This past Wednesday, December 8, 2010, the Chicago Tribune published a lengthy article called “Chronic Lyme Disease: A Dubious Diagnosis.” This article is so biased and filled with misinformation, I need to respond. (As you’ll see at the bottom of this post, I’m not the only one.)
The article’s central claim supports the stance of the Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA) that chronic Lyme doesn’t exist.
[The IDSA concluded that there is] “no convincing biologic evidence” for a Lyme infection that persists and continues to sicken despite the recommended treatment, usually a few weeks of antibiotics.
My experience, and the medical evidence that is part of my experience, contradict this dangerous and preposterous notion. Here is my own Lyme disease story (which will act as Part II of the Lyme Awareness Month post from May 2010, when I promised to describe how Lyme has affected me, and what you should know about it).
Summer of 2007
My case is a little different from the typical “How I Became Disabled/Ill” narrative because I was already disabled by chronic illness before I got Lyme disease. I usually try to avoid comparisons among disabilities, but I have to speak the truth: What I have gone through with Lyme disease has been much, much worse than what I experienced in my previous decade of chronic illness. I would gladly have my other illnesses double- or triple-fold more severe if it would rid me of Lyme. I’ve lost parts of my life and myself to Lyme I didn’t know it was possible for me to lose.
Here’s how it started. One day, I was sitting on the couch watching TV, absent-mindedly running my hands through my hair when I felt something sticking out of the nape of my neck. After living in the severely tick-infested area of rural Western Massachusetts with two dogs, I immediately knew this was a tick, although it felt rounder and much smaller than I was used to. Nevertheless, I wanted it off me; I didn’t want to wait to mess around with mirrors and tweezers, so I handled it as I did the dogs’ ticks — I grasped it at the base and pulled.
I heard the “pop!” that occurs when a tick is removed that’s been embedded, and as I had pulled at an awkward angle — my hand behind my head — I dropped it. Into the sofa. The falling-apart, loose-foam, shredded-upholstery black-hole-of-a-sofa. I tried to find it, but I never did.
I was pretty sure it had been a tick, but I wanted to see. I was hoping I had just pulled off some random, weird thing that was not a blood-sucking insect. However, when I checked in the mirror (two, actually, since it was on the back of my head so I couldn’t see it without a second reflection), there was a large, dark-pink raised area with a bloody center — just like how it looks if I pull an embedded tick off my dog. I cleaned it and hoped for the best.
I checked it again over the next couple of days. The area was flattening out, the scab was healing. My (mis)understanding at the time was that if one contracted Lyme disease, a bull’s-eye rash would appear immediately at the site. I saw no rash, so I forgot about the bite.
About a month later, I developed joint pain in my fingers. Out of all the symptoms I’ve had with all my health issues, I’ve never had my joints bother me. The pain was bothersome, but not severe. However, I was a writer, and I relied on my hands for work as well as to make up for functional limitations in other areas caused by my disabilities. I was very protective of my hands. I just didn’t want anything to get worse. Fortunately, I happened to have a doctor’s appointment coming up.
At my biannual appointment with my primary care physician, I mentioned the joint pain. She thought it was probably a worsening of my other conditions, but suggested a couple of tests, including one for Lyme. That set off a bell in my head. I remembered that thing that I had pulled off the back of my head. When I got home, I grabbed my hand mirror and went to look in the mirror over the bathroom sink. I parted my hair and looked at the area where the bite had been. It was flat now — no more bump — but it was definitely discolored. It was red.
I looked up Lyme disease online and discovered that the array of symptoms I’d been experiencing in the last couple of weeks were classic of Lyme — not just the joint pain and the rash, but the new kinds of headache and vertigo, the drowsy fatigue, the constant ache in my neck and shoulders, and more. Crying, I got out my dog-grooming clippers and shaved off the hair in that area so I could be certain of what I was looking at. I compared it to the pictures of erythema migrans (Lyme rashes) I’d seen online. Bull’s-eye.
Well, metaphorically, at least. Some EMs look like bull’s-eyes, but they are just as likely to be roundish, red rashes. I knew this was serious.
I called my PCP and told her about the tick bite and symptoms. Because I’m allergic to tetracycline, a relative of doxycycline, the frontline drug for Lyme, the doctor prescribed the second-best antibiotic for early Lyme, amoxicillin. I read all the comforting information by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the IDSA that Lyme, when treated promptly, responds quickly and completely to appropriate antibiotics. I had heard of chronic Lyme, but my impression was that this was a disease that only occurred if one went years without treatment after infection. I also thought of it as a mild disease, more of a nuisance — some joint pain, maybe a little fatigue, but not a big deal.
“Something Curable and Non-Controversial”
I focused on the information on site after site that said prompt diagnosis and treatment would cure me. I even told my friends and family, who were upset and scared to hear I’d contracted Lyme, “At least I have something curable this time!”
I meant it. Yes, I was scared. I didn’t like having a frightening disease given to me by a disgusting tick, but I felt almost giddy with relief that now I would be on the road to recovery. This was just a bacterial infection. Antibiotics kill bacteria. Within a couple of months, I’d be back to normal.
