jayellebee's Blog

January 22, 2012

Toxicodendron diversilobum

      In the world of Odyssey of the Mind, the most prized achievement a team can earn is called the Ranatra fusca, named after the scientific term for the common water skater.  This honor is not always awarded.  It is reserved for an outstanding performance demonstrating unparalleled use of imagination and/or perseverance in the face of insurmountable odds.  As an OM judge, years ago, I was gratified when the team I nominated for the Ranatra fusca received a standing ovation at the tournament’s awards celebration.

     Toxicodendron diversilobum, commonly known as western poison oak, is the only other scientific name I know.  Neither the term nor the plant earns any such accolades.  Especially not from Ken and me.  Between us, we have spent the past three-plus weeks battling the dread rash and itch after an ill-fated decision to take our Lab hiking at Lower Scott’s Flat Lake.  What can I say?  The weather between Christmas and New Year’s was so mild and we’d been wanting to visit the area….
     I’ve always been susceptible to poison oak.  My family moved next to an open space area teeming with the weed-like bushes during my sophomore year of  high school.  Our cat chose to spend his days doing whatever it is outdoor cats do, in and under those dusty plants.  Petting the cat transferred oils to my skin.  My yearbook picture attests to a year of endless rash.  Eventually, I developed some temporary level of immunity.
     Temporary.  That would be the operative word here.
     In the fall, I have a fighting chance of recognizing (and avoiding) the crimson, three-leaved clusters of poison oak.  Even the green foliage common in summer sometimes raises subconscious red flags within my dense skull.  But, how was I supposed to know the deciduous, barren twigs of winter – which are indistinguishable from every other dead-looking twig – are at least as toxic, if not more so, than their dear-departed leaves?
      Somehow, maladies always worsen as weekends approach.  Apparently, fevers (or in this case, rashes) are capable of tracking time.  By late afternoon on a Friday, I was frantic.  The incessant itch actually made coherent thought difficult.  Standing still was a challenge, breaths came in gasps.  My doc rewarded me with a cortisone shot in the butt, promising relief by Saturday morning.
She lied.
     Saturday night I was a certifiable.  Unable to lie still in bed, I decided to read until my eyes grew too heavy for any rash to pry them open.  The Saint of Florenville, A Love Story, by Alfred Garrotto, rescued me.  My friend Al’s remarkable prose and unique plot distracted both mind and body until, at 5:00 a.m., I finally fell into a deep, if short-lived, sleep.
     Frequent doses of Benadryl, repeated applications of various lotions and ointments, oatmeal bathes and every home-remedy suggested by friends kept me nearly sane until Monday morning.  The internist’s receptionist referred me to a dermatologist’s office.  The well-meaning but useless staff there was unwilling to fit me into the physician or his assistant’s schedule until Tuesday afternoon.
      “You don’t understand,” I pleaded.  “My heart is racing.  I can’t think.  I haven’t slept for two nights.”
     “Do you need to go to Emergency?” the unsympathetic voice at the far end of the line intoned.
     “How about I bring a book and camp out in your waiting room?” I suggested.  “That way, if anyone cancels an appointment you can slip me in.”
     Silence, then, “We don’t do that.”
Large, swollen patches of my back resembled angry splotches of burning tomato soup.  Ken had to drive me to my appointment the next day because I would’ve been a hazard behind the wheel.  The skeptical PA looked at my rash from a distance.  She informed me it is impossible to get poison oak without coming into direct contact with the plant or the oil.  Either I had been rolling around naked in the woods, or my dog had surreptitiously rolled in my sheets.
     Naked outside in December?  Me?  I wear long johns every waking hour of every day from early November through April.  And, as spoiled, er, loved as our canine is, Shadow isn’t allowed on our bed.  I took my prescription for a cortisone-laced topical solution to the pharmacy, and muttered socially unacceptable thoughts as I paced the aisles waiting for the salve of salvation.
     Two days later, the mutilated tube writhed, squeezed beyond recognition and empty, on my bathroom counter.  An agent for my insurance carrier explained she couldn’t possibly authorize a refill until ten days from the original purchase date.  My Benadryl-crazed mind considered mailing her a gift wrapped box of poison oak twigs.
     Ken decided bathing the dog, just in case her fur still bore residual oil, would be a wise move.  As always, our bashful girl buried her face in his armpit and leaned against his reassuring chest as he lathered her.  His shirt was sodden by the time he lifted Shadow from the tub.
     A week had passed.  Friday afternoon found me seated at the computer searching the internet for ways to avoid future adventures in The Land of Poison Oak.  Ken read the screen over my shoulder, then reached a bared arm around for me to see.
     “Does this look,” he asked, “like poison oak to you?”
      I plied him with Benadryl and drove him to his doctor’s office for a posterior injection and his own prescription which could be filled without delay.  The dog is clean.  The house is filled with empathy.  The Saint of Florenville was once again required reading.
     Toxicodendron diversilobum.  English translation:  Toxic diversion resulting in sore bum.


  1. Thanks for the plug, Joanne. I’m glad you and Ken are better. I’ve added the following blurb to my Saint of Florenville marketing materials: “Read between midnight and 6 a.m. for temporary relief of discomfort resulting from poison oak.”

    Comment by Alfred J. Garrotto — January 23, 2012 @ 9:49 am | Reply

  2. Yikes! So sorry for your unintended encounter with the rascally native of the foothills. My father (now deceased many years) worked his foothills property filled with poison oak and endured frequent infections of the plant. He would nibble on the branches to help build up his immunity, which seemed to work. I don’t recommend that, but you could take a homeopathic remedy that you’ll find in the many health-food stores in the area.

    Comment by Chris Pedersen — January 23, 2012 @ 9:57 am | Reply

  3. Wow, Joanne. What an ordeal! Glad you’re back among the rashless. Our speaker in March is going to talk about blogging. I think you could do the presentation! You have a remarkable way with words.

    Comment by Barbara Bentley — January 23, 2012 @ 10:40 am | Reply

  4. As I read your post, I started scratching. . . THAT is effective writing. I’d add more comments, but my hypocondriac itching won’t allow me to type any longer.

    Comment by Liz — January 23, 2012 @ 12:13 pm | Reply

  5. Been there. Done that. And indeed it is no fun. I started itching as I read, just remembering the agony of it all. Glad you are feeling better. Poor Shadow, she was just being a dog. Good luck with avoiding a flare-up, living where you live. Hope you are successful!! New Zealand and Australia were wonderful. I’ll tell you more when I see you (soon I hope!).

    Comment by Bee Hylinski - Author and Baseball Fan — January 24, 2012 @ 1:44 pm | Reply

  6. I am watching where I put my feet! Now that’s effective writing because I’m inside on the carpet. I feel, nonetheless, surrounded by twigs of infection. Grim for you and Ken. Do hope you find your paths of avoidance through the forest.

    Comment by Jean G — January 25, 2012 @ 9:56 pm | Reply

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