If you’re about to take a bite of an egg salad sandwich or a falafel wrap with cucumbers and tomatoes, or something equally delicious, stop right here. Eat no more until you read the following story or, still better for you and your lunch, forego the story and tuck in! Bon appetite!
Still with me? It was a Sunday in October 2009 and I was living with a fellow journalist named Jack Shea. Jack was ostensibly my fiancée, but since I’m slightly allergic to terms of conventional endearment, let us call him my friend and soul mate with whom wedding plans had been successfully hatched.
Only problem was, I’d developed a rash from my neck to my ankles. This wasn’t a simple, uniform rash. No, the surface of my skin was some kind of mapping of all the rashes known to humankind: inflamed areas, red spots like measles, beige Argyll patterns, nubby lesions, keloidy streaks, in all kinds of patterns from butterflies to blood spatters.
Hugh Laurie on the TV series House would have pondered the state of my poor hide, then ordered up blood tests, X-rays and MRI’s while his devotees murmured, “It’s not lordosis?” and, “Has she traveled to a third world country?”
The third world country was my impending marriage, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
On that Sunday afternoon, the general itch and discomfort had become too much to bear. I knew something was drastically wrong, but what? I googled rashes (not a fun search considering all the photos available for one’s perusal), and came up with the presenting symptoms of Lyme disease. Of course, Lyme! Every Islander gets it, every other Islander still has it. We develop Lyme from ticks who feed on mice, or the other way around, soon the ticks are hopping onto deer, and a Frankenbug pops out and cries, “Boo!”
For over a year, I’d been tending and weeding a friend’s seven acres in Chilmark. Moreover, in the dark cottage in the “holler” of the property where Jack and I had shacked up for the fall, a bat swooped in and out of some indecipherable ceiling crack. A mouse was at-large indoors, but had turned up its cute nose at the tidbits on offer in the Have-A-Heart trap propped up on the counter.
A breeding ground for Lyme? You bet! We could have started an Ebola scare from this spot.
I needed medical care and I needed it STAT (as they say on hospital shows after ruling out lordosis).
So there I sat on crinkly paper in a room of the ER. Dr. Larsen examined the rash on my wrist, then the ones on my legs, my back, between my thumb and pointer finger, and so on. He frowned. A lot. Just like House would have done. Doctors hate to hear from patients what precisely ails them, but I trotted out my Lyme hypothesis. He frowned some more.
At last he asked, “Is there anything in your life that's causing you stress at this time?”
I reflected long and hard. “Well, I’m getting married on Saturday."
Dr. Larsen laughed. He laughed quite a lot. I gathered from his earlier, aloof personality, that he wasn’t one to laugh in a patient’s face. But still he laughed and, moreover, grabbed my hand, my shoulder, and squeezed in solidarity, and with utmost compassion, even as he went on laughing.
His face turned solemn again as he said, “We’ll run some blood tests for Lyme. Results won’t be back until Wednesday. If the test comes back positive, you’ll have to see us on Saturday.”
He said, dead-pan. “You’re getting married on Saturday.”
"I’m going to call you Friday evening to remind you.”
He lapsed into a fresh gale of laughter.
On Wednesday morning, I discovered four messages from the hospital, each in ascending levels of alarm: I had contracted something called babesiosis. I must call the nurse, pick up two prescriptions, and start taking the meds before I died.
So what is this disgusting new tick-borne illness (and, yes, that tiny archenemy, famed for transmission of Lyme, is behind this one, too).
Back in that fall of ’09, there were scant cases of babesiosis in humans, although animals had been dropping right and left from it.
A scientist provided the following info on Wikipedia, “Babesiosis is a malaria-like parasitic disease by infection with babesia, a genus of protozoal piroplasms.”
Well. That clears up much of the confusion.
It explains why, in addition to a scrip for antibiotics, I was given this pasty white stuff, atovaquone, which is force-fed to malaria patients in the grip of fever and delirium. I say “force-fed” because my son, who’d flown in for the wedding, noticed my gag reflex at the sight of this paste that looked like tile grout, only chalkier. He squeezed a couple of inches onto a baguette of artisanal French bread, then offered it to me with a grim look on his face. And what a waste of artisanal French bread!, but I scarfed it down twice a day.
Anything else we need to know?
“Babesiosis is a vector-borne illness usually transmitted by Ixodes scapularis ticks.” Those bastards! “Babesia microti uses the same tick vector as Lyme disease and ehrlichiosis, and may occur in conjuntion with these other diseases.” Oh, and get this: “Most cases of babesiosis resolve without any specific treatment.” Now you tell me! And one last fun factoid: “The disease was named after the Romanian bacteriologist, Victor Babes.”
You go, Victor! You are now among the Immortals.
The babby bug went away, whatever it was; I was too busy getting married to notice any malign symptoms. Mostly I was relieved to be rid of the rash which, incidentally, is never itemized as a presenting factor in Victor Babes’s disorder. No, the skin-turned-DMZ was something else. It derived, I now believe, from the ghost of Sigmund Freud writing all over one woman’s body, “This decision to marry is RASH!”
So the next time you’re walking in the woods, beware those Ixodes scapularis ticks. Watch out for all ticks, of course, but you know that.
When you arrive home and, perchance, you experience mild fevers and diarrhea, and if you have a wedding coming up – most exasperatingly, your own – take two aspirin and call Dr. Larsen in the morning.