Jack Richards is a 29-year-old marketing and social media strategist living in New York City. Richards is sharing their story with TODAY to raise awareness about the monkeypox outbreak and the challenges many are facing in accessing vaccines and treatment. The following has been edited and condensed for clarity and contains details about monkeypox sores.
At first, I thought it was just jet lag. I'd been traveling in Italy for a friend's wedding, and had been enjoying events at Pride in New York City. So I assumed the fatigue was just my body telling me, "Hey, we need a break."
I started to feel a little more flu-ish over the next few days, and because I knew monkeypox was going around, I had a moment of panic. But I didn't have any sores at that point and my symptoms subsided within a week.
Things changed after the Fourth of July weekend when I started feeling a bit itchy down south. Then I developed sores on my face that looked like bad acne. And my partner noticed some sexually transmitted infection-like symptoms, too. At that point, it was pretty clear that something was not right.
Finally, I took a step back and realized this could actually be monkeypox.
My partner and I both got doctor's appointments on the same day. He was diagnosed first, so I knew my diagnosis was likely coming soon.
First, I chatted with someone through my doctor's office's 24-hour call center and ran through my symptoms. In talking to them, it really sounded like I had monkeypox, but they still needed to confirm it in person, which involved somewhat aggressively collecting samples from my sores.
While I was at the office, the doctor asked if one of their colleagues could take a look because they'd never seen monkeypox before. I gave them my permission because I recognized it as an important opportunity to educate the medical world so they would be better prepared for other patients. But I also felt like that moment was a bit of a letdown for me. If I'm literally the first case of monkeypox you've ever seen, how can I rely on you as an expert to help me get through this?
The pain from the sores is probably the worst pain I've experienced in my life. It's been so painful that there have been moments where I felt like I might pass out. It's been challenging to find comfortable sleeping and sitting positions because the sores are just excruciating.
Basically any upright sitting position put a ton of pressure on my butt to the point that it was extremely uncomfortable because of the anal sores. Every secondary sore or lesion is much easier, so it doesn’t help that the worst blisters are in a painful place. And I’ve heard that the anal blistering is more painful than oral or genital.
I’ve been taking as much over-the-counter pain medication as I’m allowed and using topical lidocaine to ease some of the pain. My hands are dry from washing them so frequently, and I don't want to use any of my usual body or skin care products because I don't want to risk spreading the virus anywhere.
The isolation, which has to last until all the sores have fully healed, has been tough. I share a small apartment with my partner and we're doing laundry constantly. We've adapted pretty well by getting groceries and packages from the pharmacy delivered. I'm privileged to be able to work remotely and get everything delivered. But our dog, Hudson, seems pretty confused. We're home all day, but we have to limit contact with him out of an abundance of caution.
Knowing that monkeypox is spreading within the LGBTQ community in New York, it's not surprising that others in my friend group have since been diagnosed with monkeypox, too. We've been sharing stories and comparing symptoms, which has helped me feel less alone in this. But it's been tough because not everyone understands just how long the isolation period is with monkeypox.
More than anything, I wish more people knew that monkeypox is a big problem right now. And I wish there was better access to the smallpox and monkeypox vaccines. New York City is offering vaccine doses to people in certain in populations. But I'm in a few group chats, and only about 20% of the people I knew who wanted the shots were able to get them. A thousand vaccine appointments may sound like a lot, but when you have thousands of people who want them, it's not enough. That is not a good health system.
Today, I do think I'm through the worst of my monkeypox experience. The sore on my face has scabbed off and my painful symptoms are subsiding. But I want people to know this is happening. And I want public health authorities to recognize there is so much more they could be doing.