Burlington County Times, May 28, 2001

At its annual meeting during the first week in May, the American Academy of Neurology issued a set of guidelines to help physicians diagnose Alzheimer’s disease. The ten warning signs are: memory loss that affects job skills; difficulty performing familiar tasks; language problems; getting lost, or being disoriented as to time and place; poor judgment; problems with abstract thinking; misplacing objects; changes in mood and behavior; personality changes; loss of initiative.

All of us have had bouts with one or the other of these symptoms at various times. They become troublesome only when they appear simultaneously and over a long period of time. It’s a good thing the list wasn’t issued last summer, or I would have been convinced I was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s – I had most of those symptoms, simultaneously, and for several months.

But I wasn’t suffering from Alzheimer’s. Instead, I had contracted a disease which is almost as debilitating and becoming more and more common; fortunately, it is curable when diagnosed early. What I had was Lyme disease.

Named for Old Lyme, the town in Connecticut where it was first identified, Lyme disease is caused by a bacterium transmitted via a bite from a deer tick. New Jersey, has one of the highest incidences of Lyme in the country. A color coded map of the incidence of Lyme by state shows New Jersey as almost black. Yet the average sufferer sees five doctors before being properly diagnosed. I was lucky – I saw only two doctors and had four diagnostic tests before finding out why I was feeling so lousy all the time.

Despite the fact that Lyme is endemic in New Jersey, and despite the fact that I’m both a gardener and a birder, my doctor was reluctant to test me for Lyme. I had to insist on it. At least when he called to tell me the diagnosis, he had the good grace to say, “The patient is always right.”

Lyme is insidious. The symptoms mimic so many other syndromes that it can be difficult to recognize. All the literature about Lyme describes the characteristic bull’s eye rash as a diagnostic tool, but not everyone has the rash. In fact, it’s estimated that fewer than 50% of Lyme sufferers either have the rash or see it. (The rash is at the site of the bite; since ticks like warm, dark places, they sometimes nestle into the hair line or other places that are difficult to see.) In my case, there was no rash. All I knew is that I was tired and achy all the time; my memory was shot; I couldn’t concentrate or focus; my sleep was erratic and fitful; my thought processes were “fuzzy.” I was one of the lucky ones: the diagnosis came early enough that a three-week course of antibiotics took care of the problem. I didn’t realize just how awful I had been feeling until I felt well again.

It really isn’t easy to be a birder these days. It used to be that the only thing we had to worry about was being teased by people who thought we were all like Miss Jane Hathaway, the priggish, straightlaced, humorless secretary on “The Beverly Hillbillies.” Now we have to worry about skin cancer, Lyme disease, and the West Nile virus. Fortunately, there are commonsense precautions we can take. The problem is that we wind up smelling like a combination of a chemical factory (from the insect repellant) and a fruit store (from the sun block). Plus, with our broad-brimmed hats, long-sleeved shirts, and socks pulled over the cuffs of our pants, we do begin to resemble Miss Hathaway.

Have I learned anything from my experience? Well, I did learn that it’s better to look like Miss Hathaway than to have Lyme. But I’m not going to allow myself to stop enjoying my hobbies because of fear. Yes, I’ll take precautions. But if there’s an elusive bird that I can’t quite see unless I venture off a cleared path, chances are that I’ll still crouch through the underbrush to identify it. But I’ll be sure to check – no, make that “double check” – for ticks. And I’ll continue to garden, although I will be more careful to clean up the spent stalks from the perennials and vegetables in the Fall instead of waiting until Spring, when the ticks have already nested in the debris. And my bird feeders and baths will remain just where they’ve always been, but maybe I’ll clean them out more often with a bleach solution.

As for the West Nile virus, I’ll just have to convince my husband that we really do need a bat house in the back yard. Bats are among the best means of natural mosquito control there is. Now if I can just get him to forget that bats can be rabid….


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