It was the best of times, it was the moistest of times...2016 was a difficult year for me for a variety of reasons. Here's one of them. Warning, this post is quite possibly a little bit TMI.
One of the things that I love about my job is the opportunity to host a couple of big birding parties throughout the year. One is called the Big Watch which I do with the help of some birders in Washington County, Minnesota in the spring. We go to Grey Cloud Dunes Scientific and Natural Area and tally all the birds we see and hear from sunrise to sundown. In 2016 it was a chilly but fun filled day. This was my first time hosting an event like this outside of the Twin Cities metro and was happily surprised we ended up with more people showing up than birds on our list--it was a good list that ended with 87 species.
Even though it was chilly, Grey Cloud can be full of ticks and I'd taken the time to treat my ranger uniform with permethrin. The day after the Big Watch I woke up with an itchy welt on my left butt cheek. I didn't think too much about it. I figured a mosquito must have gotten through my ranger pants. April and May is an insane time where I try to balance ranger work with bird festival travel all while enjoying spring migration. I'm on the road more than I'm at home. The bite continued to itch and swell a bit more and yet I continued to ignore it. I noticed that the swelling was getting a little harder, but still paid it no mind because I had paperwork to file and suitcases to pack.
I woke for my flight to Ohio four days after the Big Watch and noticed that my pajama bottoms were stuck to my butt cheek, specifically to the area of the bite that had been oozing. Just what everyone wants to wake up to, a crusty oozy butt cheek. The welt also felt three times the size it had been on Monday morning. I asked Non Birding Bill to do his spousal duty and take a look, worried that perhaps I'd finally gotten a tick bite with Lyme disease. Pulling down my pants I asked him, "Hey, do you see a bullseye-type welt on my ass?"
"No, but wow. That doesn't look good at all," he said, concern in his voice.
However, I had a flight to catch and no time for a doctor. I covered the area with copious amounts of Neosporin and a large bandage and then headed to the airport towards the Biggest Week in American Birding. I figured I would try to squeeze in a doctor's appointment when I got home, before I flew off to Alaska. In my brief flight from Minneapolis to Detroit, the bandage was soaked through and the oozing went through my tights onto my skirt. It also seemed to have gotten larger during the flight and the skin was hot and hard to the touch. I realized that I was in over my head and this ass situation was no good. I needed a doctor sooner rather than later.
I headed straight to Maumee Bay to check in to my hotel room and frantically scan the Internet to find a doctor in my health plan's network. I could hear delightful spring warblers and vireos in the trees, but I was on a mission. I wondered how I was going to check in quickly and make it to my room and not have anyone notice what was going on with my rear end. I love festivals because I run into so many far flung friends who want to hug and chat. There's nothing like an oozy ass to make you want to not be touched or even be friendly. I decided I would avoid eye contact as much as possible and be a merlin--look like I'm late for an appointment and dash through the vendor area to my room. The plan worked and when I got to my room I googled away. I found a Minute Clinic that was nearby and in network. I snuck out the back way of the Maumee Bay to avoid people and drove over to the clinic.
I knew after she examined me and went straight to typing on her smartphone that I was in trouble. She was using a symptoms app and when she found the answer she was looking for told me, "I'm going to call the local emergency room and urgent care and whichever has the shortest wait is where you're going. You need help now."
I protested and said, "Let's go to the one that's in network, I'm not made of money and want to avoid an out of state hospital bill."
Urgent care it was.
The doctor was very kind and said, "You have a staph infection which has led to cellulitis. Without doing a test I can't tell you for sure that it's MRSA but we're going to hit you hard with antibiotics. Oh, and stop scratching it. You may want to followup with your doctor at home."
My main concern was the nonstop oozing and I asked what she could give me.
"That's going to take a few days for the cellulitis to go away. In the meantime you can get the expensive surgical pads, but I recommend you use Maxi Pads since they're so much cheaper and as a woman you know how absorbent they are."
