A Reflection on the Importance of Well-being
By Josh McCarter
It started on as a tingling numbness in my lip and a strange ache in my front left tooth. It was Friday, February 26th, and I was in the car with my wife Tracey. I kept straining to look at my face in the rearview mirror. “Do you see anything weird here?” I asked, pointing at my lip and cheek area. She shrugged; nothing looked out of the ordinary. I thought maybe I was breaking out, or that I had started grinding my teeth at night and cracked one.
I assumed the feeling would somehow go away on its own—but as the weekend progressed the sensation spread up my face to my left cheek, nose, and the area under my eye. I went to see my dentist, who did find a small crack in my molar, but said this would not reasonably explain this new unnerving sensation. I then saw my doctor, who gave me an IV packed with all kinds of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids to hydrate me and support my system in case I was fighting something off.
“You know,” she said, “these sensations you’re describing sound like shingles.”
Shingles is a viral infection caused by the same virus that gives you chickenpox, varicella-zoster. After you’ve had chickenpox, the virus goes dormant in your system and can sometimes re-erupt later in life as shingles. It tends to appear in older individuals and can be extremely painful, typically presenting with angry-looking rashes across the torso.
Because of that, her suggestion was a surprise. I had no rash, and I’m not exactly in the usual age demographic for that disease. Plus, this was on my face, and wasn’t shingles a body thing? I was a little skeptical, but we agreed to touch base the following day.
I woke up the next morning to a shock. My face looked my someone had hit me with a 2x4. Twice. From my lip on up, my face was swollen so badly that my eye was nearly shut. It was now, at least, looking like shingles.
The following morning, I woke up to an even bigger shock. Pain like I have never before experienced roared across my face. It was like some small ferocious animal was under my skin, clawing its way out. That was coupled with the feeling of boiling water being poured on my face, as tiny little “firework” sensations exploded here and there across my skin—like matches being put out over and over again.
The pain was all I could think about. Nothing eased it. It clouded every thought, shaped every experience. It dominated a working spring break trip with my family and remained my constant companion in the quiet dark of the night. At first, I didn’t want to use prescription pain killers but soon found myself needing more than basic Tylenol & Advil to ease the pain, and began taking Ambien to help me get some sleep at night.
And then one day my doctor called me with news I didn’t expect. She was looking over the results of a routine blood test I’d taken weeks before.
“Did you know you have COVID antibodies?” she asked.
“What? I’ve never had COVID!” I protested.
But the proof was right there on the paper: COVID antibodies and not just a few. “Levels like you’ve had both vaccine doses,” the doctor said.
I was floored. I had had a series of negative COVID tests throughout 2020 and had never felt even a little sick during the beginning of this year.
“It would help explain your shingles outbreak,” she went on. Her guess was that my immune system had been so overtaxed fighting off the COVID virus that it allowed the shingles virus lying dormant in my system to go rogue. It’s also apparently not uncommon for people who have had COVID to experience shingles outbreaks on their faces, which is fairly uncommon otherwise. So while it was all starting to make more sense, it didn’t make it any more fun.
Shingles normally last somewhere between 2-4 weeks, but coming into my 7th week, the pain is still with me. Steroids and time have helped with the swelling, but beneath the surface, it has been all I can do to put on a smile for the world.
A potential complication some people experience with shingles is called postherpetic neuralgia (PHN). In these individuals (about 20% of shingles cases) the rash and swelling disappear but the pain doesn’t, lingering for weeks, months—sometimes longer. If the pain lasts longer than a year, it may become permanent. All I can do is wait and see.
We’re treating it with antiviral medications, working to address a still-evolving set of symptoms. But I’ve also come to rely on a host of holistic and alternative therapies for relief, including acupuncture, cupping, Chinese herbal medicine, and meditation—the latter being a blessing at night to help calm my thoughts and move through the ceaseless pain.
I’m throwing everything that Eastern and Western medicine have at it. I’ve always thought that my background serving the wellness industry gave me a well-rounded picture of the services our clients offer—but this experience has added a deeply personal perspective and a profound appreciation of those healers and the comfort that they provide.
And that—in part, at least—is why I wanted to share my story with you.
This experience has driven home the power of the wellness services we help enable. It’s given me such gratitude and a newfound awe for the practitioners of all disciplines who dedicate their lives to healing.
It has also been a wake-up call to the importance of being well—a lesson on how fundamentally our quality of life is tied to our state of wellness. As someone who has generally been blessed with good health, I see now that it’s easy to take the blessing of good health for granted. The confusion, anxiety, and desperation I’ve wrestled these past weeks have shown me what can happen when our wellness fails us—and the loneliness many of us feel when we suffer invisibly behind a laugh. It’s a valuable perspective, and it’s given me fresh empathy and heart for the wellness seekers that our customers serve.
Finally, it was a sobering reminder of how deeply felt and pervasive the COVID pandemic has been. Physically, emotionally, socially, professionally—there is no end to the ways we have knowingly or unknowingly, directly or indirectly, been impacted.
Like most of you, I’ve spent the last year reducing my exposure to other people to keep us safe. And like most of you, I’ve sacrificed a lot of opportunities to connect with loved ones in the process: weddings, birthdays, memorials, simple dinners with friends. My outdoor grilling and smoking game has gotten much stronger, I will say. We take our plusses where we can. We kept up a pretty respectable diet and exercise regimen throughout the pandemic (though months 6-9 did get a little sloppy...) and took the right precautions in public. And not that those precautions were for naught—I just now realize how easy it is to imagine you’re safe because you’ve played by the rules.
As the CEO of a company that exists in support of the global wellness industry, I’ve had a unique perspective on the pandemic. As COVID ravaged the world, it devastated entire industries in its wake, our industry foremost among them—shuttering innumerable fitness, wellness, and beauty businesses for good.
But the news out there is getting better. The vaccine is becoming more available by the day here in the US and in many parts of the world, allowing people to begin recapturing some semblance of normalcy, and reconnecting us with the people and activities that make us whole. Bookings at wellness businesses are approaching (or have already exceeded, in some places) their pre-COVID levels. A growing feeling of optimism for the future—that until recently we’d almost been hesitant to embrace—is finally beginning to break the surface. But cases remain stubbornly high, and hot spots continue to flare up. We’re not out of the woods yet.
None of us knows when this will all be behind us, and in many respects, it never truly will be. And in some ways, that’s a good thing. Wisdom—even dearly earned—is a blessing.
And so goes my own story. I’m still in it, still enduring, still wondering how much longer is left. Things are better than they were, but not yet as good as I hope they’ll be soon. Like many, I’m trying to lean into the discomfort of the present to extract lessons I can apply to the future, hoping to come out somehow better than I went in. We take our plusses where we can.
The news is getting better here as well. A few days ago, I underwent a new and fairly experimental regenerative treatment for pain and tissue damage, injecting platelet-rich fibrin (PRF) into the affected areas of my face. The results so far have been very promising: a 30-40% reduction in pain and—for the first time—the feeling that I can finally see the path to recovery.
So no, none of us are truly out of the woods just yet—but for the first time in a long time, there is light through the trees.