I somehow managed to raise three children without ever hearing about Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease (also called coxsackie virus,) but it just caught up with me, via our grandkids Amalia, 4 ½ and Nico 16 months, as we boarded a plane on July 17 heading for Athens at the start of our annual family vacation to Greece.
I’ve since learned that HFM disease is very common, usually affecting children under five, and is a virus passed on by sneezing, coughing or contact with body fluids (as in changing diapers.) Daughter Eleni thinks that both of her little ones contracted it while playing in water sprayed in the playground in Central Park. They each suffered one day of fever and then some red spots on the feet, which Amalia was still complaining about when we got on the plane—beginning a sleepless night—a nine hour flight-- featuring Amalia crying “my toes hurt” and Nico sitting in my lap and watching the same Mickey Mouse cartoon five times in a row.
Very rarely does the HFM virus affect adults and when it does, it’s a lot worse than it is in children, as I learned. On the fourth day in Greece—after dancing and feasting at the annual festival in Nick’s native village of Lia on the Albanian border—I began to see red welts and gray blisters covering my hands and feet. I had hardly noticed the sore throat that came a day or so before, although the disease often announces itself with sores inside the mouth.
That afternoon we drove from the village to the Zagorahoria—about 90 minutes away. We stayed at the “Art Deco Greece” hotel, carved out of an antique stone mansion, with stunning views of mountains and the world’s deepest gorge, but by then I was shaking with fever and the bottoms of my feet were so sore I could barely walk. Needless to say I was hopeless as a child-minder.
The next day I didn’t even try to get up for breakfast—Nick kindly brought me the coffee I needed for survival. When it was time to leave, walking the maybe 100 feet to the car from the room while dragging my suitcases was agony because the bottoms of my feet were so sore. About 20 feet from the car I was ready to sit down in the path and cry, but I didn’t. It occurred to me that my hubris, about being able to walk like a young person and carry my own suitcases at age 75, was coming back to bite me in true Greek style.
Saturday, July 23, was Nick’s birthday and a family who lived in Yannina (where we were now ensconced in the Grande Serai, a Byzantine-themed hotel) had scheduled a co-birthday party at their home for Nick and their son, Vassili, --Nick’s godchild—who turned 30 on the same day. By the time they got a look at me—now with sores at the corners of my mouth and nose and on my forehead and scalp, and blisters on my elbows and knees—they were understanding (and undoubtedly relieved) to hear that I wouldn’t be coming to the party. I had learned on the internet that I could be contagious for as much as a month.
The next day we took the ferry to Corfu, where we have a trusty extended family of relatives, and on Monday one of the four sisters—Aleka—took me to a series of Greek doctors. (This was the first day I could walk like a normal person, but my feet and hands were so swollen, the only shoes I could wear were heel-less slippers.)
The first doctor I saw, after waiting in a crowded room, took one look at me and said, “You need a dermatologist, not a pathologist.” So we went to a woman derm, who said, “If you didn’t have the back story about HFM disease, I’d think you had vasculitis.” Then she ordered 23 tests to be done on me, which we promptly carried out in another clinic. Her last words to me, in a funereal tone, were “In a week, your nails are going to come off.”
Aleka and I stopped for a much needed iced café frappe in the hellish heat, when she got a phone call from the clinic saying they needed to send my tests to Athens to be read and that would cost 180 euros. At least my hands and feet had stopped hurting! But my fingertips had become numb and hard—it felt as if I was wearing heavy leather gloves. I needed help buttoning my own blouse.
The next day, Tuesday, we drove to the beach house in Barbati, Corfu, where we would be staying for four days. On the way, I noticed that the skin was peeling off my hands in long strips—there was no pain, but the skin underneath was soft and red and sensitive. People we encountered, in restaurants and on the beach, if they noticed my peculiar looking hands and feet, were very tactful.
So today, Thursday, my hands and face are starting to look normal and this morning I went with the grandkids to the beach and had lunch at a tavern under the olive trees. My energy level is back to about 50 per cent of normal. I thought I’d better explain why I’ve been absent from the blog and social media for so long.
And as I was typing this, my first fingernail came off.