After a beautiful day at a lovely outdoor wedding, Liz Petrone came down with an epic case of the flu. At least, that’s what she thought at first.
But it didn’t go away. It just got worse.
As the writer, blogger, and mom of four wrote on Facebook, about 10 days after the wedding, she started experiencing a fever, aches, and pain. She resisted going to the doctor at first, thinking that she could wait out the illness. But the pain eventually became too much to bear:
I tried to rest (ha!) and figured it would go away on its own. It didn’t, and soon I had nerve pain in my hands and feet that was so terrible it took my breath away.
A trip to the doctor revealed that Petrone’s white blood cell count was dangerously low, and she was admitted to the hospital. That meant more tests as a team of specialists tried to figure out what was wrong.
As Petrone wrote on her blog, doctors ran test after test, but couldn’t determine the cause of her illness and pain. The lack of answers began to point to one very scary one, and an oncologist came in to talk to Petrone about the possibility that she had leukemia:
She talked for a while but I stopped listening after she said cancer, the breath stuck in my throat. This wasn’t an answer or a diagnosis, I heard her say. Just a conversation that needed to happen, because the more things we ruled out the better chance it was cancer.
I stared at her heels. “So that just happens?” I asked her, when she finished. “People just get leukemia? At 36?”
She nodded slow. “It happens.”
They made an appointment for Petrone at the local cancer center while doctors continued to examine her test results — because her rebounding white blood cell count wasn’t consistent with cancer either.
It wasn’t until Petrone was sitting at the cancer center that she received her diagnosis. She wrote:
I was sitting, waiting to be seen, when my doctor’s office called. My Lyme disease test had come back positive, they said, and I wept with relief. Lyme is a serious disease, but it’s manageable. I believed then that this was a gift. I still do.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Lyme disease is caused by a bacteria transmitted by infected ticks. In the first month, symptoms include fever, chills, aches, fatigue, and a rash at the site of the bite. Later, it can result in severe headaches, facial palsy, arthritis and joint pain, heart palpitations, nerve pain, dizziness, inflammation of the brain or spinal cord, and memory problems.
Lyme disease is treated with antibiotics, and the CDC recommends taking precautions to avoid ticks and possible infection. This includes avoiding high grass and areas where ticks live. In addition, it’s important to treat clothing beforehand with insect repellent and do a thorough tick check after coming indoors from a tick habitat.
Petrone never found a tick or suffered the telltale bulls-eye rash of Lyme disease, but she would later learn that many people who contract Lyme disease don’t see them either. In such cases, diagnosis can be especially difficult because the symptoms of Lyme disease mimic other illnesses. She wrote:
Lyme is known as the “great imitator” because it is good at presenting as other things: the flu, even cancer. There are stories of people being diagnosed with schizophrenia only to later find out it was Lyme. It’s scary, yes, but that is why I’m telling you this, because so many of us (myself included, up until it happened to me) don’t know what to look for.
Fortunately, Petrone’s visit to the hospital meant that they treated her disease early — even though they weren’t quite sure what it was. She wrote on Facebook that she is now doing well, thanks to that intervention:
[W]hile I still have some days where I’m not 100%, for the most part I am good. We caught it early (that cocktail of antibiotics was a godsend, even though they didn’t know then what they were treating.) I continued treatment (more antibiotics) and see my doctor regularly and it’s all good. I’m fine.
May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month, and Petrone hopes to educate others on what to look for when it comes to diagnosing Lyme disease. Most of all, she hopes to help others avoid it altogether. As she wrote on Facebook:
What can we do? Plenty. Wear insect repellent with DEET when you are outdoors. Wear long pants. Check your skin regularly. Get educated and advocate for yourself.
She added: “And most importantly, if you or someone you love has flu-like symptoms that don’t go away and especially if they present with debilitating nerve or joint pain, ask for a Lyme test. It’s simple and inexpensive.”