When I was 15, I woke up one summer morning on the bathroom floor of my parents’ house, with no one around and no cellphone handy. It took me a little while to realize what had happened — with my head against the outside of the tub, I slowly realized that I’d passed out shortly after waking up. I’d been sick for a few days, but it didn’t seem to be anything extraordinary.
Unfortunately, it was. For a few minutes I could not even move, and when I finally gathered the will to get help, it was clear that my body just couldn’t manage it. Finding it impossible to get up on my feet — or even my hands and knees — my only option was to use what little strength I had to pull my limp body down the upstairs hallway.
I was so drained that it almost felt like I wasn’t inside my own person — that the arms pulling me to the phone weren’t my own arms, and that the legs trying to push me across the carpet were doing more to slow me down than anything else. I moved in intervals of two feet or less, breaking to recover as even that short distance sapped me of all my energy.
Eventually, I made it several yards to the phone by my parents’ bedside. I called my mother — no answer. My grandparents down the road — no answer. Finally, I reached my father at work, who connected me with a nurse who talked me through what had happened, my symptoms and the like as he rushed back home.
Three hospital visits, another fainting episode and a meningitis scare later, the doctors confirmed what we had suspected: Lyme Disease. They put me on doxycycline and within days I was almost entirely cured.
That was my Lyme Disease experience. I never saw the well-known bull’s-eye rash, but it was definitely Lyme. After the incident, I developed some anxiousness and hypochondria that often still lingers in the background, including as I write this piece. I meticulously check myself for ticks and tick bites, as everyone should, but in the first few years after, I took it to an obsessive level that was more taxing than wise.
Even if you haven’t had Lyme, or your experience hasn’t been like mine, the disease seems to be present in a way it wasn’t 15 years ago. Almost everyone knows someone who’s had it, if they haven’t had it themselves. For me, as Lyme has grown in prevalence in the Northeast, it’s changed the nature of what it means to simply go outside. Any walk in the woods or grass seems to carry with it a risk of re-infection — even brief forays outdoors have resulted in my returning with several tiny friends crawling on my body.
Of course, I enjoy the outdoors as much as anyone else, and intend to keep doing so. But the thought is always there, and the borderline paranoia is hard to shake. I’ve become less fearful and more vigilant over the years, since most ticks can be found and removed with a simple full-body check once back inside. If you get the insect off you within 24 hours, most doctors will say you are usually in the clear — but it’s absolutely best to be safe and check yourself right away, and get any suspicious tick tested once removed.
New virus on rise
Unfortunately, Lyme Disease is no longer the only thing to worry about. Something called Powassan virus is now on the rise in the region — it’s been prominent in area news ever since a Saratoga Country resident came down with the disease this summer. Like Lyme Disease, it’s transferred via tick bite, but unlike Lyme, it can start its way into your body within 15 minutes. It can do damage to your nervous system, brain and even kill you — and in New York state, 30 percent of those infected since 2004 have succumbed.
The journal Parasites and Vectors found that as many as 6 percent of ticks in some parts of New York can have the virus. And as yet, there’s no known cure; finding one or some sort of treatment should be a priority for our state Health Department, the Centers for Disease Control and private research labs.
But preventing tick-borne illnesses (Lyme included) should be a priority for anyone who goes outside and/or takes care of someone who does. The Powassan virus is still rare, but if we want to avoid an outbreak, we should ensure that we take preventive measures in all respects — long pants, insect repellent, full-body checks from head to toe.
Reading about this initially drove me nuts, despite the as-yet extremely small rate of infection. But as with Lyme, I refuse to let the ticks win — everyone should feel comfortable going outside, going on hikes and enjoying the beautiful outdoors of upstate New York.
That being said, an extra dose of caution is worth taking because, trust me, having Lyme was a painful experience I’d prefer not to relive — or surpass. There’s no reason to panic, but also no reason to forgo a quick tick check for yourself and your loved ones after being outside.
Steve Keller lives in Averill Park and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.