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Commentary: How a tick bite 58 years ago changed my life forever

Dennis J. Donahue

Dennis J. Donahue

A recent Associated Press article on tick bites reminded me of my own experience decades ago that’s had a profound impact on my life. Although most tick bites are painless and cause only minor symptoms, some ticks transmit bacteria that can lead to Lyme disease, which is the most common tick-borne disease in the United States. In general, tick bites seem to be most common in Northeastern states, such as Connecticut, where ticks have increased in numbers in recent years.

With the risk of infection after a bite being about 2%, there is no need to panic if bitten. Yet something did happen to me 58 years ago in Connecticut. That was when I was hospitalized for a high fever. After a few days of examinations, there was no diagnosis, and I was discharged. We didn’t know it at the time, but it was a bite from an infected tick.

In 2021, my primary care physician recommended that I see a neurologist due to my long-term, short-term memory loss that was somewhat more than age-appropriate forgetfulness. I was 85 at that time. The neurologist ordered a brain scan. His findings included microvascular ischemic disease, a so-called “silent disease” also referred to as brain rust or white matter brain disease. There was no finding as to the cause, but I recently looked up infectious Lyme disease. And after reading a journal article from Open Forum Infectious Diseases, I reported to the neurologist a case of a patient with cognitive decline. Her diagnosis of microvascular ischemic disease was exactly like mine. And her condition was caused by an infected tick.

The neurologist immediately ordered a test to determine if there were any antibodies remaining in my system, but after all these years there were none. However, the extremely high fever (106 degrees) I experienced contributed to health problems that continue to this day. For example, the fever affected internal pain sensors so I do not feel interior body pain, which from time to time has made it difficult to diagnose problems with my organs.

The fever also affected personal memories, and I do not remember dating, marrying and children being born. The fever did not, however, affect my cognitive memory or skills, so I never lost any executive functions and practiced law quite successfully for more than 30 years prior to retirement. I live “in the moment,” though photographs can help me to remember some events.

People can have many different symptoms ranging from mild to life-threatening after a tick bite, especially if the disease is not treated early. The symptoms are temporary in some cases, while others can cause long-term health problems. Once bitten by an infected tick, a person can have rampant neurological diseases that cause brain swelling, memory loss and cognitive decline. One might be unable to recall social events or life circumstances such as in my case.

For me, unfortunately, there is no restorative treatment. But for someone now infected with Lyme disease there are treatments available with appropriate antibiotics; some cases require long-term IV antibiotics. Nutritional support, dietary supplements and other therapeutic modalities such as chiropractic adjustments and acupuncture also can be beneficial.

The most difficult phrase for me to hear these days is, “Don’t you remember?” My standard response is, “No, I don’t remember.”

Dennis J. Donahue Jr. is an Isle of Palms resident. 

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