July 30, 2009

Lyme Disease

If you are reading this and you are not aware that I recently contacted Lyme Disease, then you are truly a minority in this new Age of Information. In the past three weeks I have received calls from friends, friends of friends, and President Obama all inquiring about my health.

Before going further, let me say two things about Lyme Disease: first, contracting it is likely an inevitable part of being a gardener. The deer ticks that carry it are the size of poppy seeds and, at least in southern New England, they are endemic. (The photos at left show the relative size of an adult deer tick and the deer tick nymph that latches onto humans and spreads Lyme Disease. In comparison, the common dog tick is the size of Jupiter.) Second, there is nothing humorous about undetected Lyme Disease. It can be debilitating and cause long-term health issues.

Fortunately, my own prognosis and treatment came swiftly. Three weeks ago today, I saw a bulls-eye rash on my skin in the morning. Instead of pretending it was something else that would go away on its own, I called my doctor. My doctor saw me at 4 p.m., took one look at it and said it was Lyme Disease. “I’ve seen more cases in the past six weeks than I’ve seen over the past six years,” he said. “We’ll do the blood work, but I’m starting you on antibiotics.” A vial of blood was drawn. By the time I got to my local pharmacy, two prescriptions were waiting for me. I took my first pill with dinner the same evening I first saw the rash. (Attention Congress: this is how health care is supposed to work.)

Lyme Disease is a bacterial infection. A deer tick nymph attaches itself to you and settles in to draw blood. In the process, an infected tick releases borrelia bacteria. If you remove the tick within 36 hours, the chance of further infection is virtually nil. If you don’t, you may see symptoms (the rash) within days. The good news is that if you treat the infection promptly, the ‘cure’ rate approaches 100%. I’m pleased to report that I’m free of any other symptoms.

But the news of my infection has spread within the gardening world like a Japanese beetle infestation. The reason is that my wife considers my condition, well, fascinating. Not to get too personal about this but, after each gardening session, we perform a tick check on one another. The fact that this tick escaped our scrutiny is cause for comment. The unnerving part is that Betty’s description generally includes the tracing (on her own body) of the location and progress of the rash. As a result, I get stares at a part of my anatomy that, well, I consider unsettling.

The downside to taking the antibiotics is that you are warned not to go out into the direct sun. This leads to weeding the vegetable garden at 7:30 a.m., all the time keeping an eye on the sun as it inexorably rises behind the trees. Of course, on a muggy July morning, any reason to get in and out of the garden early is welcome, but I consider it my responsibility to do my fair share of garden work.

This will pass. The treatment includes one set of pills for ten days and another for three weeks. I take my last pill this evening. On Monday, I’ll see my doctor again and, with luck, he’ll pronounce me one of the fortunate ones who didn’t procrastinate and so who were cured with a few dollars worth of pills. Then, I’ll be back to pulling my full weight as we hit the peak of the summer season.

A word to the wise: If you see that rash, don’t hesitate. Don’t pretend that it will go away on its own (it will but, when it does, your problems are just beginning). Get a diagnosis and get treated.

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