A Tale of Two Illnesses

It’s December 2019, and I have a sore throat. It’s nothing serious, I tell myself, as I gulp water and suck Strepsils. Two weeks later, my throat still stubbornly sore, I contemplate a visit to the GP. I know the acronyms written all over my medical records – ME, CFS – and I know the reactions they receive; I stay home and take some paracetamol. 

I wake on Christmas morning to find the joints in my fingers and toes are sore. By Gavin and Stacey’s Christmas Special, my wrists ache; by the New Year, I’m largely immobile, almost every joint in my body swollen and stiff. My sore throat is worse than ever, I’m feverish, and my skin is covered in a strange bumpy rash.

“I think you have… scarlet fever?” suggests one GP; a blood test confirms her suspicions. It turns out that two very rare complications of (untreated) tonsillitis are scarlet fever and reactive arthritis. I tick both boxes.

Early one drizzly February morning, I’m waiting for yet another blood test. The joints in my fingers are so swollen that I struggle to remove coat, scarf, jumper, and I cannot ball my fist as required. The nurse, wielding the needle, notices; she speaks with palpable kindness, placing her free hand gently on mine. I can’t remember her exact words, but I do remember the shock at being treated with such sympathy. 

A week or so later, I sit opposite a new GP, our eyes upon the computer screen showing the results of my latest blood test. She takes me through all the abnormalities – there are many. We talk of autoantibodies, genetics, ALTs; we do not talk about anxiety, how much exercise I do in a week, or whether or not I have a boyfriend. The simple fact of my swollen joints was enough. This pain – unlike that pain – was not my fault. 

A month later, the course of steroids finished, I feel much better.

It’s a tale of two illnesses. My body had now reacted to two different infections – the first viral, the second bacterial – leaving me with two different conditions, and two remarkably different illness experiences.

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