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What a difference a year makes! 07/14/2012

Posted by thetickthatbitme in Patient Stories, Treatment.
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A year ago yesterday was when I started my treatment for Borrelia hermsii. I left my home, my boyfriend, and my dog to stay with my parents so I could get treated with 42 days of IV antibiotics. Looking back on this time last year, so much has changed:

1. My knowledge level. I’m embarrassed to say that when I started treatment, I couldn’t even tell you if a tick has eight legs or six. (I never saw the ticks that bit me.) I knew nothing about the habitat or biology of ticks, and I didn’t know how many different diseases they can spread. I didn’t know how to spell Borrelia. Pretty much all I knew was that I was infected with a bacterium that was like Lyme but not Lyme that causes Relapsing Fever. This was strange to me because I never remembered having a fever–cold sweats, yes, but no measurable fever. I’d had IVs in my hand before when I’d been hospitalized, but I didn’t really understand what an infusion was, or that it mattered which vein a needle goes in. I had no idea what PubMed is. I’d read maybe three medical journal articles in my lifetime. Over those six weeks, I learned a lot from my doctor and other patients, and I kept learning through support group meetings and emails. Finally, I got up the energy and courage to launch this blog, and well…you know the rest.

2. My energy level. The fall of 2011 was when I should have realized something was wrong. I was student teaching in the mornings and teaching my regular classes at night. I remember what a struggle it was to get out of bed in the morning. Getting dressed was like running a marathon. I’d had back surgery the previous June, and I was in this hard brace that everyone called my turtle shell. But it wasn’t just my back that was a problem. Even with eight to ten hours sleep, by noon, I was struggling to stay awake. My 30 minute drive home on the freeway was terrifying. The only thing that kept my eyes open most days was if I was constantly chewing something, so I tried to always have snacks with me. When I got home, I’d take a 90 minute nap–which was never enough–and then I’d get up and go to work again. When the semester ended, I thought I would catch up on rest, but even only working part-time, I was constantly fatigued. I spent any time that I wasn’t working in bed. When I had to go on a business trip in March, I freaked out. How would I handle being on someone else’s schedule? How would I go six or seven hours without lying down? By June, I was freed from back braces, and my spine had healed, but I still felt awful. And I felt guilty. How had I become this lazy, unmotivated person who spends all her time in bed? A year later, I have my life back. I work two jobs, plus freelance work. I cook dinner for Boyfriend and me several nights a week, do all the grocery shopping, and keep the house clean. I walk my dog and ride my bike. I go shopping and to the movies with friends, drive long distances, and even occasionally babysit. Before, I only had the energy to do one or two of these things per day. I was a spoonie with a very low spoon limit. If I cleaned the house, that was it for the day. If I went to the store, I probably wouldn’t have the energy to cook the food I’d bought. If I taught a 3 hour class, I would come home and sleep the rest of the day. All of this I tried to conceal from my family and friends. I tried to be fine because there was no explanation for why I wasn’t.

spoon chasing

Spoon chasing. (Image via unfocusedcreativity.blogspot.com)

Looking at how much better I am now makes me realize how sick I was. Yesterday, I had a two-hour morning conference call, after which I worked on the computer for another hour. Then I ate lunch and went to the grocery store. When I got back, I cleaned out the fridge, put the groceries away, and then did a thorough de-clutter and clean of the entire house. I read a chapter in my book, took a shower, and went out to dinner with Boyfriend. All that activity would never have fit into one day when I was sick. I was up again this morning at 8:00, feeling rested.

Weather-style pain scale.

Weather-style pain scale. (Image via fibroofoz.blogspot.com)

3. My pain level. I was on strong prescription painkillers for a year and a half, starting in June 2010 after my surgery. Clearly, I didn’t get off them when I was supposed to, 6-9 months post-surgery. That’s because I didn’t just have back pain. It was in my hips, neck, and shoulders, too. The pain didn’t completely go away right after treatment. It’s been a slow progression. In the fall, I was able to wean myself off painkillers and just use heating pads when my back or joints bothered me. We know from the research that reactive arthritis may simply be part of the package for some patients with treated Borrelia infections. This is my framework for understanding some of my continuing aches and pains. For me, low-impact exercise, comfortable shoes, heating pads, and a memory foam mattress pad help a great deal. Whereas before my daily pain level rarely dropped below a four, even with drugs, now I’m at a one or a two most days, and I’m drug-free, aside from very rarely taking Advil.

