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Beware of Lyme disease

Linda Hiller

It starts with a bite from a tiny tick.

In most cases there will be a “bullseye” rash or welt at the site of the bite, but in some cases, there will be no noticeable mark.

What follows differs for each infected individual. There are as many as 48 different symptoms, and the infected person will most likely see only a portion of those.

In fact, Lyme disease is called the “great imitator,” because it mimics so many other diseases, making diagnosis extremely difficult.

Add to that the fact that Lyme disease is more common in some parts of the country, so in locations where it is rare, such as Carson Valley, residents and doctors don’t even think of Lyme disease when its symptoms appear.

Welcome to Lorraine Mac-Leod’s nightmare.

For the past 10 months, the Carson Valley Middle School earth science teacher has lived with Lyme disease. For the first half of that time, she didn’t know what was wrong with her.

“During the flood in January, I was walking back and forth to the fire station to sandbag,” she said. The fire station she refers to is in Sheridan Acres, off Foothill Road and Centerville Lane.

That’s when she thinks the tick bite on her ear occurred.

“That night, I had a reddish purple and white bite on my ear,” MacLeod said. Her daughter saw the ear after she came in and said, “Mom, what happened to your ear?”

“It was ugly looking. I made a doctors appointment and then cancelled it after the bite faded,” she said. Ten days later she had flu-like symptoms, but didn’t think much of it.

Symptoms she calls “bizarre” followed – difficulty swallowing, the top of her head went numb, as did the roof of her mouth and her face. Later, she experienced unusual fatigue and odd muscle cramps.

“I was in great shape before that,” she said, adding that before long she was unable to do her usual workout.

Through all this, MacLeod saw doctors and even went to the University of California, San Francisco for help, but still couldn’t find out what was wrong.

She kept teaching and didn’t talk to friends about her odd health problems for fear that they would think she was “nuts.” She did, however, tell her principal, Roger Gerson, so he would understand her frequent doctor visits.

In May, MacLeod had symptoms of arthritis and on May 8 she collapsed at school. She hasn’t taught in the classroom since.

After fighting to get doctors to take her seriously, a frustrated MacLeod finally found one doctor in Carson City who said “someone has to help you,” words that brought her great relief.

MacLeod, 49, and a single mother of 14-year-old daughter, Cheyenne, looks back and wishes she’d taken that red ear seriously. Early diagnosis of Lyme disease is almost always a relatively quick cure with the antibiotic, tetracycline.

“Once Lyme gets disseminated, though, it’s a much different disease,” she said.

Lyme disease was first identified in 1883 in Germany. It is caused by a corkscrew-shaped bacterial organism called a spirochete. It is transmitted by a tick, and is much more common in the northeast and northwest parts of the United States.

In its larval stage, the so-called deer tick (there are other ticks that transmit the disease) is the size of a poppy seed. When mature, the hard-bodied tick is only slightly larger than the head of a pin.

The first symptom – perhaps the most important – is the presence of a “bullseye” rash or welt at the site of the bite. Because the tick itself is so small, it is often not seen.

A course of tetracycline at this early stage is enough to knock out Lyme disease in most all cases.

Other Lyme disease symptoms include fatigue, sore and/or swollen joints, flu-like symptoms, nausea, facial paralysis, a sore throat, jaw pain, hair loss, respiratory problems, appetite loss, memory loss and more.

Blood tests for Lyme disease are often inconclusive since there are many different strains of the bacteria that can elude certain tests.

In 1982, there were 99,000 diagnosed cases of Lyme disease in the United States. In 1996, more than 16,000 new cases from 48 states were reported to the Centers for Disease Control. Because of the confusing nature of the disease, many cases go either undiagnosed or misdiagnosed.

“They initially tested me for muscular dystrophy,” said Pau-Wa-Lu Middle School teacher, Miki Trujillo, who has been battling the disease for more than two years. She was bit by a tick during a Labor Day camping trip to Silver Lake in 1995.

