Saturday, March 11, 2006

Lyme Disease, Up Close and Personal

With spring on the way, the ice is breaking up in Blackfish Creek, a view familiar to anyone who loves Wellfleet. This year I will miss winter. Indeed, I have acquired a new appreciation for freezing weather.

In winter, when I step outside, I know there is no risk deer ticks can spring onto me from some low bush. If I bend to pick up a piece of firewood, nothing will crawl onto my feet. Should I rake up dead leaves, I am safe because of the cold. I know such a reaction sounds extreme, but I was really, really sick last summer. I have learned my lesson. No more ticks are going to infect me with Lyme Disease!

I used to be Lyme-ignorant. Sure, I had read the plasticized flyer distributed by Barnstable County. I knew deer ticks carry disease and exist on Cape Cod. I thought I was avoiding them. Then, on the 4th of July, I fell ill. “Too much sun,” I muttered, lying down. My fever soared to 103 and stayed high for three days. I could feel the contagion coursing through my veins. “I’ll be fine,” I told my loved ones. “Just a nasty flu virus.”

Later that week I mustered all my strength and made my way to Outer Cape Health. “Did a tick bite you?” a doctor asked. Like a zombie, I shook my head. Ticks had been ON me during the past month, but I had picked them off. No, I had not been bitten. There was no telltale bull’s eye rash. “Let’s do a Lyme test anyway,” he said.

The test came back negative, and everyone concluded I did not have Lyme. But my energy was gone. For weeks I could barely get out of bed, problematic when one is in charge of a bed & breakfast!

To make a long story short, no evidence of Lyme showed up because the test had been done too early. I must have been bitten the last week of June. The tick was on me, probably on my back, for 24 to 36 hours before it regurgitated the Borrelia burgdorferi in its gut.

Borrelia is a spirochete, like syphilis. If treated in the early stages with antibiotics, the patient recovers. Without timely treatment, Lyme Disease can become chronic. Spirochetes take over. The crafty little buggers hide in cells, avoiding destruction at the hands of the antibiotic troops. Check this out!

In August I developed severe pain in my neck, as well as extreme exhaustion. I requested another Lyme test, positive this time.

I started Doxycycline August 24. The doctors wanted a 3-week treatment. Now, this is where things get complicated. The medical profession does not agree on the appropriate length of treatment. I called an infectious-diseases doctor-friend in Baltimore and he recommended 6 to 8 weeks, “because there was a delay in diagnosis.” The doctors at Outer Cape Health were not pleased, but the matter was no longer in their hands.

After taking my meds, I made myself walk briskly. The idea was to disperse the antibiotics as thoroughly as possible through my body. All the while I would imagine an arsenal of weapons destroying spirochetes, the cause of my persistent fatigue.

The good news: I seem to be cured. The bad news: I can get Lyme Disease again.

So-o-o-o, what can one do? Take precautions. Avoid ticks. Wear tick-repellant. Stop going barefoot. Examine oneself after being outside.

I loved the feel of soft summer grass squishing through my toes. No more!

Typical tick habitat is close to the ground within a wooded tract such as a conservation or recreational area. But ticks have moved into suburban neighborhoods, too. They travel on deer. Lyme Disease has spread to every state except Montana. The larva need a blood host to change into nymphs. Often they choose mice. The nymphs, as small as a poppy seed, can infect you as easily as the larger adult females. The females lay up to 3000 eggs. Ugh!

Education is needed, as is further research.

To be continued ….