It was also a nice change of pace to have a disease that seemed to be without controversy. Lyme was caused by a known microbe; nobody disputed that. Unlike my other diseases, whose etiology was still being pieced together, this time I would not have to hunt for a physician who knew how to diagnose and treat me.
I stayed on the amoxicillin. Initially, I got much sicker (which I now know is a Herxheimer, or die-off reaction), and then most of my symptoms started to improve. But not all of them. My PCP kept me on amoxicillin. Weeks turned into months, and some of my symptoms, including my rash, persisted. Different antitibiotics just made me worse. I became much sicker.
Thank God I had that rash.
Doesn’t that seem like a strange thing to say? That’s because in the hellish time to come, the rash would be the one piece of incontrovertable truth that the tick bite had occurred and done damage. It was proof of infection, proof that something wrong was left behind, something visible on the skin.
In November, I became suddenly and drastically worse. The light- and sound-sensitivity and headaches became all-consuming. The musculoskeletal pain was unendurable. I developed neurologic symptoms, including intermittent vocal-cord apraxia (inability to speak) and functional paralysis in my arms — and more often — my legs, severely compromised cognition, and behavioral and mood changes.
I was so weak that I couldn’t leave my bed and had to use my powerchair to get to the bathroom. I needed help to brush my teeth, eat or drink, get in or out of bed. I had trouble breathing and eating; I lost thirty pounds.
I started searching for a doctor who could help. None seemed able to intervene because none of them were convinced, entirely, that my illness was caused by Lyme. Why? Because all of my Lyme tests were negative. I soon learned that this was meaningless; Lyme tests are notoriously inaccurate for producing false negatives. I was tested over and over for multiple tick-borne diseases by multiple doctors as I started seeking more answers. All bloodwork returned “inconclusive” or negative.
However, the CDC officially states that blood tests are not to be used as primary diagnostic tools for Lyme. The IDSA and CDC both say that the presence of an EM rash is 100-percent proof of Lyme infection, and that treatment of patients with EMs should begin immediately; blood tests in such cases are optional.
That’s what they say. Officially. However, none of the doctors seemed to know this. . . .
“Lyme Can’t Cause This.”
I was desperately ill and scared. My friends and family were afraid that I was dying. Yet nobody could come up with a diagnosis. Physical exams and blood tests showed abnormalities, but nothing gave a conclusive answer as to the why.
The only thing we knew that had been added to the mix was Lyme disease, and that was now being dismissed because (1) all my blood tests for Lyme were interpreted as negative (despite that all my lab results say right on them that the test is not conclusive and that clinical evidence must be taken into account), and (2) my doctors were as uninformed about Lyme disease as I’d been.
“Lyme can’t do THIS,” I heard again and again, as each doctor rushed me out of his or her office. Most knew something physical was truly wrong, yet I still heard suggestions for psychiatrists. Doctors who had known me for years treated me like a scary stranger. I was told to find out what was wrong and then come back. Some refused to see me altogether.
Yes, I had had Lyme, the doctors agreed, that was not in dispute, but since I’d been treated for it (actually, according to IDSA standards, I’d been overtreated for it), it could not possibly be the cause of my myriad symptoms. My Lyme was cured. So, all of this suffering and blatant physical dysfunction that occurred immediately following infection was just a coincidence. Besides, everyone knew Lyme just caused some joint pain, headaches, Bell’s palsy, etc. It didn’t make you unable to speak or lift your foot. It didn’t create such agonizing pain that it literally immobilized you. It didn’t destroy your life, like whatever this was.
Thus, in February 2008, my Lyme doctor stopped treating me. She knew I was sick, but without a positive test result, she said she couldn’t “justify” continuing to prescribe antibiotics. I didn’t know at the time that doctors who treated patients with Lyme beyond the IDSA’s “guidelines” were in danger of losing their licenses, losing insurance coverage, and even criminal prosecution. I just knew I was being abandoned.
I spent nine months without treatment, unable to talk, stand, feed, toilet, or bathe myself. I was in excruciating pain, nauseous, dizzy, and couldn’t tolerate any sound, movement, touch, or light. I had migraines around the clock. I had psychological symptoms I’d never had before, altering my personality, and causing me to lose most of my friends.
During this time, not knowing what else to think, I eventually began to believe the doctors. They said this wasn’t Lyme, therefore it must not be Lyme. I didn’t know what it was. I just was holding on for dear life.
I had one friend who had gotten Lyme around the same time as I had. Luckily, her test results had been positive, though she did not remember a tick bite. She was absolutely convinced that my symptoms were caused by Lyme and coinfections. She sent me printouts of Internet Lyme forum posts from other people who’d lost their voices, who couldn’t stand or walk or had tremors, and on and on. She begged me to get retested.
Physically and emotionally, it took everything I had to get retested. In October, 2008, I was again tested for antibodies to the spirochete that causes Lyme, as well as for three other tick-borne diseases. I couldn’t bear the thought of the results coming back stamped, “Negative, negative, negative.” It would be the end of hope. But, I needed someone who was in a position to help me heal to finally know the truth, and this seemed the only way. I had to risk it.
