For my birthday this year, I got a new purse, some fancy lotion and a case of shingles.

Seriously. I woke up with back pain, which isn’t unusual for me. I did the heating-pad-and-ibuprofen routine for two days, but the pain only got worse. Then I developed a weird rash in the shape of the Nike logo wrapped around one side of my ribcage, and I called my doctor. She took one look at a picture of the rash, cross-checked it with my medical history, which contains a childhood case of chickenpox, and promptly diagnosed me with shingles.

I admit, the first thing I thought was “Isn’t shingles an old-people thing?” Medical science doesn’t know what exactly causes an outbreak of shingles (which is basically a zombie chickenpox virus, back for revenge), but personally I think it was because my body got sick of me joking about being old and doing old-person things like listening to Jimmy Buffett and complaining about kids in the yard, so it threw me a curveball.

My second thought was being scared that my mom might get it, because she had been in contact with the rash when she rubbed some ointment on it at the onset of the outbreak. (Living with your mom isn’t perfect, but I have to say it’s really nice when I’m sick.) Fortunately, she had already gotten a shingles vaccine. If you, the person reading this article, are over 50 (and you probably are, I know newspaper demographic data), please ask your doctor about getting the shingles vaccine if you haven’t yet. The older a person gets, the higher your risk of complications gets. My grandmother had shingles in her early 70s, and it damaged the nerves in her hand to the point where she called it “the claw.” If you had a hot mug of tea she would come up and gently nuzzle it with her hand and say, “The claw … the claw likes warmth.”

I’m very fortunate to be young(ish) and without any underlying conditions. But I wouldn’t wish this experience on my worst enemy. It’s that bad. I am pretty sure this is the most physical pain I have ever been in. I say “pretty sure” because the thing about pain is, our brains have a way of glossing over memories of physical pain. I once asked my mom how much childbirth hurt and she got this misty smile and said, “Oh, I don’t really remember, I just remember seeing you for the first time!”

But all said, this has been pretty bad. I have a fairly high pain tolerance – I once ran a mile on a fully sprained ankle – but this feels like all the nerves in my torso have gone full Yosemite Sam, jumping and yelling and firing pain every which way. And of course, I can’t have the really good painkillers because of my history with addiction. Alternating ibuprofen with acetaminophen hasn’t been working very well. I even tried smoking some weed, which is only the second time in my life I’ve tried it, and not only did it not help with the pain, but also I accidentally burned the tip of my nose doing it. (This was because my rolling papers were too short. After that, I smoked the rest out of an apple, which I used a pen to poke pipe-holes in. Amazingly, it worked.)

However, despite the ongoing agony, I’m feeling pretty lucky. Even though I’m still unemployed (I’m working on changing that, too, I promise), I’m covered under MaineCare thanks to MaineCare expansion, with a little insurance card and everything. I was able to seek my doctor’s help for my pain without having to worry about cost, and I was able to afford (and start taking) an antiviral the same day I was diagnosed. Like many medical conditions, early intervention is vital for shortening the length of a shingles outbreak (although any length of time with shingles is too much time with shingles, as far as I am concerned).

If MaineCare expansion hadn’t passed, I wouldn’t have received coverage when I lost my job due to the economic fallout of the pandemic, and I might have delayed contacting my doctor for fear of the cost. This experience has made me even more confident that we really need to detach the ability to pay for health care from a job.

When I voted “yes” on the referendum to expand Medicaid in 2017, I didn’t think I would ever be benefiting personally from it. Life is funny like that. So when you go to vote, remember: the health care you save may be your own.

Victoria Hugo-Vidal is a Maine millennial. She can be contacted at:
Twitter: mainemillennial

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