Most of us will have recoiled from our own reflection in the mirror after a heavy night at some point. But for Eamonn Holmes, there was one morning that was more alarming than most.
“I literally jumped back at my image shouting ‘what the heck is this?’” recalls the presenter, who had no idea what was causing the cold sore-like scabs and stabbing pains in his face.
“It was like waking up in a horror movie.
“When I called my doctor and said it was on my face the first question was, ‘Is it near your eyes? Don’t touch your eyes because it could affect your vision – you could go blind. Get down here to let me see it’. It was panic stations.”
While he was sleeping Eamonn had developed shingles, a painful rash caused by the reactivation of the chickenpox (varicella zoster) virus, an illness he says was entirely unexpected and laid him low for weeks.
“I had to ask my mother if I’d had chickenpox and she said, ‘Of course you have!’.
“But I thought shingles usually happened to mothers with young kids who were stressed, so it was such a surprise to me,” explains the 61 year old, who is adding his voice to the Understanding Shingles awareness campaign.
In the UK, 90 per cent of adults have had chickenpox, so will have the virus dormant in their nervous system. Yet a recent survey of more than 2,000 people, sponsored by GSK, found that many did not know basic facts about shingles, with only 60 per cent aware that having had chickenpox makes you susceptible.
Dave J Hogan/Getty Images)
The risk and severity of shingles increases with age, particularly in those aged 50 and above, and during times of stress or lowered immune system.
In retrospect, Eamonn has no doubt that stress was the trigger of his illness back in 2018.
“HM Revenue & Customs had decided to challenge my status as a freelancer [claiming he was an employee of ITV and therefore liable to pay more tax], so we had just been to court.
“It was the most horrendous experience of my life, outside my father dying suddenly 30 years ago. A week of absolute bullying and harassment. It was like being clubbed. I was absolutely drained so, low and behold, I developed shingles.
It was incredibly painful and exhausting, and I had to take time off work to recuperate. I couldn’t have gone on telly like that. There isn’t a camera filter in the world that could have made me look better,” he jokes.
The timing couldn’t have been more awkward though.
“We had my eldest son Declan’s wedding coming up in a few days’ time. I’d been really looking forward to it because it was the first wedding in the family, but it really had an impact on the day. I looked awful.
I had makeup all over my face trying to pretend everything was fine, but my eyes were just two slits.”
While most people make a full recovery, shingles can potentially lead to serious and long-lasting problems, including prolonged nerve pain that can last for months or longer.
“I was blissfully ignorant about it all but I now know that as we get older we are more at risk, so people really do need to be more aware.
“We all take our health for granted until it’s gone, but when it suddenly does happen to you it’s a whole new ball game, isn’t it? Whether it’s shingles, or your sciatic nerve.” The mention of back problems is no throwaway remark.
Eamonn has been battling with severe issues since March this year, when two slipped discs in his spine caused nerve damage.
“I had a month suffering with excruciating pain, but thankfully steroid injections have dealt with that so pain is no longer the issue it was,” he says.
“The ongoing problem is that the discs impinged on my sciatic nerve, which left me with a dead right leg. So I can’t feel my foot and have to use a crutch.”
Recovery has been a slow process.
“Seven months I’ve been like this and for the first four I didn’t think anything was going to make a difference, so I’ve been feeling a lot of frustration,” he admits.
“I couldn’t lie on my back. I couldn’t sit down. I couldn’t sleep at night, which was absolutely awful.
“I would try anything and everything but I just didn’t have much belief that anything was going to change.”
Thankfully there is finally some light at the end of the tunnel.
“I’m definitely getting better,” Eamonn says with palpable relief.
“I have physio almost every day. You have to do the same things over and over again – like choreographing a dance – and you have to push yourself.
“My physio would tell me to do the simplest things and I would say, ‘This is ridiculous. I can’t do this. I can’t lie down, I can’t get up, I can’t do anything’.
He would shout at me and I would shout at him. But I have to say, in the past few weeks we have embraced each other because there is definitely an improvement now. I’ve started to get some feeling back at last.
“I’ve a long way to go and I doubt I’ll be fixed by Christmas, but I certainly intend to give it a heck of a shot.”
Throwing himself into work has been a lifeline during the darkest hours of recovery.
“I carried on with my work commitments, doing what I was going to do,” says Eamonn, who spent the summer filming a new series, Farm to Feast, for BBC Northern Ireland.
“I used my crutch until the camera rolled and then I threw it to the side. I couldn’t walk during the pieces to camera because I just was completely lopsided, but I could stand still and I could do my lines. I was proud of myself for getting through that.”
The thought of attending last month’s National Television Awards was more stressful, as Eamonn didn’t feel ready to be seen on air using a crutch.
“I decided that if we won I just wouldn’t go on stage because I wouldn’t be able to get up the steps without using the crutch,” he admits.
“I discussed it with Ruth and my friend Sue Johnston, the actress, who is a lovely woman – we’ve been very close for 30 years.
A few days later the most beautiful silver capped cane arrived in the post from Sue and when I showed it to Ruth she said, ‘just own it’.
“I had no idea what the reaction to it would be, but I realised it was the right thing to do because actually I was improving and that was a statement that I was improving.
“People will write you off but am I at the top of my game? Yes. And I’ve got more to give. I wanted to show people they shouldn’t let these things hold them back.
Yes, you can be in pain but you can still have a job, you can still have a purpose in life. Besides, distraction is a wonderful thing when you’re in pain.”
Despite such a significant injury, Eamonn doesn’t know the exact moment the damage was done.
“I just kept thinking ‘why me, why did this happen?’ because I couldn’t actually tell you exactly when it went. I have a rough idea it was getting out of a car and getting back into the same car, but I don’t know for sure.”
Ironically, the thought of getting back into a car is helping motivate Eamonn to work harder towards his recovery.
“I had to stop driving because I couldn’t move my foot from the accelerator to the brake,” he says.
“It has been a big frustration. I like to drive and I like to get out and about, so I’ve found that quite debilitating.
“I’m certainly not fixed, but finally I can see that I’m improving all the time. So when I’m better I think I’ll go car shopping, get myself a heck of a car and enjoy the ride.”
* Understanding Shingles is a new campaign supported by Eamonn Holmes together with GSK and the Shingles Support Society. For more information visit understandingshingles.co.uk
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