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June 2006

Reality Bites: Lyme Disease

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

I saw a rheumatologist who sent me to a neurologist, who did a spinal tap. I had elevated protein in my spinal fluid. The neurologist stuck electrodes on my arms and legs through which he delivered electric shocks to test my nerves. This test revealed nerve damage, he said, and coupled with the elevated protein in my spinal fluid seemed to indicate that the protective sheaths of my nerves might be melting away. But the cause was unlikely to be Lyme, he said, because Lyme wasn’t found much in California. I would later find out that a county lab had been collecting ticks in the park where I had been bitten, and 4 to 11 percent of them had tested positive for Lyme.

Finally, in January of 2000 I went to see a prominent Lyme disease researcher.

“Why didn’t anybody see this?” he said, leafing through my thick patient file. “You’re a classic case. A park ranger-an occupation prone to tick-borne disease-known tick bite, subsequent rash, typical symptoms…”

He put me on oral antibiotics.

This is the point in a medical narrative where things ought to get better, but they got worse. Now I developed painful arthritis in my feet and hands. Later it would appear in my shoulders. One day, quite suddenly, my nose filled with the most horrible odor-like the smell of death mixed with noxious chemicals. The odor went away only to return again, over and over. Sometimes I tasted it in my mouth.

Two years after my tick bite I began feeling decidedly drunk, but this was a far more unpleasant intoxication than an alcohol buzz. I was having trouble with minor computations, balancing a checkbook, the tip on a restaurant bill. I forgot the words for things, lost my parked car, got lost while driving in familiar places. The identities of people who apparently knew me pretty well were becoming obscure to me. Writing a note to my wife or something in my diary, I would write the second letter of a word before the first. Why not the third? It was always the second. The brain is a labyrinthine organism, its complexity most apparent when the flawless functioning we take for granted begins to unravel.

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