I remember sitting in front of the fax machine, slumped over with exhaustion in my power wheelchair, as page after page came through from the lab.
- “Western Blot, Borrelia burgdorferi” (the microbe that causes Lyme), “Positive.”
- “Lyme disease — Confirmed by Southern Dot Blot, Positive.”
- “Babesia microti” (another tick-borne disease), FISH (a test that shows the presence of the parasites’ RNA in my blood), “Positive.”
As the positive results came through, I cried and cried. Finally, answers. Finally, “evidence” that I wasn’t “crazy.” Over a year-and-a-half after infection, the combination of antibiotics goosing my immune system into producing enough antibodies, and the time that allowed the organism to multiply in my blood and tissues had led to proof: positive blood tests for Lyme and babesia.
Based on these results, my doctor started treating me again. She said she was “thrilled that now she could finally help me.” I can only assume that she had been afraid to risk it before, to risk her practice, because of the politics.
With these two diagnoses came a third — Bartonella. I had almost all of the symptoms, and it is even harder to get an accurate test for this infection than for Lyme. In light of the proof of existing tick-borne disease, my doctor now made a clinical (symptom-based) diagnosis of this third infection. Bartonella seemed particularly likely to be at the root of the psychological symptoms that had cost me my sense of self and most of my support system.
Thus began a grueling treatment regimen, with herx reactions so strong that they usually lasted for several months. Now I am slowly — very slowly — getting better. I’m still not back to how my life was. But I can do more, I suffer less physically, and my personality has been returned to me. I have hope.
“Dubious?” How about “Definitions”?
The IDSA says there is no evidence for chronic Lyme infection that persists after their recommended treatment of 28 days of antibiotics.
My body — my story — provides the evidence that the IDSA is wrong.
Let’s break it down, definition by definition:
- Evidence: It should be enough for any practitioner to have seen me to know that I was physically ill (and, indeed, that’s what they saw and various blood tests and exams showed), but since clinical common sense was not enough, let’s look at the evidence that takes the human factor out of the equation. We have my EM, at the site of a tick bite. That’s evidence that the CDC and IDSA don’t even dispute. We have the multiple blood-test results that show that one-and-a-half years after infection, the microbes and antibodies were still in my blood. Evidence? Check.
- Chronic: Chronic disease refers to a persistent and lasting medical condition. In some cases, I’ve seen cut-offs of months or years used to define chronic. Six months is sometimes used, or a year. I had positive test results of infection twenty months after exposure. Three-and-a-half years later, I’m still sick. Chronic? Check.
- Infection: Here’s a good definition of infection. “The pathological state resulting from the invasion of the body by pathogenic microorganisms.” Borrelia burgdorferi, “the Lyme bug,” is a bacterium in the spirochete family, similar to the microorganism that causes syphilis. Babesia microti is a parasite that causes babesiosis, similar to the parasite that causes malaria. Infection? Check.
- Persistence of illness after IDSA’s protocol has been performed: I was on amoxicillin from July 2007 through October 2007 and cefuroxime from October 2007 through February 2008. That’s a lot more than 28 days. Yet, as is clear from the evidence of chronic infection above, I was still sick. Persistence? Check.
So much for my easily curable, noncontroversial illness. That’s the IDSA Lyme disease, not my Lyme disease.
I sure wish the gap between the two wasn’t so wide. I sure wish my illness had been quickly and easily curable.
If the IDSA’s picture of Lyme matched the reality of it, that tick bite would have faded, along with my rash, to a distant memory.
If that had been the case, not only wouldn’t I have had to suffer the physical damages of this illness, I wouldn’t have to write a blog to counteract misinformation claiming that my experience doesn’t count, and that my disease doesn’t exist.
Thank you for reading.
-Sharon, the muse of Gadget (who also had Lyme, and who also required treatment much longer than he was “supposed to” have), the spirit of Jersey (who seems to have escaped the plague), and Barnum, who gets tick-checked every night from March through November and has had over 60 deer ticks found on him in his first year alone in rural Massachusetts
P.S. Please support this effort. Comments are very welcome. I also encourage you to visit the following other bloggers who say “My Lyme Disease Is Not the IDSA Lyme Disease.”
I believe Ashley spearheaded this effort; she is a fierce and eloquent advocate for Lymies. Some of the other bloggers also have MCS, like me. Candice is one with severe MCS and food allergies, and a moving story. Heather’s tale is one of the most compelling I’ve ever read, on any topic; please read it.
- Ashley van Tol at Lymenaide
- Abigail at Live with Lyme
- Alix at SpiroChicks
- Alyson at Adventures in Lyme Land
- Andrew Peterson at The Next Ten Minutes
- Brooke at Lemon and Lyme
- Candice at Infectiously Optimistic
- Eric Rutulante at LymeBites
- Heather at I Am Not Lyme Disease
- Kenneth Mercure at The Lyme Life
- Kim Christensen at Affairs of Living
- Kim Trick at Wallet Friendly Wellness
- Molly at I’m in the Lyme Light
- SixGoofyKids at Lyme Treatment
- Anika at Five Lymies & a Baby
- Dawn at Brian & Dawn Denio (Access note: This site automatically plays music when you open it.)