June 15, 2010

Ground Zero

In hot summer weather I garden in a long sleeved shirt buttoned to the neck and tucked into my jeans, and with socks and boots, and DEET aroma wafting all around my head and neck.  I am miserable.  Really miserable.

I live in Connecticut, ground zero for a little bacterium called Borrelia burgdorferi, a bug carried by the Ixodes insect, namely the deer tick.  Sometimes (in 10% of all infected ticks) the tick also carries a parasite called Babesia, which causes a malaria-like disease.

I got both.  Lyme Disease and Babesiosis.  Together.

I was bitten in 2008.  It was unfelt and it was high on the back of my thigh, a place I can't see even when I try, and I don't often intentionally back up to a full length mirror. The only person who would ever see that part of my body is my husband, and we're well past the age where he looks.

By the time my symptoms presented, the big bullseye rash was all up and down the back of my thigh, I had a fever of 102 and the left side of my face was paralyzed into a gargoyle-like frozen mask that was grotesque and frightening.  The pain in my hip and knee was so intense I could not sleep for days.  I could not drink without dribbling, talk coherently, or close my left eyelid at all.

I didn't take a picture, I was far too sick, bordering on delirious, but the rash looked something like this:

I got weeks of antibiotics, narcotics for the pain, 6 weeks of physical therapy for the Bell's palsy in my face, drops for the eye that would not close, and a visit to an infectious disease specialist who advised that the treatment for the Babesia parasite was large doses of quinine.  I stocked up on gin and tonic.

In the end, I recovered.

I recovered physically (the side of my face still has an odd "heavy" feeling even though I have full muscle and nerve function now).  But I don't think the gardener in me ever recovered.

While I love planning and designing my gardens in winter and spring, I do not like being out in the yard in the warm weather.  The restrictive clothing, the icky feeling that there are "bugs" out there... it takes away from any enjoyment I have working in the garden.

I go out into the yard and admire my plants, and I take pictures, and I'm okay with that.  But any activity involving work at ground level, any chores that require mucking around in the weeds or tall grass, I just can't abide, even dressed to the eyeballs and DEET saturated.

My infection was not a one-off or rare, unfortunate occurrence.  Every serious gardener I know in our part of New England has had a case of it... not nearly as bad as mine, but most have had confirmed and treated cases of Lyme Disease.  The name of the disease comes from a town in Connecticut.  The black shaded states are where the risk of Lyme Disease is highest.
What to do?  I love my gardens, I love my plants.  But I hate summer gardening.  Advice for prevention includes keeping meadows and grass mowed short (contrary to the anti-lawn movement), and covering up (you just can't imagine an 85 degree day with 50% humidity, clothed in what amounts to ski wear).

I kind of like this outfit from the army-navy store, it looks lightweight and protective.  Will the neighbors be alarmed?  Or amused?  Will children run and hide?  Will it keep the ticks from getting a firm hold on a patch of skin?
I can get this kind of light protective clothing, and I can put the silly stuff on and go outside, but where can I find the relaxed joy and comfort that should come from being outdoors on a hot sunny day?  Where did that go?


  1. Dear Laurrie, What a frightful, and frightening, tale. I am so sorry particularly for the serious way in which you have been so badly affected in the past, and also for the fact that during the summer months, a time when most of us are enjoying the garden to the full, you have this awful possibility hanging over you. Do take great care if you are outside - allow others to do the work.

  2. Oh, Laurrie, I had no idea it could be so bad, or that Lyme disease was so prevalent in your area. My heart goes out to you, struggling with all that clothing in this oppressive humidity -- and especially struggling with the miasma of fear that you carry with you now. I know it must be miserable. :(

    I like the outfit you show at the end, and I have difficulty imagining the tick who could get past that floaty barrier, especially while you are in motion, doing garden chores.

    Could you instead make it a habit to do a full-body check after every outing? I think this is probably the best prevention, as ticks have to stay on you for some time to transmit the disease. (I think I read that somewhere.)

    I wish for you a *full* healing!

  3. I have never had any such horrible health issue. I just hate hot weather. While I love nature the buggy part of it I could do without. Ha.. A friend of mine got Lyne disease right here in SW INdiana. So one must be careful. I am so glad you recovered.

  4. Edith, I do wish I could delegate the summer garden tasks, but it's just me managing my half acre! Well, me and some ticks.

    Meredith, I now do body checks when I come in, and once found another tick on me.. I just hate the tweezers and pulling the icky thing off. Shudder.

    Lisa, if your friend got a tick bite in your area, you'll want to be careful. If full body clothing is a problem, use DEET spray, that actually helps a lot to keep them off you.

  5. Add me to the list of gardeners in CT who have lived through a bout of Lyme disease. Mine also went undiagnosed for quite a while - my achy joints, constant dry cough, excessive tiredness, and finally swollen lymph nodes but no rash gave it away. One full month of antibiotics knocked it down - I was very, very lucky. I do a full body tick check - after time in the garden. It's become part of my daily routine. But I also don't have tons of ticks in my immediate gardens - just in the nearby woods.

  6. Joene, I figured as an avid Conn gardener you had probably had Lyme as well. It's a nasty thing. Glad you recoverd!

  7. How awful. :( Not only that you were so sick but that it's taken enjoyment in summer gardening from you. Lyme disease is becoming more common here, although the main threat is still Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. DH is a family doc and whenever anyone shows up in the summer with a fever and flu-like symptoms, the patient immediately goes on antibiotics.

    It's bad enough that ticks even exist, let alone carry these really nasty bugs that make people very sick.

  8. Sweet bay, thanks for the sympathy. I am really missing your blog, but hope you're getting a lot done outside for a while!

  9. I'm in Illinois and got Lyme while on a lovely walk in a county park! Here are a couple of things I've discovered, that you could try: I've heard that ticks absolutely can't abide the smell of rose geranium oil, that it makes them actually run away. It figures, because I'm sure nasty bugs and lovely fragrances don't mix well!
    Also, if you can figure out a way to keep some Guinea fowl, they will clear all ticks from your property as fast as they can eat them! (Not sure about eating their eggs, in view of this diet!) They do need to be shut up at night to protect them from predators such as owls, etd. Maybe someday there will be a service where a whole property gets tented and a traveling flock of guineas goes to work exterminating! They are pretty silly birds (probably they have to be to want to eat ticks!), but who can argue with their mission?
    Also, the US military is now impregnating uniforms with permethrin, which repels AND kills ticks. It's supposed to be derived from pyrethrum (oriental chrysanthemums) and relatively safe for people.


Sorry about requiring code verification -- I experimented with turning it off to make commenting easier, and I got too much spam. Thanks for taking the time to comment, and to type in silly codes. I appreciate hearing from you.