What brain fog does to reading a book.

What brain fog does to reading a book. (Image via a-b-martin.blogspot.com)

4. My cognitive level. The ability to think, speak, and write clearly is essential to my livelihood. Having a Borrelia infection plunged me into what many people describe as a “brain fog.” For more than a year, I was sort of drifting through life, not able to think very clearly about anything. It came on gradually, and after my surgery, it got worse, which I attributed to the pain and the painkillers. Now I’ve met enough fellow patients that I see the pattern. I understand how this infection clouded my cognition. One of the reasons I didn’t start writing this blog while I was getting treated was that I couldn’t focus well enough. Even post-treatment, it took me a few months to start feeling sharp again. I really noticed the change this past semester when teaching got easier. I was able to learn the names of all my students within the first three weeks–which hadn’t happened the previous four semesters. My focus and mental endurance were so much better, as was my time management during class. I felt sort of like I’d woken up from a long sleep. The time in my life when I was very sick seems blurry. Now, not only do I have the energy to do more, but I have much better concentration. I can even go back and look at things I wrote two years ago and see the difference in sentence structure. All I can say is it’s good to be “back.”

What I’m doing to stay well, one year out:

egg

(Image via Wikipedia. Credit: Ren West)

1. Eating my eggs. You wouldn’t believe how “off” I feel if I go a day without an egg. That’s probably because my neurologically-damaged body likes choline, and eggs are full of it. I also find myself craving green vegetables. In fact, whenever friends ask me where I want to eat, I usually say, “Anywhere with good veggies.” I know there are many diets out there that are designed to help people with Borrelia infections avoid inflammation and other problems, and many of those recommend avoiding meat, dairy, gluten, and sugar. Personally, I’m not really cut out for that. I’m not the kind of person who can say, “I’m not going to eat X” when X is something that I really like, like sourdough bread, or milk, or chocolate. That’s not to knock the vegetarian, dairy-free, gluten-free, and/or sugar-free diets. I recognize that they do work for some people. However, I’m pretty sure that my body needs both meat and sugar to function normally, so I’ve always been opposed to giving up those. Other than being lactose-intolerant, I have no problems with dairy, and I don’t have more pain when I drink my Lactaid milk than on days when I don’t, so I’m not so concerned with the inflammation factor there. I seem to tolerate gluten pretty well, but I do try to limit my grains, as they’re not the best source of choline. No one gets between me and my egg sandwiches, though.

2. Staying active. I spent a large percentage of a year in bed, and going back there is very tempting at times, especially since during that time I developed a large collection of movies and TV shows, and my bed is VERY comfortable. Because I used to do most things from bed, I’m just now getting used to LIVING in my living room, WORKING in the office, and SLEEPING in my bedroom. (In fact, I’m breaking this rule now, typing the first draft of this from bed, but it’s a Saturday, and I’ve been working all week, so I don’t feel bad.) For me, staying active means not only “working out” (by walking the dog, riding my bike, and playing Dance Central on Xbox) but “getting stuff done.” I used to put off doing things and tell myself, “I’ll do it when I’m not so tired, or when I’m in less pain.” Now I don’t have those excuses, and it’s much less burdensome to get things done right away. Procrastination used to be a form of self-preservation. Now it’s a habit I have to work to break.

3. Preventing re-infection. After what I’ve been through, the last thing I want is another tick-borne infection, so I make sure that both my dog and I stay out of high risk areas for ticks. When we walk, we stay on the sidewalk. Boyfriend and I keep the yard clean–which is not too difficult since our backyard is mostly concrete. We treat Lucy monthly for fleas and ticks, and I’m always spraying that Cedarcide. I’ve decided not to do any hiking or camping for a while. When I want to enjoy the outdoors, I ride my bike or go to the beach.