I filled my prescription, loaded up on all the anti-itch cream I could find and...Maxi Pads. After returning to my room to get everything situated, I headed out to Magee Marsh. When I got to the parking lot I sat in my car awhile. I was stupidly worried and self conscious, would people see me walking around with a bulge on my butt cheek and wonder what was going on? Would the infection keep oozing and then go through my pants? Would I be able to enjoy the birds or just keep thinking of all the terrible things that are happening to my butt?
However, seeing my first American woodcock of the day and catching a glimpse of a northern parula took my mind of my behind. Birding has always been magic like that for me. Then I noticed something...
It was spring migration. No one was look at me, let alone my ass. Birders watch the trees for warblers. Thank goodness!
I started to ease up and ran into many friends...including former nurse Patteye who I'm pretty sure I overshared, but boy did she help put my mind at ease. As I continued with my festival duties, my butt situation didn't appear to be getting smaller, but it also didn't appear to be growing size anymore so that was hopeful.
Monday I flew home, did some park service work and then Wednesday I flew to Alaska. I realized that I was creeping up on the one week mark from my diagnosis and that my backside was as weepy as ever. After I checked in to my cabin in Homer, Alaska I took in the view for a bit then settled down with some Jameson and the Internet to read more about staph infections and cellulitis while hermit thrushes and golden-crowned sparrows sang late into the night, because nothing alleviates medical fears like reading Web MD while jet lagged and drinking. After about thirty minutes I was convinced that I was going to have to have an emergency assectomy in Alaska and wondered how it would affect my ability to work and go bike riding. And were there any hospitals in network in Homer Alaska.
However, as luck would have it my friend Lynne came along to this festival and I remembered she worked in a lab at a hospital and maybe she had some insight on staph infections. Mercifully I had enough decorum to not drop my trousers and ask her to look. She told me that whatever was going on back there was going to take several days to clear up, to avoid scratching it and take all my meds even if I thought I was better. She also reminded me that she was there and things would be ok.
It also helped that there were so many amazing birds in Alaska. It never ceases to amaze me how I can take a break from whatever problem I'm having by watching birds.
Twenty-four hours after chatting with Lynne and enjoying some birding field trips, time with friends and teaching outdoor workshops while hermit thrushes fluted in the background I finally noticed that the antibiotics were making headway with my infection. I was going through fewer pads and the affected area was getting smaller.
I enjoyed my time in Alaska, I made it home to Minnesota. I finished taking my meds and the oozing stopped. Things were a little pink back there, but it was definitely on the mend. I went back into my uniform into work.
Twenty-four hours later the oozing began again. I went to the doctor and explained everything that happened over the previous weeks and he assured me not to worry that we would treat it with even stronger antibiotics. I asked how I could be getting it and he said, "Staph can be anywhere. Even on your body. All it takes is an open area on your skin for it to get in. And stop scratching."
The week long antibiotics did the drink. Everything was fine. Until I did another ranger program and the next morning a small, itchy oozy bump appeared. I hightailed it again to the doctor. He seemed more concerned this time compared to last time and we tried a different antibiotic. "I can't say without a test that this MRSA but if it keeps coming back we may have to look at some alternatives."
With this third visit, I noticed a common denominator. Every time I wore my ranger pants I got the infection back, no matter how many times I washed them. There was a part of me that wondered if I had developed an allergy to my ranger pants and I'd get a special dispensation to never have to wear those polyester wool monstrosities ever again. But before I could say it was an allergy for sure, I knew I had to burn my old pants and order a new pair.
The final round of antibiotics did the trick. After living life in my new ranger pants I haven't had any issues again. All in all I lived with this for three months. I was reminded of what a weird biological experiment our bodies are and if I had this infection 100 years ago would I have even survived?
Anyway, I'm grateful to friends who kept me calm and to all the birds that took my mind off of it.