I grew up in a beautiful small town in western Kentucky. I spent much of my childhood playing outdoors at my grandmother’s little farm “in the country” and, as a teenager, with a growing love for nature, I frequented the Land Between the Lakes for long hikes, picnics and camping trips. Ticks were just part of being outside. We’d do tick-checks when we got home and flush the little buggers down the toilet. They were common and no one seemed to think anything of them. Nor did anyone seem to know the potential dangers of the illnesses they carry. As creepy as ticks may be, they didn’t keep me from doing the things I loved or visiting places of beauty in nature.
As a child and teenager, I was healthy, strong and athletic. I swam every day in the summer, played varsity tennis from the seventh or eighth grade through my junior year of high school, often accompanied my father on golf outings and helped my mother in the garden. I never had a broken bone, any sort of surgery, or any memorable illness until my senior year. During the late summer of 1995, I accompanied a friend on an off-trail exploration through a forest in Cadiz, Kentucky.
At some point during our hike, I discovered a multitude of ticks crawling all over my legs, as did my friend. They were too many to count and had somehow managed to find their way past pant legs down to my ankles, and socks pulled up to my knees. Both of us were covered from the hips down with these tiny monsters. It was the first time I experienced ticks in mass numbers, so many of them covering such a large area of my body. While a random tick here or there was common, this was a new experience with a distinct sense of urgency.
We sprinted the mile back to the car, stripped off most of our clothes to get the ticks off and drove an hour and a half back home to do a thorough check. In the weeks following that day, everything seemed to be fine except for the many small red bumps that dotted my legs. No one ever mentioned Lyme disease or tick-borne illnesses because no one knew anything about them. A few months later, I got sick. I had the flu, then a sinus infection, then Shingles at age eighteen, which seemed very peculiar. But my doctor never raised an eyebrow.
I became plagued with constant nausea and loss of appetite and started to experience severe shooting pains through my body. My doctor assured me that it was just the anxiousness of graduating and moving on to college. I thought he was nuts. Because it seemed they’d made everything worse, I attributed the ongoing nausea, loss of appetite and digestive disorders to the antibiotics that had been prescribed at some point over the winter. For many years, no one put two and two together.
Who really knows what this particular tick encounter did to my body and immune system or what, if any, tick-borne illness was transmitted to me then. What’s certain is that my health drastically changed from that point forward. Nevertheless, I learned how to get by, despite the continued problems, and became a master at how to adapt as if nothing was really wrong.
My outdoor adventures continued through and beyond college as my now-husband, Jesse, and I moved to Lexington. We spent lots of time hiking and backpacking at the Red River Gorge and surrounding forests. At least nine months out of the year, we could be found canoeing, hiking or camping nearly every weekend somewhere within a 150-mile radius. On one such weekend in 2003, we visited a nearby hiking destination. While Jesse-the-Arborist climbed a tree, I took my dog for a trail-run through the woods. After a bit, the trail ended abruptly in a grassy opening in the middle of the forest. I stopped momentarily to enjoy the lovely scenery and then continued on my way.
It was few hours later when I discovered the hitch-hikers I’d picked up in the grass. Just like before, my legs were covered from hips to ankles with ticks; just like before, I stripped off my clothes and did my best to remove them. Many were still crawling; many were already attached. Another hour and half drive home. Another thorough-as-possible-tick-check under the bright bathroom lights. Another thought that I was "good to go."
By the end of the week that followed, I wasn’t feeling so hot-–mild flu-like symptoms, fatigue, headache. I stayed home from work. At one point, I felt heat radiating across my left thigh. And there it was-–a perfect bull’s eye, the unmistakable mark of Lyme. Though my knowledge of Lyme disease was still quite limited, I knew this was NOT something I wanted to have, nor was it anything to take lightly.
I called the health department immediately and told the woman about the ticks and the bull’s eye rash. She calmly asked me if I’d recently traveled to Connecticut. “No, I was hiking near Bardstown!” I told her. She confidently assured me that I could not get Lyme disease in Kentucky and that, since I hadn’t recently been to the Northeast, it was nothing to worry about. The bull’s eye rash was probably just “an allergic reaction to one of the tick bites.” When I asked if I should see a doctor anyway, I was told that doctors in Kentucky don’t treat Lyme disease.
No health insurance. No doctor. No Lyme disease in Kentucky. I decided to do an anti-microbial, immune-boosting herbal protocol just to be proactive, and it seemed to help. The bull’s eye faded, my energy returned. When I got the flu several months later, I confined myself to bed until I was well. By then, Lyme disease was the last thing on my mind. When I got the flu again a few months later, and then again a few months after that, I started to wonder what was going on.
Was my immune system wrecked?
Part 2 Friday.