4. Staying current on my tests. I get my blood drawn every 3 months so my doctor can check my antibody titer. My doctor said if I have a four-fold rise, then we’ll need to consider re-treatment. So far, I’ve been okay, but I want to be vigilant. I don’t want to get re-infected and not know about it.

Hope everyone is having a wonderful weekend!

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“Persistent Infection With Lyme Disease” Dr Phil – YouTube 04/20/2012

Posted by thetickthatbitme in Media.
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If you missed the April 13 episode of Dr. Phil on which Lyme Disease was discussed, you can watch it on YouTube.

“Persistent Infection With Lyme Disease” Dr Phil – YouTube.

Here are my reactions:

9:24 When she says she is positive for 4 strains of Lyme, I assume that she means that 4 bands (out of 10) on her western blot were reactive (positive). The word “strain” is misleading because it makes it sound like she has 4 different infections. Lyme Disease is caused by one species of bacteria named Borrelia burgdorferi. There are, however, other bacteria in the Borrelia genus that cause Lyme-like symptoms–B. hermsii being one of them.

9:41 She has a PICC line, which is more convenient for the doctor because she doesn’t have to stick her with a needle every day, but the risk of secondary infection is much higher than getting a new IV in the hand everyday.

9:45 Five IVs a DAY?!?! WHY?

9:52 Why is she being treated with IV Zithromax and not Ceftriaxone? (Zithromax/azithromycin is what you take orally when you have Strep throat.) I guess this explains the 5 IVs per day. Maybe if they used the right drug, she could cut back to one IV per day.

10:16 That freaks me out that she’s speeding up her own drip. Only the doctor is supposed to do that! (If the drip goes too fast, you can have a nasty adverse reaction.)

11:57 I wonder which tests she got, and in what order.

14:30 Here’s Dr. Auwaerter’s CV, if you’re curious. Scroll down to the publications.

15:08 You can read the text of the monkey study Dr. Bhakta alludes to here. BTW, Dr. Bhakta’s residencies were in Respiratory Therapy and Anesthesiology. She is not board certified in California. To read more about board certification, go here.

What were your thoughts on this episode? Drop me a comment.

My Story 04/18/2012

Posted by thetickthatbitme in Diagnosis, meta-blog, Treatment.
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Like many people who have suffered from tick-borne illnesses, I struggled with my symptoms for a long time before I got a diagnosis and effective treatment. At the time when I hypothesize I was infected—I say ‘hypothesize’ because I never discovered a tick or a tick bite, I never had a rash, and I never had a fever—I was already dealing with a number of medical problems that had begun in my early twenties. I’ll save all the gory details for another time, but my laundry list included irritable bowel syndrome (later diagnosed as an Entamoeba histolytica infection and treated with Metronidazole), a dysfunctional bladder (still unresolved), a spinal deformity (for which I underwent major surgery in 2010), and a ptosis in my right eye.

In the summer of 2009 I had finished graduate school and started my first professional teaching job. I’d been suffering from bladder and bowel issues for several years and had begun seeing an urologist and a neurologist who were trying to figure out if my problems were neurological, and if so, what to do about them. I spent the Fourth of July weekend in Yosemite National Park on a girls’ retreat with some friends from high school. We stayed in a yurt—with bunk beds—and hiked two or three trails a day for several days. I remember having a head cold that I picked up on the plane ride from Long Beach to Oakland and blowing my nose all night. I remember being eaten alive by mosquitoes one morning, despite having worn bug spray. I don’t remember any ticks, but I’m not much of an outdoor girl, and at the time, my tick-awareness was nonexistent. The kind of tick that bit me was likely a soft-bodied tick, the kind that fall off when they’re done, so it’s understandable that I never saw it. If there was a fever or a rash, I didn’t notice them because I was already sick and swollen with mosquito bites.

