JulieLeung.com: a life told in tidepools

pictures and stories from the water’s edge

JulieLeung.com: a life told in tidepools header image 2

V is for Varicella

April 19th, 2006 · 8 Comments

Chicken pox in process

There are a number of reasons why this blog has been quiet but the past ten days can be summarized with two words:

Chicken Pox

Seeing Spots

On Saturday April 8 we invited friends over for dinner. The kids seemed unusually fussy that night and I was suspicious they might be ill. As they were undressing for bed, I noticed spots on Abigail’s and MIchaela’s backs. Two weeks earlier, the girls had been exposed to an adult who had shingles so I had been looking for signs. The older two came down first and are now returning to their normal activities along with their scabs although we have dropped out of our swimming lessons this month. Elisabeth our youngest started her spots on Wednesday night and now also seems to be in the scab state.

When I called the nurse that Saturday night, I was frightened by the list of potential symptoms and complications. But so far the girls have done well. The nurse said that 400 pox was average. Abigail had at most 275 or so, while Michaela topped off around 150. Elisabeth does seem to be having a more intense response than Michaela, perhaps because she was exposed more to the virus. She is the only one who had places on her body where all I could see were pox, but these places are few.

It’s viral

For a few days though I didn’t know whether Elisabeth would get the chicken pox too. I wanted her to get them this time, so I encouraged her sisters to cough in her direction and share utensils, practices this mom-with-some-microbiology-training usually avoids. At one point I was begging and joking with Elisabeth to get the chicken pox. She replied “I’ll get some soon.” It’s a bit strange to experience the definition of contagious, and to see it in visible red bumps on backs. It’s a bit strange to see a disease spread across my family members, to know I encouraged it, and to be okay, perhaps even happy about it. I’m actually happy they are getting it now, before they are older, and during a time when they are not missing many other activities or events.

Toolkit for surviving chicken pox

I’ll make note here, in case it is helpful to future chicken pox sufferers, of products and tips we found helpful:
At first I made oatmeal baths from wrapping oatmeal in washcloths, then I thought old socks would be a better vehicle and also disposable. Finally I discovered Aveeno Skin Relief Bath Treatments (100% colloidal oatmeal) which are convenient although expensive (about $1 a bath packet) compared to oatmeal-in-a-washcloth.

Baking soda is also an excellent bath aid – stock up! A 1 lb. box is good for 8 baths or so.

Aveeno also makes an Anti-Itch Concentrated Lotion that was easier to apply than the (cheaper) calomine lotion (generic Safeway brand).

Benadryl and Tylenol – I think we’ve gone through at least a bottle of each.

Frozen foods can be helpful aids for numbing painful areas. I will spare future embarrassment by not naming the child, but one of our girls has gotten a lot of comfort from juice concentrate placed in a strategic place against lots of pox.

Popsicles are great for swollen throats and fevers.

A fleece nightgown came in handy. I had bought some for the girls for Christmas, stocking up on a sale, but I had to open Elisabeth’s and give it to her this week. She couldn’t wear any other clothing for a few days.

And finally, lots of amusements can distract from the pain and help pass the time. Puzzles, games, construction projects, art helped the days disappear. Giving special treats helps motivate the kids too. Stacks of library books were enjoyed. A special CD sent by a friend entertained them multiple times as they peered over the pictures of the musical. (yes, you can survive chicken pox without tv or DVD!)

Survival guide for parents

A few tips too for parents and caretakers of chicken pox children. Here’s what has helped me get through the past ten days:

1. Having time to myself became crucial, especially during the itchy pox phases (days 2 through 5) when the kids needed my constant attention. Because Ted works from home, I was able to get out to run errands during naptime (this was mostly stops to pick up more Tylenol). Getting up early enough to exercise and have some time to think helped me survive the rest of the nonstop day.

