Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Slapped cheeks

Sunday. I wake up and can't feel my fingers. This is unusual, I think. The house is cold, and I've always had poor circulation — I can't remember my hands and feet ever not being cold in winter — but this is extreme. I must have coffee, warm up. Nothing to do but start the day. I move to swing my legs over the side of the bed, but my knees are less than cooperative. This is strange, I think. Something's not right.

I have a hard time moving my fingers. I'm walking slow, cuz I hurt. There are things to do around the house, some groceries to pick up, the kid to hang out with. Finding a clinic open on Sunday is more trouble than grinning and bearing it and waiting till morning. I have a hot soak in the middle of the day. I know something's not right.

Monday. I wake up with swollen hands and stiff knees. And stiff elbows and swollen ankles. I get the family out the door and determine to arm myself with a little internet research before hying myself to a clinic.

"Research" (that is, googling symptom key words) doesn't get me beyond rheumatoid arthritis. I'm unable to determine whether one can succumb to the affliction overnight. I'm certain I'm going to die. I will gradually lose all mobility, and one morning later this week I'll wake up petrified, stone-still, dead.

Research into my death grinds to a halt when the phone rings. J-F is bringing Helena home. The daycare called him to pick her up. She's got a bit of a rash. They think it might be la cinquième maladie.

Never heard of it. It couldn't possibly go by that name in English, could it? I google in French and English. There it is. Fifth disease, erythema infectiosum, parvovirus B19, slapped-cheek disease.

A respiratory virus. I scan for symptoms. Low-grade fever, runny nose, fatigue; general flu-like symptoms. I suppose Helena may have it, or she may have a cold or flu. Cheeks that look like they've been slapped — Helena and I are generally red-cheeked all winter.

Then suddenly I see the damning evidence on all sides.

"Adults usually get a more severe case, with fever and painful joints." Adults can develop "joint pain or swelling... The joints most frequently affected are the hands, wrists, and knees." "Self-limited arthritis." "Acute polyarthropathy... usually involving finger joints."

Now I'm certain Helena has it, because I'm certain I have it too.

I call the pediatrician's office. Another doctor at the clinic has walk-in hours that afternoon. We arrive early so that we can wait 2 hours. I made the mistake of grabbing a sudoku book instead of my novel on the way out the house — it's damn near impossible for me to grip a pencil. But after 2 hours, Helena pretty much has the basic premise down and can write numbers in for me. She's bored and impatient, but remarkably sweet and good. She befriends a young toddler whom she helps to toddle.

The daycare will not allow Helena to return without a doctor's note. I'm miffed by the daycare's alarmist attitude, the implied judgement on my negligent mothering. But after 2 hours of sitting and overthinking, I realize they don't need a diagnosis, they just need a doctor's confirmation. They already know that the disease is self-limiting, and that Helena is well enough to participate in usual daycare activities. They already know that Helena's rash is a late stage of the disease, well past infectious. But they do need to advise employees and the parents of all attendees that there's been a confirmed case and that it poses a risk to pregnant women.

The doctor takes one look at Helena's forearms and confirms the diagnosis. While she obliges us with a note for daycare, I fish for information about my own condition, I say I think I have it too. She taps her own cheeks to indicate the bright red splotches across mine and nods slightly. She flexes her own hands, advising, in a word, "Tylenol." You don't need to see a doctor (unless you're pregnant); there's nothing a doctor can do.

I wake up today with the same hands that don't quite work and still-slow knees. This may go on all week, possibly for many weeks. "Unlike rheumatoid arthritis, joint pain worsens over the day, and no joint destruction occurs." Movement doesn't exactly get any easier throughout the day, but after a couple hours I get used to it.

Helena wants desperately to stay home today and I let her, though this is contrary to the advice for me to rest and restrict my activity. Everyday chores previously merely distasteful are now fully painful: unloading the dishwasher (without dropping anything); gripping the scoop to clean the cat litter; gripping heavy, wet laundry to whip it into the dryer; gripping a knife to chop vegetables. (Never mind uncorking a wine bottle.) For some things, I breathe deep and force it: doing up her buttons when she asks for help, cutting up her meat, colouring pictures with her.

I've never known anyone who's been struck by this kind of temporary, severe arthritis. I'm mystified that a virus and a body can come together to yield this kind of result. It's a strange thing, a unique experience I don't quite know what to make of yet. I have a window onto other people's pain-filled lives. It may be a glimpse of my own future, a decade or 2 or more from now.

I've been slapped hard.
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