Lyme disease affects local family
Fever, headaches, fatigue, rashes and achy joints.
These are all rather common symptoms. Here in the South, it's also highly unlikely that most folks would believe they have Lyme disease due to how uncommon it is. According to the American Lyme Disease Foundation, the entire states of South Carolina and Georgia are “rare” in infected ticks, along with all of the Southeast. The states of New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, eastern Pennsylvania and southern New York, Vermont and New Hampshire are where Lyme infected ticks are “abundant.”
In this area particularly, Lyme disease is especially rare, according to Dr. Jose Vazquez, chief of infectious diseases at Georgia Regents University.
“It's very uncommon; in fact, in South Carolina and Georgia there have been maybe 10 cases a year,” he said. “Obviously that's exceedingly low given that in the Connecticut, New York area, there's 10 cases a week. The reason is that we just don't have that tick as commonly down here. Those are documented cases, so I would guess it's maybe a teeny bit higher since physicians aren't aware. I'd guess probably one a month is what we report in Georgia and South Carolina.”
Despite the odds, the Murdock family of North Augusta is facing a battle every day with the disease.
John Murdock was bitten by a tick 11 years ago and got what is commonly referred to as the “bull's eye rash,” or erythema migrans. The Murdocks made a common mistake, however, and believed that he had been bitten by a brown recluse. That initial diagnosis was, at the time, confirmed by their physician. Roughly four or five times a year, John would experience swelling in his leg, according to his wife Joy.
Last year, John was taken to the hospital twice, and that's when his wife started to look into things herself.
That's when she also made a startling revelation.
“Upon doing that research and trying to find out what was wrong with John and to find answers, that's when I realized that's what was wrong with all of us,” she said.
The Murdocks visit a specialist in Washington, D.C., for the treatment of their Lyme disease.
“It's very hard to treat, and you have to find someone who has done the research and has experience treating it,” Joy said. “Unfortunately, there aren't many of those doctors close by. So we travel to D.C., and I know that's what saved my husband's life. I'm very grateful even though we have to go a distance.”
Along with John and Joy, her daughter Amelia, 14, and son Jarrad, 21, have all been diagnosed with Lyme and are being treated for it. Joy's two other sons are going to be tested in the coming months, as well.
The most common tick carrying Lyme in North America is the deer tick, or black-legged tick, as it is commonly referred to. These ticks are roughly the size of sesame seeds and can be identified by their eight legs, flattened, tear-shaped bodies and should not have eyes.
There have been cases in which the lone star tick has been said to have tested positive. However, according to the Center for Disease Control, though the rash is the same, it is not caused by Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium which causes Lyme. This rash has instead been called STARI – Southern tick-associated rash illness – and has not been linked to the other symptoms that come with Lyme.
According to Vazquez, there are three distinct stages in the progression of Lyme throughout the body.
“The first stage, which is the most typical, is somebody that comes in with the target lesion,” he said. “That's pretty classic, and it's typically someone who has been outdoors for a few days. If caught, during that primary stage, it is very amenable to antibiotics, and that occurs in about 80 percent of patients. The problem comes in with the tick – it is almost impossible to see. It stays on your body, engorges and then falls off.”
There are cases, however, in which rashes don't occur. In those cases, they typically move on to the second stage.
“Those people are the ones who develop the fever, malaise and the fatigue in the joints,” Vazquez said. “It's a little bit harder to treat, and sometimes you even need IV antibiotics to treat. It produces a chronic arthritis and inflammation of the muscles, headaches, and it can even affect the heart.”
The third stage, which is the most advanced and severe, gets into chronic bone and joint problems and inflammation. It can also lead to problems in the central nervous system.
“Patients can start losing their memory and typically complain of a chronic meningitis,” Vazquez said.
John likely reached that final stage.
“It was terrifying not knowing and having the doctors puzzled,” Joy said. “We had two teams of doctors who had two opposing views of what was going on. Neither one of them could tell us, with any amount of certainty, that what they thought was happening was really happening.”
Joy said that Lyme is called the “great imitator.” There is no definitive test for Lyme, and, as such, a simple blood test cannot be the end-all answer.
“We don't have a great test,” Vazquez said. “We have a screening test and a confirmatory test. They're both sent out, and they aren't done here. They're actually pretty good now – if the screening test is positive, then you need the confirmatory test. Not all tests are the same – so the important part is making sure they go to someone who knows what specific test to order so they aren't ordering a random antibody test.”
Due to that, the thing that Vazquez stressed the most was a self-check for any ticks as a preventative measure.
“When you get home take off all of your clothes and look at yourself in the mirror,” he said. “If there is someone there, have them look at the front and the back. The tick has to be on your body for 24 to 48 hours for it to transmit the infection. If you come home immediately and don't see any, then you're good. If you did, then you know the possibility, and check for a rash for the next day or two. They have to be on you a couple of days for them to do something.”
There is also a support group here in North Augusta, according to Joy. The group has 15 people from the area that have been diagnosed with Lyme. They meet every other Tuesday at 6:30 p.m. at First Baptist Church in the administration building.
For her part, Joy said that the most important thing is simply finding someone who knows what to check for if someone feels as though they may have Lyme or remembers having the rash at any point.
“You can recover from it,” she said. “As bad as the battle has been, and we've just about lost everything we have, in my husband's case, we'll very gladly take that if he recovers. I don't want my kids or I to get in the shape he's in. I don't want anyone else to go through this. You wouldn't wish this on your most-hated person.”
Scott Rodgers is the news editor at the North Augusta Star and has been with the paper since January 2013 after previously working at the Aiken Standard. He is a graduate of Alvernia University and currently attends Drexel University.