Justin Clynes Studio
It took three weeks and three days before Matt Ford was cleared to leave isolation after contracting monkeypox.
The 30-year-old actor and writer from California opened up to PEOPLE about the painful experience recovering from the rare virus, which is spreading quickly across the United States, and why he’s sharing his story for all demographics.
“There’s no place or reason for shame or stigma in any of this. It can be terrible. It can be awful, but something that helped me is remembering that it is temporary and there is another side of it.”
Ford received a call on June 17 that he was exposed to monkeypox by someone with whom he’d had prolonged contact. He immediately scanned his body and noticed a few lesions had begun to form. After self isolating, Ford got tested at a doctor’s office and officially tested positive for monkeypox a week later before receiving a court-ordered stay-at-home mandate from the LA County Department of Public Health.
During the first week, Ford experienced intense flu-like symptoms including coughing, sore throat, and fever, and full-body chills where he says he’d wake up with his pillows and bed sheets soaked in sweat.
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Though symptoms vary among patients, he noticed that once his flu-like symptoms started to subside, more lesions started to appear on his body, counting 25 in total.
“Obviously the [lesions] that already existed in the underwear area were very, very painful and the ones on my face, but I started getting them on my torso, legs, arms, shoulders, scalp; they kind of appeared everywhere,” Ford explains, noting that the lesions became “excruciatingly painful all the time” for about one week.
“And it was more painful if I moved the wrong way, if I irritated them, certain bodily functions that required movement. It was one of the most painful things I’ve ever experienced. I would describe it as like at least an eight or a nine out of 10,” he continues. “There are a lot of reports of people screaming, passing out, just really terrible stuff and I experienced some of that pain and I understand why.”
Being among the first cases in the United States, Ford wasn’t prescribed the vaccines or antiviral treatments that were being provided to later patients. Ford says he simply had to “wait it out” until his symptoms went away.
“The only thing that really helped me with the pain was taking Epsom salt baths. So I took a lot of those in addition to just trying to manage the symptoms. I was maxing out the amount of Tylenol, Advil I could take. Using a lot of creams and ointments.”
Instead of receiving a vaccine or treatment, the only medication Ford was prescribed were narcotic painkillers after his lesions became so painful it left him unable to sleep for multiple consecutive nights.
RELATED: WHO Declares Monkeypox Outbreak a Public Health Emergency of ‘International Concern’
Along with the physical struggles that Ford experienced during his isolation, he also said the virus took a toll on his mental health.
“The first two weeks, I just kind of tried to focus on getting to the other side of it, and trying to remember that it was temporary. It was really tough around the two week mark, I remember because I was starting to get a little stir crazy inside,” he admits. “I was stuck inside and in pain and it was really brutal. I feel very blessed to have a strong support system. And I was very grateful for that. But mentally, it was difficult.”
After weeks of symptoms and daily check-ins from health professionals, Ford recovered from monkeypox on July 12 and his stay-at-home mandate was lifted. He says he feels better but reveals there were some lingering physical and mental repercussions.
“I still have pigmentation on me from where the spots were and there’s some residual soreness from areas where the lesions did some trauma to my body. And mentally, I had some pretty intense social anxiety coming out of it. It’s a very intense thing to go through and come out of it, you feel a little bit shaken.”
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Ford tells PEOPLE that though he was initially hesitant to share his story online, he wanted to bring attention to the severity of monkeypox as many people in the US are still unaware of the virus and its impact.
He says he also wants to emphasize that though monkeypox is heavily impacting gay men, it can be contracted by all demographics and people should be warned about “how painful or serious this is.”
“There can be some stigma around it due to some of the ways that it potentially can spread,” Ford says. “It is by no means only spread through sex, it is not classified as an STI, but that is a major way that we are seeing it spread and that carries some connotations with it, unfortunately, of like a scarlet letter scenario, for some people.”
He continues, “There also seems to be kind of a rift between the messaging that anybody can get this, which is true, versus emphasizing that the primary demographic, the vast majority of people who get it, currently are queer men and a huge way we’re seeing it spread is through sexual contact. And that does not mean it’s the only way.”
“I think we can acknowledge it is primarily queer men being affected right now. And there is potential for that to spread to other communities without inducing any shame or stigma or labeling this a gay disease,” Ford adds.