2. Stopping soon after the kids went to sleep so I could take a bath and get enough rest for myself.

3. Telling myself and the kids that the pox wouldn’t last that long. My kids were like textbook cases and each one was better by Day 6, as the nurse told me. (This lifehacker piece on how to stay calm fits well: this too shall pass)

Everyone has a chicken pox story

Once I tell someone that my girls have the chicken pox, the stories start. Everyone has a chicken pox story. I’ve got a chicken pox story too. It’s a tale of irony and humility. In eighth grade I was still a varicella virgin. I had signed up to take chorus that year only because I wanted to be in the musical the eighth graders performed in the spring. The eighth grade musical was the place to be. Even though my singing skills needed improvement, I auditioned for a role in The Mikado (I think it was Katisha). I can still remember auditioning before my classmates: I was competing with one of my best friends. When I wasn’t selected, I then decided to work behind the scenes as the set manager. I was determined to participate in the musical. Of course, in this context, the punchline of this story is obvious. I came down with chicken pox at such a time, that I missed the entire musical performance. Both weekends of it, I believe. It felt a bit like one of those James Joyce short stories where the character looks at her reflection and sees how vain she is. Only I saw chicken pox dots in the mirror.

Chicken pox is a choice

Yes, I made a choice that my kids would come down with chicken pox. I could have had them vaccinated but I thought that the natural immunity could be obtained with low risk of serious complications. From what I remember, I had a mild case, and it seems so far at least my older two kids survived the virus well too. I also believe that the current vaccination schedule is rather intense for young children, so I preferred to postpone the chicken pox immunization. However, if my kids had not come down with it by age 10 or so, I was planning to give them the vaccine then, to spare them the possibility of a more intense case during puberty or shingles in adulthood.

It is strange, I confess, to have chosen this path. Chicken pox is becoming a disease of the Stone Age so to speak. People are no longer familiar with it. People have been surprised that I didn’t vaccinate my kids. It is a disease that seems to be disappearing.

Guilt, every parent’s companion, is also present in this decision. Looking at my kids covered with epidermal eruptions, at moments I wondered why I had let them get sick. It has been hard to see them suffer, knowing this was a choice I made.

A matter of convenience?

I remember hearing on the news that the chicken pox vaccine had been approved. In this news report years ago, one of the reasons given for this new vaccine was convenience. It was more convenient for families, specifically for working parents, to avoid the varicella virus.

Since we homeschool, and I am at home with the kids, it didn’t seem that inconvenient to take a week’s break to be sick. We did have to drop out of swimming lessons for a month. But my older two would have only missed four days of work/school. And while they were ill, they painted, shaped clay, watched tadpoles grow, built a replica of an American fort (from a kit) and read stacks of books.

Yet I can see why health providers and many families would prefer the vaccine. A week is a week and it can be quite inconvenient, as my own story proves. A week of sick time for a working parent could be a crisis. And I can understand why health providers who are already incredibly busy and pressured would prefer to have fewer chicken pox complications, office visits and phone calls. There can be complications and infections. Kids do die from chicken pox. Why risk it?

I believe there is solid science on both sides of the vaccination debate and I’m not going to enter into that discussion here. But I will say that while I have a better appreciation for immunization, I am also grateful that I am allowed to make choices for my children’s health. I’m glad I can make choices that I believe are the best for our family. And I’m glad I chose chicken pox.

Lessons learned

Community and generosity

Two families from our new church stopped by with gifts for the girls. I know not everyone has time or gifts to spare, but we appreciated the visits. It meant a lot to me, especially because we have been attending this church a short time. To see that people care about us and our family comforted me too. Of course the girls loved the treats, and the paper dolls and toys amused them for hours. Most of all I saw what generosity and care can mean during a rough week. I want to try to do the same for others.

Chicken Pox Box

In my bedroom closet I had accumulated a number of treats, gifts I had planned to give the kids for their birthdays this year or for amusement during conferences or rainy days, . This box of gifts was helpful this past week. I gave the girls one treat a day, sometimes two. The puzzles and toys kept us going through the days. I realized the importance of having a few extra gifts on hand, the importance of having a stocked Chicken Pox Box. You never know when you might need it!

