view of trees from below

Summer Warnings: A Cautionary Tale of the 'Great Imitator'

Lyme disease had been masquerading as a litany of other health issues
for years, until Slater Lawrence finally got wise in time to take back control

Slater Lawrence '12

All was well with the world, until it wasn’t. And I’m not referring to COVID-19. 

Seemingly overnight, I had lost my balance and motor skills. Sensory processing became increasingly pronounced. I could not recognize familiar faces, follow television narratives, or even identify known scents. I would suddenly become violently sick from eating any sugar. I became sensitive to light and sound, and my inability to retrieve words and form basic sentences was increasingly pronounced and disconcerting. After being misdiagnosed for years—everything from multiple sclerosis to Lou Gehrig’s disease—a spinal tap revealed I had Lyme-induced encephalitis, or neuroborreliosis—in other words, Lyme disease.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Lyme disease is the fastest growing vector-borne infectious disease in the United States, with over 476,000 new cases each year. It is in all 50 states, being most prevalent in the Northeast, (where it was first identified in Lyme, Connecticut), and it has been spreading to other regions with the climate shift to warmer winters. It has also been identified in 80 countries. 

The basics of Lyme disease are as follows: a host is infected with a spirochete bacterium called Borrelia Burgdorferi which is transmitted, in any season, by the blacklegged tick, or deer tick, which also travels on birds and small mammals. Unbeknownst to me, I became one of those unfortunate hosts, and after finally being diagnosed, I fanatically combed through my medical records to figure out when I contracted Lyme disease. Ultimately, I concluded the timeline corresponded with my time in Nantucket, Massachusetts, when, in retrospect, I had displayed the archetypal bull's-eye rash exhibited in only 50 percent of infected patients. 

Similar to syphilis in the 19th century, Lyme disease has been nicknamed the “great imitator” due to its vast ranging symptomatology, where its expression in each individual can be vastly dissimilar and seemingly unassociated. 

Although Lyme disease is commonly recognized for its physical symptoms, it can also affect one’s autonomic, central, and peripheral nervous systems. Neurocognitive symptoms can range from concentration issues, slurred speech to facial paralysis, while quintessential physical symptoms include extreme fatigue, migrating joint pain, and flu-like symptoms. 

In my case, I had alarming “brain fog,” unparalleled confusion, and memory loss that emulated dementia. Due to the inflammation predominantly in the left side of my brain, I had considerably reduced mobility on the right side of my body. Most vexing, however, was my arduous struggle to articulate and convey my thoughts. 

What I didn’t know when I contracted Lyme disease was that diagnosing tick-borne illnesses are regrettably confounded by several variables, including an unflattering stigma, a lack of trained or “Lyme-literate doctors,” and disingenuous health professionals advocating pseudo medicine. In my view, however, the most detrimental are health agencies’ inadequate designation of Lyme disease as an autoimmune disease, thereby hindering a more comprehensive and holistic approach to address myriad serious Lyme-related conditions.

In my case, I found doctors ill-equipped to diagnose and treat severe cases of Lyme disease, which ultimately thwarted an accurate diagnosis for a very difficult two years of my life. Multiple doctors in every specialty repeatedly dismissed my complaints as depression or suggested it was “all in my head.” This echoed in my psyche, where I became bewildered, at best, and overwhelmingly demoralized in my darkest days. 

After years of navigating my condition, I know firsthand how difficult it is to grasp the profound effects of a small tick with Lyme disease. 

The consequential neurological deficits stole my confidence and took the one thing I cannot take back: time. However, Lyme disease has given me one invaluable attribute I will never lose and will always cherish: perspective. This is why I am on the Junior Board of the Global Lyme Alliance to generate awareness, address falsehoods, and encourage vigilance to help others. 

With tenacity, conviction, and steadfastness, I believe anyone can help overcome the effects of Lyme disease.