My Health Experience: What lurks in the long grass
The great danger of Lyme disease, caused by the bite of an infected tick, is that it often goes undiagnosed
We spend half the year in Errislannan in Clifden, and we were there in May 2011 when I reached out to scratch an itchy foot and knocked a tick off. I noticed that my ankle was a bit swollen, but I didn’t think too much more about it. It was ordinary weather and, as I thought, an ordinary sort of tick.
However, I began to feel quite rotten and very edgy. I went to my GP in Clifden, but nothing was diagnosed. I felt so miserable in June that I spent €500 on a complete health check in a Dublin hospital, but nothing in particular showed up.
The doctor in the hospital noticed that my ankle was swollen and commented on it. I said I had a tick on my foot and the ankle had been swollen since then. I was advised that this could be dangerous. The doctor gave me a prescription for antibiotics and I was told I should take them if I got a red line up the front of my leg, as this was a sign of blood poisoning.
I became increasingly agitated and “ratty” and went to the GP in Clifden again. I told him my problem but again there was no diagnosis.
I was feeling most unwell. I developed a bladder infection in November and was very ill. At this point, the GP in Dublin suggested that there must be something else going on. I was getting back into bed at home, when I noticed my ankle was still swollen. I asked my husband, David, if he thought I might have Lyme disease.
We contacted the GP again and he sent off a blood test, which is another ordeal as it has to be referred to England and takes six weeks for a result. We were driving to Connemara to celebrate New Year when the GP came on the phone to say that “yes”, it was Lyme disease and I should have a two-week prescription for an antibiotic called Doxycycline.
I took the tablets for two weeks and after a month I phoned him to say that I didn’t feel any better. I was told that I was “grand”, that my body was just producing antibodies.
I suffered on until May 2012, when I went to the doctor in Clifden who gave me more antibiotics. I was miserable all that summer. I was constantly on edge, lethargic, and sometimes I would wake up in the morning and feel as if ants were crawling up my legs under my skin.
Eventually, a good 17 months after the tick bites, I saw a microbiologist in Dublin who had worked in Boston, in the US. Lyme disease is rife in Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, so at last I had found someone who was familiar with the condition. People will even take preventative medicine there as it is so prevalent.
He wanted to be certain that I hadn’t been re-infected, so he gave me a four-week prescription for antibiotics – twice as long as my original prescription – and arranged for me to have a lumbar puncture to see if the disease had reached my brain.
It cleared up. Gradually, I began to feel better, but it was only when a friend said to me “El, it’s great to have you back” that I realised how ill I had been all along.
And so, we began to read up on Lyme disease and realised how little awareness there is here about it, outside of regular hillwalking groups.
Hillwalkers will even tuck their trousers into their socks to avoid contact with long grass and possible ticks. It is a disease that is carried by deer and transmitted to ticks, and we were aware that deer from the Connemara National Park had been seen on Errislannan.
About 12 years ago, when our youngest son was getting married, David sustained a tick bite. He developed a temperature at the time, and was taken to St Vincent’s A&E on a Saturday afternoon.
He was filled with antibiotics and got a lumbar puncture. I think the medication hit him so quickly that it cleared up, but this could have been another case of the same condition.
We learned that when you get a tick bite, it can sometimes leave what is known as a “target mark”, dark red in the centre, with a ring around it of a lighter pinkish colour. If not dealt with, the mark enlarges and this is also a sign of Lyme disease.
Being near animals, or even kneeling down in the garden in long grass could be a risk. If it is caught in time, and treated with the right course of antibiotics, one doesn’t suffer the ordeal I did.
I recently had a visit from our electrician in Clifden and he asked me what was wrong with me. I told him I had Lyme disease.
“My father had that,” he exclaimed. “They checked him for everything on earth until they found it, and he was damn near dead . . .”
It proves that there really should be a lot more information on this, among GPs and in the public domain generally.