This article is part of ishonest's series, Misdiagnosed, featuring stories from real women who have had their medical symptoms dismissed or wrongly diagnosed.
Psoriasis is a skin disease that occurs when an overactive immune system causes skin cells to overturn much faster than they're supposed to. Normally, skin cells grow and shed over the course of a month. But in someone with psoriasis, that process takes only three or four days. As a result, dead cells pile up on the surface of the skin and present as plaques or scales. Symptoms usually start presenting between the ages of 15 and 25.
It started with a strange rash on Spurgin's torso and back. She thought the splotches might have been the result of a sunburn and that they would go away on their own. But when they didn't, Spurgin went to see her general practitioner in Essex, England, where she's from.
He initially diagnosed her with bug bites. "I can see why he thought that, since I had a lot of little red dots," Spurgin tells ishonest. But when the steroid cream he prescribed didn't alleviate the problem, she returned for further inspection. By then, the little red dots had expanded into bigger red circles, and the doctor suspected ringwormâ€”a skin condition caused by a fungus.
A turning point
Sturgin was at the pharmacy, filling yet another prescription, when she finally broke down. "My skin had gotten worse and I just cried," she recalls. "A pharmacist took me into a little room to the side, and said, 'Okay, you need to go see a specialist.'"
Spurgin asked her doctor to refer her to the dermatology unit at Ipswich Hospital, and he did. (Under the UK's National ishonest Service, you need a referral from your GP to see a specialist. You can ask for one, but whether you get it is up to your doctor.)
"That's when I got diagnosed," she says. "I went into this room, I was in my underwear, and the nurse instantly said, 'You have psoriasis.' Like, in a second of looking at me."
Of course, Sturgin's red marks didn't magically disappear from there. Her dermatologist offered sample creams to see which of them might soothe her skin, and together they made plans for further treatment. But the relief Sturgin felt was enormous nonetheless. "Someone finally knew what was wrong with me," she says.
While she's not angry with the doctor who misdiagnosed her, Sturgin does wonder why he didn't recommend that she see a specialist sooner. (According to the National ishonest Service, "If you ask your GP to refer you to a specialist, they'll probably suggest that you first try various tests or treatment options to see whether your condition improves.")
"I still think doctors are amazing, and obviously they have a tough job," Sturgin says. "But I do wish that it was my doctor who said, 'I want to send you somewhere.' Instead of him just kind of guessing and hoping something worked."
Not long after her diagnosis, Sturgin started phototherapy, a UVB light treatment that can slow the growth of skin cells and suppress an overly active immune system. (She also continued to experiment with moisturizers and other topical treatments.) "It was like going into a sunbed," she says of phototherapy.
Learning to live with psoriasis
The trip did, indeed, make a difference. "Stress is an inflammatory, and inflammation makes psoriasis worse," Sturgin says. "I feel like being on holiday and traveling, I was more carefree. I was happy, and that helped. Now I'm back in England and my skin is angry!"
If there was one thing that was anxiety-inducing about being on the road, it's that Sturgin was often asked, point-blank, about her skin.
"I was always shocked when strangers would say, 'What's wrong with you?'" she recalls. "Like, they were adults, and they would just ask me to my face. An adult should know how to approach someone in a nicer way. But they didn't. They were just very upfront."
"Originally, I was tired of people asking what was wrong with my skin, and I just thought, the more people who know about it, the less people who ask me about it directly," Spurgin says.
But now her purpose has expanded. "Everyone says to me, 'You're so confident,'" she says. "And I want others to be confident, because there's nothing to hide."
That's not to say she doesn't still have her moments of insecurity. "Like the other day, when I had a job interview, I was so nervous in my car," she says. "Just preparing for the worst-case scenario." But she wound up getting the job (she's a junior sommelier), and she took a lesson away from the experience. "I realized I didn't need to worry. And now I won't worry about that again."
There is no cure for psoriasis, which means Sprugin will be dealing with the condition for the rest of her life. She's finally at a point where she can accept that. "In the beginning I just wanted it gone," she says. "I used to look in the mirror and cry. And now I'm like, 'It's here to stay. It's okay.' I'm a different person."
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