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June 2006

Reality Bites: Lyme Disease

A park ranger's struggle with the tick-borne illness.

I limped through the next year, working part-time. I had bouts of severe diarrhea, which came without warning and then disappeared just as quickly. Back to the running-shoe doctor; stool samples were run; no intestinal parasites were found, all normal. I ran out of sick leave. At 43, perhaps I was getting too old for ranger work, I thought. Then that September, one morning I woke up and couldn’t feel my hands.

Once, in Alaska, before the advent of GPS devices, a friend and I spent a day crawling over mossy logs in a dripping spruce forest, unable to discern where we were. The next morning the clouds lifted and we climbed a tree on a ridge, where we could shoot compass azimuths on a nearby peak. Nowadays people don’t get lost very much. Everything is made to make us more and more found, connected as we are by PDA, cell phone, and GPS. But as the Lyme got worse, my own body became a terra incognita, full of signs and features I didn’t recognize.

The numbness and pins and needles in my hands soon progressed to my feet. Then there were shooting and stabbing pains; the first time I had one, I tore my shoe off, thinking a spider had crawled into it. My vision grew blurry. I got motion sickness during car rides, a problem I had never known in my life. My ears had begun to ring, a piercing whine.

The beginning of the end of my ranger career came one day at the pistol range. We were required to qualify with our weapons four times a year. We stood facing our row of human silhouette targets; the rangemaster called out, “Gun!” The rangers on either side of me drew and fired, and I was left struggling to get my gun out. The loss of feeling in my right hand made it impossible for me to operate the releases on my holster. I could not be on duty in that condition.

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