This is when I believe I was bitten, but there is really no way to know. According to CDC reports, the area of Southern California in which I live is known to be infested with ticks that carry Borrelia hermsii. I could have been bitten while walking my dog or sitting at a picnic table in the park.

After my Yosemite trip, I returned to LA and the neurologist, who referred me to a neurosurgeon. The surgeon, after ordering MRIs, concluded that I was cursed with a spinal column that was too long for my spinal cord, which was causing the cord to stretch like a rubber band and causing nerve damage that might account for the bladder and bowel problems. After much convincing (and much freaking out), I decided to undergo surgery to shorten my spine the following summer. At the time, I was under a lot of stress, trying to balance work, my teaching credential program, my relationship with my boyfriend, and routine doctor visits. If I was exhausted, I attributed it to this balancing act, not to the infection that was, unbeknownst to me, festering in my bloodstream.

The spine surgery was traumatic–nine hours face-down on the table, nine days in the hospital–but successful. My mobility was impaired for the first six months. I wore a hard brace until December and a corset until February. I was able to drive (and teach again) by September, and my life got back into full swing with student teaching, paid teaching, and two other part-time jobs. When I wasn’t working, I spent most of my time lying on my back in bed. I got an iPhone so I could be more productive in that position, and most of the time, friends who wanted to hang out came to me. After the first six months, when my surgeon said–according to imaging–that the bone had completely healed, I wondered why I was still so tired and achey all the time. I was having trouble getting up in the mornings, and I wasn’t making expected progress in cutting back on my pain medication. Maybe it was just stress, I reasoned. Maybe I was depressed. After all, at 25, my life hadn’t exactly panned out the way I’d planned it. Maybe it was part laziness. That was the conclusion of one of my mentor teachers. I had no real framework for understanding what was happening to me, so I just tried to push through it.

A little more than a year following my surgery, I went up to my parents’ house for a summer visit. I’d had the second of two eye surgeries in May to correct the ptosis, which so far has stuck–no more ptosis. (The surgeon attributed my ptosis to having worn hard contact lenses as a teenager.) School was out, and my back was doing all right, but I felt perpetually exhausted. I helped out at my dad’s medical practice for a week, and he ordered some blood tests for me. I didn’t find out the results until I got home to LA. Three little surprises: 1) Entamoeba histolytica, my parasitic souvenir from my time studying abroad in China; 2) Borrelia hermsii, from a tick I’d never seen evidence of; and 3) Anaplasma phagocytophilum, another tick-borne infection.

We treated the Entamoeba histolytica with a course of Metronidazole, an oral antibiotic and the Anaplasma phagocytophilum with three weeks of Doxycycline. The treatment for Borrelia hermsii was 42 days of intravenous Ceftriaxone therapy.

The treatment of tick-borne infections with IV antibiotics is controversial because research, professional guidelines, and doctors’ practices based on their experiences treating these diseases often contradict each other.

The CDC does not have specific guidelines for the treatment of Tick-borne Relapsing Fever (TBRF), the name of the illness caused by a Borrelia hermsii infection. Here’s what the CDC has to say about treatment procedures: “Experts generally recommend tetracycline 500 mg every 6 hours for 10 days as the preferred oral regimen for adults. Erythromycin, 500 mg (or 12.5 mg/kg) every 6 hours for 10 days is an effective alternative when tetracyclines are contraindicated. Parenteral therapy with ceftriaxone 2 grams per day for 10-14 days is preferred for patients with central nervous system involvement.”

You’ll notice that they only recommend one to two weeks of antibiotic therapy, in contrast to the six weeks of therapy that I received.

The Infectious Disease Society of America doesn’t have treatment guidelines for Borrelia hermsii, but they have guidelines for its Lyme Disease-causing cousin, Borrelia burgdorferi. They recommend treating what they term “Lyme arthritis” with Doxycycline, an oral antibiotic, for 28 days. Treatment suggested for “Late neurologic Lyme disease” is intravenous Ceftriaxone for 2-4 weeks.