Taking Time

Most of all, as our schedule has slowed, I’ve enjoyed quiet moments with my children. I spent Easter morning cuddling on the sofa with Elisabeth in my lap, playing games she invented with her Doodle Pro. The slower pace of the past several days has refreshed me, and reminded me of the simplicity we once had. In the past year, the kids and I have added more than 15 hours a week of lessons to our lives, including the time spent practicing piano and the transitions in and out of the pool. On the one hand, we want and need the lessons. Yet I’ve liked the extra time we’ve had in the day. Time to organize closets and refrigerator – time to discover long-lost items. Time to read books without looking at the clock. I want to see if I can find more of this.

This is the first time my kids have been this ill, with the exception perhaps of one or two infections in infancy. Opposites emphasize each other. And it is this time of sickness that makes me grateful for health and life. There are moments of slowness I want to savor, cuddles I want to keep, a closeness I want to continue as long as we can.

Tags: family

8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Lucy // Apr 19, 2006 at 10:54 am

    I didn’t get mine vaccinated for that either yet. I’m fascinated by the people that assume that means I’m “anti-medicine” and “anti-science”.

    Glad y’al are feeling better. It can be SO rough trying to keep little ones entertained when all they want to do is itch-itch-itch!

  • 2 Ed // Apr 20, 2006 at 11:16 am

    Hey Julie,

    I believe that you are at risk of shingles as an adult because you had chicken pox some time in your life. Here is a site that talks about it:


    Mary and I went back and forth on whether to vaccinate Jared or not. Could the vaccine fail and cause him to get them as an adult? In the end, he got the vaccine. The neighbor kids got the poxs last summer. Oddly enough, one of the older kids got shingles causing chicken pox in the younger kids. Jared had three spots on his back. We are not totally sure if it was a very mild case of Chicken Pox or not.

  • 3 Katherine // Apr 20, 2006 at 12:53 pm

    So lovely to hear from you again here. Thanks for all these insights. I am glad the girls are on the mend.

  • 4 Derek K. Miller // Apr 20, 2006 at 3:14 pm

    We had our duaghters vaccinated. I don’t want to want about it, and I certainly don’t want to be critical that you didn’t, Julie. The chicken pox vaccine is relatively new, and plenty of people decide not to get it.

    The key reason we did for our kids is that the vaccine, because it is not a live virus, provides immunity without the risk of shingles later in life. (The vaccine makers seem a bit reluctant to claim that, probably for liability reasons, but my wife and I both have biology degrees, and I can’t see any reason that wouldn’t be the case.)

    Shingles can be debilitating if you get it at an advanced age or if it affects your face or eyes. Like you, Julie, we’re not among those who are suspicious of vaccines — we may be a bit overzealous, in fact, vaccinating our kids for nearly anything reasonably available. So it seemed an obvious choice to us, even if it isn’t to everyone.

    Since the vaccine didn’t exist when I was a kid, I ended up getting chicken pox when I was 14, and the older you are, the worse it seems to be: I had a fever of 105 degrees and was in bed, completely non-functional, for nearly a week. My wife got it young and mildly, but then got shingles a couple of years ago in her mid-30s, and it was both excruciatingly painful for her and very tiring. And a single instance of the shingles recurrence of the virus is no guarantee it won’t come back.

    It’s good that your kids got it young, since their symptoms are probably relatively mild in the long run. But for us, avoiding shingles in their future was a good argument for vaccination.

    I think for vaccines in general, it is worth keeping in mind that those who denigrate vaccinations because of the perceived risks seem to forget the severity of the diseases they avoid. I haven’t seen any actual statistical evidence of increased risks from MMR or polio vaccines. But even if those risks were there, the risks from actually contracting measles, mumps, rubella, or especially polio are massive. Just ask anyone old enough to have contracted polio, or to have post-polio syndrome (a recurrence, like shingles is).

    Over human history, millions upon millions of people have been killed by viral infections that are now entirely preventable by vaccination, and bacterial ones treatable with antibiotics. Until recent decades, families routinely watched people (especially kids) die from them, or women who did not survive childbirth because of them. We should not forget that.

  • 5 Derek K. Miller // Apr 20, 2006 at 3:16 pm

    Whoops, I should have written “I don’t want to *rant* about it” not “I don’t want to want about it.” Though I fear I did rant.

