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June 2006

Reality Bites: Lyme Disease

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

Whatever the opinions about chronic Lyme, when I am being treated with antibiotics, my arthritis and the swelling in my joints gets better; I can write, think, play with my children, and to a more limited extent, enjoy life as I did before. So far, when I go off them I suffer a rapid return of painful arthritis, numbness and nerve pain, memory loss, blurred vision, sleeplessness, ringing in the ears, and the rest of it. Scientists have found that Lyme’s spiral bacteria-spirochetes-make a home in your tissues. More sinister yet, they kill critical immune cells, hijacking their genetic material to evade the body’s defenses. Pathologists have found Lyme spirochetes in the brains of patients who received antibiotics and later died.

I’ve thought a lot about how things might have been different-long pants, bug repellent, and a tick check that evening when I got home from work. The bottle of doxycycline pills that most experts agree is capable of preventing Lyme if given immediately after the bite costs $16 at the government’s discount. A recent tally of costs of my illness totals over $200,000. Then there’s the question of why it took five doctors to get diagnosed. If there is one thing Lyme has taught me, it is how potent a longstanding belief-for example, excessive faith in laboratory tests that are known to be less than perfect, or a notion that Lyme is not a problem in a given region-can be in the face of the evidence at hand. The lesson for me is clear: In this, like everything else in the outdoors, we must learn to watch out for our own safety. At least for now.

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