It’s about sweaty feet,” he said.
“But my feet don’t sweat,” I insisted. This was true. I barely sweated period. I considered myself “most desirable to lay a mat down next to” in yoga class for this reason. But other than that I didn’t look at it as a positive. I thought it was kind of gross since while other people sweated toxins out, I supposed mine just built up and festered.
“It’s definitely Athelete’s foot,” Rick confirmed after further analysis with his iPhone flashlight.
I accepted his prognosis since he has a doctorate in Engineering and proceeded to slather it with Lamisol. It felt better. I had a few hours respite from itching. I was thrilled.
But then the itching came back, with a vengeance. I had been on the cream for almost five days and by the sixth night at 2 A.M. I was fairly certain I had contracted either flesh eating disease or colony of tiny animals had decided to settle down in my toenail bed. By 8 A.M., I was beside myself. I called my dermatologist for an emergency appointment.
“Hello?” said a chirpy female voice.
“Thank God you answered the phone! Something is wrong with my toe. I haven’t slept. I can’t stop itching. I’ve got to have it looked at,” I said.
“Well Dr. M is at a ranch in Montana, but her nurse practitioner can see you at 9,” said the receptionist.
“I cannot thank you enough!” I was so grateful I wanted to cry. I had momentary doubts about seeing a nurse practitioner but the receptionist assured me she wasn’t a new nurse practitioner. She had years of experience. Besides, a lot of people I knew basically only saw nurse practitioners with their health insurance.
I went in at nine and was promptly seen by Jenna, the beautiful, tall, blonde nurse practitioner. She was so accommodating she didn’t even ask me to hold my foot up. She crouched down on her knees and looked at it while I sat in the chair.
“Hmmm. She said. It doesn’t look like fungus to me,” she said.
“It’s not that flesh eating thing is it?” I asked.
“No, don’t worry about that,” Jenna said with a laugh.
“That’s a relief. But what then? Bacterial infection? We were hiking in Colorado,” I asked somewhat relieved.
She shook her head and continued to look at my blistery toe.
“Do you have the herpes virus?” Jenna asked.
“I do, but I haven’t had a cold sore in years,” I said.
“I think its herpes,” she said.
“Excuse me? Herpes? On my toe?” I asked sitting up.
She nodded. “It’s called herpes whitlow and usually we only see it on health workers or hands. It’s very rare but I’m pretty sure that’s what it is,” she said.
“So you’re telling me the dormant virus in my blood has migrated down my entire body and manifested itself randomly on my big toe?” I asked.
“Looks to be the case,” she said.
“But why would it do that all of a sudden?” I asked.
“Maybe something aggravated the area and caused too much friction,” said Jenna.
“Like from a bad flip-flop?” I asked incredulous.
“Yeah, like that,” she said.
I couldn’t believe this was happening. I felt ashamed, like I was somehow dirty or inferior, but herpes on my toe? Immediately my mind went to who was exposed to my feet in the past itchy week. We go barefoot in my house! That means my husband and kids were exposed. Even my mom and dad were exposed! I couldn’t imagine giving my elderly parents herpes. But looking at my foot, the sores were between my toe and on top of it, not on the bottom and they didn’t hurt. They just itched. Maybe this nurse had the wrong diagnosis. Who ever heard toe herpes? Oh well, my parents might have enjoyed having a new non-life threatening ailment to kvetch about and one-up the other relatives on.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Maybe I should double check,” said the nurse.
She left the room, presumably to consult with someone. Or so I thought. She returned in a few minutes with medical book. She pulled up a chair and sat down next to me so we could both see.
“Let me see if I can find this,” she said as she perused the index for herpetic whitlow. She found it and starting leafing through numerous pages of people with horrifying sores covering their faces, hands, or eye area. It was pretty grim stuff. I don’t think I hid the look of terror on my face.
“Don’t worry, these photos are pretty third world,” she said.
I assumed she meant these were people who had no access to running water or a mirror due to poverty, which resulted in the sores spreading like crazy. Either that or the strain of herpes that infiltrated Haiti was somehow more virulent than the strain that dared enter West Los Angeles. Either way, I didn’t want to comment as I was hoping if I was sweet enough, I might get squeezed in to see a doctor.
“Isn’t there a test we could do to be sure?” I asked.
“I don’t see anything to take a culture of,” Jenna said.
“Maybe if you’re not 100% sure I should see a doctor?” I suggested mildly.
“I’ll take a photo and send it to Dr. M,” said Jenna.
“That sounds like a great idea,” I said.
She pulled out an iPad and crouched down to the floor next to my foot was and started taking pictures. Her body was blocking the light.
“I can lift my foot up,” I offered. “Those look kind of dark,” I said.
“No, it’s okay. Dark photos are easier to see actually,” she said before leaving the room again.
While I waited for her to return I tried to figure out if I’d rubbed my toe on my husbands’ leg last week. He wasn’t crazy about feet in general so I didn’t think I had. Jenna came back in.
“Dr. M looked at the photos and she agrees with me,” she said, “Herpes whitlow. We need to start you on anti-virals right away.”
I was dumb-founded. I really thought it couldn’t be herpes. But I respected Dr. M and she was not a fear monger. She wasn’t even quick to cut off moles if they were in areas that scarred easily. The weight of this diagnosis finally hit me. Jenna could probably see it on my face.
“Maybe I’ll run your case by Doctor T when she comes in,” she said.
“There’s a doctor coming in? Can I see her?” I asked desperately.
“No she’s really booked,” said Jenna, “But I’ll show her the photo.”
“I could just hang out in the waiting room in case she wants to see my toe between patients?” I offered hopefully.
“The photo will more than suffice,” Jenna assured me.
I wasn’t so sure. That photo looked pretty crappy to me.
“If this is herpes does this mean it’s going to keep coming back to the same place?” I asked.
“Yes, unfortunately, that’s what tends to happen,” she said
I loitered around the check out counter for as long as I could, hoping the doctor would walk in and I could more or less jam my toe into her view. But no such luck. I told the receptionist that I would be in the area in case the doctor did ask to see me. I really thought she might since this was such a rare thing. She could brag about seeing a case of toe-herpes to her doctor friends. I left the office and moped around the next couple of blocks. As I passed by clothing shops and nail salons, my mind went to shoes and pedicures. What would I say to my pedicurist, Um I know we haven’t been in this relationship very long but there’s something you should know. Or when I wanted shoes would I have to bring my own socks even to try on sandals? And what about my yoga mat? I had loaned that out the past week. I was a disease spreader! I wanted to vent my bad news to someone. I stared down at my disgusting toe and then I felt embarrassed and dirty and I wanted to cry. But I didn’t cry because really, herpes on my foot? I mean it wasn’t great but it wasn’t cancer or heart disease or loss of a loved one. I mean, I wasn’t thrilled about having ugly blistery sores on my right big toe but in the scheme of things so what? I could still walk and even dance on my blistery toe.
I was texting a friend of mine telling her I had herpes on my toe and she could no longer borrow my shoes when my phone rang.
“Hi, it’s Jenna from Dr. M’s office,” said the nurse, “So, I showed the photos to Dr. T and we don’t think its herpes. It turns out you would have had to rub your toe into someone’s open sore to contract it there.”
“I assure you I haven’t done anything kinky with my toe,” I said, “But what is it then?”
“Poison Oak,” said the nurse, “I remembered you told me you were hiking in Colorado. Oh the doctor is nodding now. It looks just like poison oak. And poison oak itches.”
I texted my friend again, “Turns out it was Poison Oak.”
My friend texted back, “Hmph. I’ve had vaginal poison oak and frankly I think I’d rather have herpes.”