Trujillo is currently seeing a specialist in Tarzana, Calif., who has her taking three different antibiotics with much success. She is hoping for a completely negative blood test as early as this December. After that, she said her doctor will keep her on the antibiotics until March and then she should be able to go completely off them.

She, too, wishes she had been diagnosed earlier.

“If someone had looked at all my symptoms early-on, instead of trying to focus on them one at a time, they would have seen that I had a classic case of Lyme disease,” she said.

Another Carson Valley resident, Rod Mack, 59, who has lived in the area for 13 years thinks he got bit by a tick in either Fish Springs or perhaps his former residence off Orchard Road.

“Last December I was clearing brush behind a barn on our new property in Fish Springs. I got a rash on my chest with a black spot, but didn’t pay much attention to it,” he said. “I put Neosporin on it, then a Band-Aid, and it basically went away.”

He remembers having extreme pain in his left thumb on Super Bowl Sunday, but rationalized that to working too hard on the construction of his new home.

As a long-time computer consultant, Mack said he spends may hours at the computer. In May his wrists became swollen and his shoulders ached, and it was at that time he began to wonder what was wrong with him.

He went to see a doctor who ran many tests, and surprised him by suggesting the possibility of Lyme disease.

“I remembered the rash and went home and took a hot shower and could see the ring,” he said. He called the doctor and then began a course of tetracycline in June. His symptoms faded, and he has been on oral antibiotics off and on since then.

While his symptoms are still there, Mack said having the disease in Carson Valley is frustrating.

“You can’t get anyone to admit there are ticks here and there are not enough people here with Lyme to give it any credibility with the doctors,” he said.

Mack said he has spent many hours on the Internet trying to find out more about the disease.

“I have learned that it is definitely spreading, and with the amount of travel we do and the amount of people moving into the area, it seems only logical that we will see more Lyme disease here,” he said.

He, too, wishes he knew then what he knows now, and had paid close attention to his bullseye rash back in December.

“I haven’t gotten depressed about it, though,” he said. “I am still able to work and now I find that when I look out onto the world each morning, things look different to me. I appreciate everything more.”

Jeff Knight, Nevada state entomologist, said there are definitely ticks in Nevada.

“We have 15-20 species of ticks here. The one associated with Lyme disease, ixodes pacificus, is not particularly common though,” he said. “They are more common in the foothills of California. Here in Nevada, our most common tick is the Rocky Mountain Wood Tick, which is not a carrier of Lyme disease.”

Knight did say that a pocket of the western black-legged tick – ixodes pacificus – has been found in southwest Reno, but he added that the property owner there makes frequent visits to the California foothills.

Unless you’re in an area with a lot of deer, Knight said it would be very unlikely to see Lyme-carrying ticks in our area.

“I’d say the likelihood of getting Lyme disease in Nevada is very, very low,” he said, adding that it would be possible for people who travel to other parts of the country – where the disease is more prevalent – to bring back infected ticks.

Cameron Ross, veterinarian with the Carson Valley Veterinary Hospital, who recently moved here from Missouri, said he has yet to see any dogs here test positive for Lyme disease, adding that 10 percent of his patients opt for the vaccine anyway.

“I will say that I vaccinate my pets because even though the chance of infection is very slim, I’d rather be safe than sorry,” he said.

Ross said the incidence of Lyme disease in Missouri was higher than here, and he added one of his college professors was diagnosed with Lyme disease.

Valley veterinarian Sheila Imbur, who moved here from Georgia said that in her former state, the Lyme vaccination was recommended, but here in Douglas County she, too, hasn’t seen any occurrences of Lyme disease in her canine patients.

Meanwhile, Lorraine MacLeod is anxious to get back to her students at CVMS.

Currently she is on long-term intravenous antibiotics and is at times so sick she must stay in bed, but she looks forward to getting back to work.

“I am a teacher – I want to teach,” she said. “I miss it very, very much.”

For more information on Lyme disease, the Lyme Disease Foundation has a hotline, 1-800-886-LYME, and can be reached at 1 Financial Plaza, Hartford, Conn. 06103. They also have a website on the Internet.