Cambrian: Opinion

Poison plants and potentially painful prescriptions

This poison oak plant creeps through cracks in a fence and invades a neighbor's property on Skye Street in Cambria.
This poison oak plant creeps through cracks in a fence and invades a neighbor's property on Skye Street in Cambria.

After the prolonged, wicked Wisconsin winter, summertime in the 1950s was the best of all worlds for an active boy: baseball, swimming, fishing, camping and girls. Did I mention I played baseball every day? But when poison ivy attacked — a venomous vine that thrives in heat and humidity — summer could be the worst of worlds.

I was so susceptible to poison ivy I could pass within a few feet of this damnable creeping plant and a soft breeze might transport its aggressive spores to my skin, giving me hellish pain and itching for weeks.

Fast forward to the late ’60s: after moving to California, I could confidently waltz through a thick patch of poison oak – no problem at all. I was impervious to the evil chemical (urushiol) in poison oak (scientific name, Toxicodendron diversiloba).

Aha, but 40 some years later, oh my, how things have changed. Today, poison oak is my natural world enemy No. 1.

The next time you get a dose of poison oak and suffer the obsessive urge to scratch (almost to the point of bleeding) — I hope it’s not as dreadful as my recent bout.

I’m not sure where I came into contact with poison oak this time. It may have been in the forest loop trail on the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve, or I may have been walking Santa Rosa Creek to check for signs of H2O. Or it could have been the dog I pet after it paced through some pines and likely had brushed against the plant.

This dose of urushiol attacked me for nearly a month. My over-the-counter experience was expensive, albeit mostly futile. I found a $13 tube of Benadryl in the medicine cabinet that basically claimed “cooling, soothing relief.” That was nice, and temporary, but I was still waking up scratching, itching and driving myself crazy all day.

Next, I paid $44 for an ounce of a product called Zanfel. The directions call for squeezing an inch of the product and mixing it with water; then rub for a minute or so on the affected area. “Washes away poison ivy, oak, and sumac,” the tube boasts. No way. It didn’t solve my problem.

I performed that routine nightly, and it temporarily relieved the itching. But in the morning, I faced the same horrific experience. After repeating the procedure until the tube was empty, nothing changed — except the scars looked like someone had tied me down, tightly wrapped barbed wire around my legs, then let me go two days later after removing the barbed wire.

What finally stopped the itching was a $12 product called Cortizone 10. I swabbed this cream on my ankles and legs, and mercifully, the itching stopped. Each body responds differently to poison oak and the remedies, but this was my story.

Prescriptions and poison

Speaking of poison: Merriam Webster defines poison as “a substance that can cause people or animals to die or to become very sick if it gets into their bodies.” Some prescription drugs, according to the fine print of their own disclaimers, can do just that.

Take for example, Stelara, a drug that treats plaque psoriasis.

“Discover the possibilities of clearer skin,” the pitch goes. But the fine-print disclaimer warns that those injecting this drug might possibly get “serious infections, including tuberculosis.” What’s worse, “certain infections … can spread throughout the body and cause death.”

The price for one syringe (45mg) is just $9,051.97 at Target.

Most everyone watching television lately is familiar with Humira. This drug reportedly battles arthritis, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. But wait, like Stelara, Humira can cause infections and, “some people have died from these infections,” according to the fine print.

Humira also increases one’s chances of getting lymphoma “or other cancers, including hepatosplkenic T-cell lymphoma,” which “often results in death.” No worries though, “We’re with you every step of the way,” they assure users.

Wow, what a deal for just $4,359.14 for two syringes at Kroger. And by the way, Humira can cause “blood problems, allergic reactions, nervous system problems, heart failure, liver problems and psoriasis.” The good news — if Humira causes psoriasis, the patient can always go back to Stelara, advertised as a treatment for psoriasis. The bad news — you could die from Stelara.

And then there’s the insulin product called Tresiba, for diabetes sufferers. It only needs to be injected once a day, but it “may cause serious side effects that can be life-threatening.”

How refreshing that the drug company doesn’t flatly say you could die; heck, driving a car could be seen as life-threatening. And with Tresiba, one shouldn’t expect to get a visit from the Grim Reaper unless or until experiencing “shortness of breath, tiredness, swelling of your ankles or feet. … ” The better news: It’s only $546 per syringe at discount pharmacies.

Disclaimers for politicians?

How invigorating to the political process if candidates were as honest as these drug companies. You’re in the voting booth, and you see a name, say, Donald Trump. You’re up in years so you need a magnifying glass in addition to your reading glasses, but you can read the fine print below the candidate’s name.

“If elected, may cause severe headaches, psychological and cultural rejection, muscle aches, nervous system problems, or stomach pain for those of Latino or Muslim heritage.”

And under the candidate, Hillary Clinton, the fine print might read: “May use private computers and other technologies to record specific classified polling data. May pose danger for voters casting ballots under glass skylights.”

Freelance journalist and Cambria resident John FitzRandolph’s column appears biweekly and is special to The Cambrian. Email him at