We have a diagnosis: Lyme disease.
Last week I wrote about the interesting way my adoptive daughter, 9-year-old Lauren, was diagnosed with Lyme disease. She suffered from septic arthritis, meaning there was something sick in her joint.
We went to the ER because we thought she’d pulled a ligament. Nope.
That something in her joint fluid, discovered after it was pulled from her hip and sent to a lab, was the bacteria Borrelia burgdorferi, the culprit that causes Lyme disease. Borrelia burgdorferi seems to be most commonly spread by tick bites.
Now, save the one cool year I lived in the rocky forests of Flagstaff, Ariz., I’ve lived my entire life in the Midwest. So I know about ticks. Trees and tall grasses? Think ticks. They’re tiny bugs that jump on their hosts and burrow into skin, often at hairlines or in creases.
I’ve tugged many off my children, carefully extracting the creepy bugs with tweezers and occasionally enjoying burning them on the concrete with a match. It’s about the only time I’m OK with killing a creature.
According to lymedisease.org, “Ticks are small crawling bugs in the spider family. They are arachnids, not insects. … In the midwestern and eastern United States, Ixodes scapularis, or deer tick, is the primary vector of Lyme disease.”
To spread Lyme disease, these little pests must bite or feed off an animal already infected with the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi and then bite the lucky someone or something else. And it’s not just a bite. The ticks latch on. In fact, according to most published information about Lyme disease, ticks must stay clamped for 36 hours to 48 hours for the bacteria to be transmitted.
Plenty of other creatures carry Borrelia burgdorferi — mosquitoes, deer, dogs, birds, cats, other critters and even humans after they’ve been infected — but most infectious disease experts believe it’s the tick that transmits it and the Borrelia burgdorferi doesn’t pass from human to human via bodily fluids like some microorganisms do.
So Lyme is not “contagious.”
Lyme disease was, apparently, named after the towns of Lyme and Old Lyme in Connecticut, where the first cases of the disease were named and classified in the 1970s after a slew of townspeople there suffered the typical symptoms of Borrelia burgdorferi infection, including rashes, joint pain and fatigue.
According to his Nov. 19, 2014, obituary, Swiss-born scientist Willy Burgdorfer discovered the spirochete — corkscrew-shaped bacteria — that cause Lyme disease in the bellies of ticks he opened up as part of his studies of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, another tick-borne illness. In 1982, the Lyme-causes microorganism was named after Burgdorfer.
Curiously, a decent number of intelligent people question the origin of Borrelia burgdorferi, citing the Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York, an island across the way from Lyme, Conn., shrouded in controversy about what sort of God-awful experiments have been done there over the years. Birds flying back and forth, some people say, might have transmitted the nasty Borrelia burgdorferi from the island, still a U.S. Department of Agriculture research point, to Connecticut.
I’m open-minded — even to so-called “conspiracy theories” — but as the mother of a now-infected Lyme disease sufferer, my primary concern is what’s ahead not why it’s here.
For now Lauren is on high doses of antibiotics designed to kill the Borrelia burgdorferi. We draw labs soon to see if they’re working. According to the infectious disease doctor we saw, we likely have little to worry about long-term, though I plan to dig in and find out more myself.
“If Lyme disease is not diagnosed and treated early, the spirochetes can spread and may go into hiding in different parts of the body. Weeks, months or even years later, patients may develop problems with the brain and nervous system, muscles and joints, heart and circulation, digestion, reproductive system, and skin,” according tolymedisease.org.
As a parent I’ve wondered if we did something wrong. Clearly, we missed a tick. I don’t think we failed — Rhetorically, how can you catch every little risk in life? — but I am certain we will be even more diligent this summer with bug spray and close inspections after playing outside.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers some advice about prevention. Essentially, it’s stay away from ticks; use bug repellent; and inspect often and thoroughly to get the pests off you.
I’m also considering “alternative” — or, rather, more common-sense — treatments for Lauren: nutritional therapy, chiropractic care, good sleeping and resting and exercise. Lyme disease can be painful and exhausting.
She’s doing well, though — running around, eating, sleeping, reading and playing. Will work to keep it that way.