  • 6 Rachel Cook, Minti // Jun 4, 2006 at 7:41 pm

    Hi Julie, wow I had no idea. I haven’t yet taken my son Codi to get his chicken pox vaccination which is free here in Australia for toddlers over 18 months of age. Wow, I admire your strength to go against the trend. This is an amazing experience, one that is really making me think carefully, I dread both decisions. You may like to post this at Minti to spread you experience to let parents make better informed decisions..ie. natural immunity vs scientific immunity…and link back to your blog. Minti is a friendly place with advice/experiences such as spanking, breast or bottle discussed in an healthy way.

    Hope to see you there…

    Cheers, Rachel

  • 7 Airdrie // Oct 24, 2006 at 3:35 pm

    I chose to vaccinate my kids on the advice of my GP. As a highschool teacher I have also seen some horror stories of teenage-chicken pox (high fever, missed school, bad scarring on the face). I would strongly recommend readers have their kids vaccinated. I also had shigles two years ago (had the pox in grade 3), and the shingles was HORRIBLE. I had a ring of blisters around my chest, and the pain and fever were unbearable. It stole three weeks of my life, in the prime of my life. It was helped by retro-viral drugs, but may come back I’m told. Just my two bits.
    Are you coming to Northern Voice??

  • 8 Matthew Cottingham // Mar 15, 2007 at 11:13 am

    This is just a thought or two but it has been found in post-mortem studies that polio victims have viral fragments of the polio virus in their spinal cords. There are references that can be found on-line or through other research for this. The second thought is that if the chicken pox can recur later in life in the form of shingles, why is it unreasonable to assume that the same may be possible with the polio virus in people with post-polio syndrome?

    I have read the standard literature on post-polio syndrome, PPS and seen an almost universal claim that late effects are not caused by a recurrence of the virus. I would suggest an easy way to resolve the question. It would be simple to take blood samples from people with post-polio syndrome and look at the number of antibodies to the virus that are present against a control population of the same age who had never been reported as having had polio. This is a relatively cheap means of performing such research.

    It does seem logical that if the chicken pox virus can lie dormant for many years and resurface as shingles, much the same could be true of other viral diseases, including poliomyelitis.

    When I suffered severe problems from PPS, my physician failed to take the blood samples I requested and send them for analysis. I had located a laboratory with the capability to do this and gave my physician the address. I had offered to pay cash to have it done as I was having the second acute attack of whatever it was that robbed me of an arm and leg, regardless of what insurance paid.

    The problem I had with all of this is that my initial polio occurred in late 1950-early 1951. I had had major involvement in breathing and limb function and later had an acute attack in 1981. The last attack was in 2002 when the doctor failed to pursue what might have been an instructive lead on PPS. The cost would have been paid out of pocket had the insurance refused payment. I changed physicians as a result of what I view as a lack of care.

    Each attack has left me a much weaker than the time immediately predeing the attack. I would argue at present that a recurrence of the polio virus may be a causative agent in at least some cases of post polio syndrome in much the same manner as there is a connection between chicken pox virus and shingles.

    By the way, I also had chicken pox as a child but have not experienced shingles. I suspect late viral effects may be a bit of a matter of chance.

    I would also like to raise the question of: “Does a person who has had a viral disease ever really kill all the virus in the body or does it lie more or less under control by the immune system?” Is some sort of stasis achieved in the body? I believe these are legitimate questions that physicians should attempt to answer when the patient requests a test and is willing to cover all costs.

    I personally believe my physician was negligent in this matter. No malpractice suit is in the works but the man was wrong in my opinion for not asking a question that would have been paid for by the patient. I still want an answer on behalf of all people with PPS.

    I am old enough to recall how physicians treated stomach ulcers when they attributed them to diet or stress and totally missed the microbiological connection. I was formerly a scientist and have certain credentials in microbiology as well as other disciplines. I am puzzled by the resistance of the medical community to any idea that is a bit new. Perhaps some wiser person can explain this to me.



Leave a Comment