Many of the patients that I met in clinic had tried oral antibiotics—sometimes for months at a time—with less than stellar results. Others had been given intravenous antibiotics on an inconsistent basis (for example, Monday through Friday, but not on the weekends). The patients I met who got better were ones who had had a minimum of 28 days of IV antibiotic therapy.

I can’t prove anyone wrong or right, and I am most certainly biased as a patient and a doctor’s daughter, but I can point you to facts and information that may help you in your own journey to health. So here is an abbreviated description of my experience being treated for Borrelia hermsii by an experienced infectious disease specialist:

I came to the clinic every day for 42 consecutive days, except for the day that I had gallbladder surgery. I know you must be thinking the Ceftriaxone caused my gall stones, but the stones were revealed to me by an ultrasound that was done in LA two weeks before I started treatment; they were probably brought on by a combination of heredity–my mother had hers out–and my weight loss following back surgery.

The doctor prepared the drug in a sterile hood. He used a butterfly needle (which is very small as needles go) in the top of my hand. It wasn’t very painful for me, and I’m not squeamish, so the process was not traumatic. Each day, the drug infused over about 45 minutes. The doctor said this method was better than an injection because it lowered the risk of adverse reaction. If I’d had any problems, they could have switched me to saline quickly.

The first two weeks were the most difficult. I was still extremely fatigued, and I began getting more arthralgias (aches and pains) in my wrists, hips, knees, and ankles. It was explained to me that Borrelia like to “hide” in joints, and my pain probably meant that the bacteria were dying. Knowing this, I could reluctantly accept the pain as a good sign.

In week three, I had my gallbladder out. My surgeon was very talented and did the laproscopic procedure, so it only took a few days for me to get back to normal. They gave me Ceftriaxone through IV in recovery, so I didn’t technically skip my infusion that day.

At the end of week four, I started to notice that I had more energy. I was working during the day, helping my dad, then coming home at night and doing my own work (I do freelance editing when I’m not teaching.). It was the first time in more than a year that I felt truly alert and productive.

Weeks five and six went by more quickly. I found myself laughing more, and even singing in the clinic. It helped that there was a piano there. For the first time, my back felt almost as good as it had before my surgery. And my mind…well, I’m sure you can tell how sharp I am based on my excellent writing skills.

For those who believe in more holistic treatment methods, I’ll note that a few other components played a role in my recovery:

1. Exercise: I joined the small pool where my mom takes arthritis water aerobics classes and went with her two to three times per week. The warm water made my joints feel better, and the exercises strengthened my muscles and improved my balance. Because the class is zero impact, I didn’t get sore like I would from walking the dog or playing a sport. The class I took was designed by the Arthritis Foundation and is offered at hundreds of facilities around the country. Though you could say I had a reactive arthritis, you don’t have to have arthritis to take the class. You do, however, need a doctor’s approval.

2. Diet: My doctor recommended a diet high in choline. Choline is an essential nutrient that is classified as the newest member of the B Vitamin family. It’s important because it is required for the proper transmission of nerve impulses from the brain through the central nervous system. You can find information about high-choline diets here.

3. Fun: During the six weeks of my treatment, I tried to find ways to relax and fun things to do. I attended a musical and several movies with friends. I read some “guilty pleasure” novels (you know, the kind with romance, vampires, etc.). I took walks on the beach with my family. I also benefited from the relaxed atmosphere of the infusion center. The doctor invited a piano player to entertain patients, and a few patients, including myself and a former opera singer, often sang along. There were a handful of regulars, like me, “doing time” for 28 days or more, and they became my friends. We swapped stories about doctors, work, and life. We gave each other nicknames and told each other jokes. My six weeks of treatment were filled with song and laughter. Could that have affected my prognosis? If I were a betting kind of woman, I’d bet on it.

I am still a work in progress. I’m back home in LA and feeling better than I’ve felt in a long time, but I’m not done with doctors. I’m determined to stay on top of everything from now on. Never again will I let one discouraging doctor visit interfere with my care.

I invite you to stay tuned and learn with me as I gather articles, resources, and stories from others.

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