Fear and loathing

By Kris Ferrazza | May 23, 2014

Just say the word tick and my skin begins to crawl.

Every since my daughter was tiny, I warned her about ticks. I cautioned against wading through the tall grass in our hayfield, rolling in leaves, and playing in the woods. I would feel terrible when I’d overhear her telling her friends she’d rather not follow them down a grassy path because “I don’t want to get ticks on me.” But secretly, I was relieved.

Better to be safe than sorry was my motto. I have several friends whose lives have been turned upside down by Lyme disease, and I was determined to protect her at any cost.

But all of the warnings in the world were not enough. The night of her third birthday, we celebrated with cake and presents with friends. As soon as they left, I noticed her cheeks were flushed and she complained of a headache. I assumed she was exhausted, and put her to bed.

The next morning, she woke with a fever, but was chipper and excited because it was the day of her big birthday party. I briefly considered trying to reschedule, but decided there were too many people to call. Besides, Elizabeth never would have forgiven us.

We had borrowed an ice cream maker, which already was churning with homemade strawberry ice cream. There was to be an ice cream sundae buffet and a pinata, and she was counting the minutes until her friends, grandparents and cousins arrived.

My husband and I agreed she could tough it out for a few hours. We would nurse her back to health once everyone went home. At that point, we figured she had a virus or had picked up a cold.

“It’s probably just a little bug,” I recall saying. I had no idea how right I was.

The party got under way, and everyone was having a good time. Toward the end, I had lost track of the birthday girl. Her cousins had been pulling her in her wagon, but I didn’t see her anywhere. I knew something was wrong, and found her shivering under a blanket inside her princess tent in the blazing summer sun.

We sang and cut the cake, and our guests made a hasty exit. It was time to call the doctor.

Earlier I had googled Lizzie’s symptoms, and decided they matched up with Cat Scratch Fever. I know it sounds crazy, but we had found an odd-looking scratch in her armpit. It looked like a welt, and was raised and now appeared to be infected by the time we called our pediatrician.

At that time Elizabeth had a bad habit of lifting our cat up around his middle, and making him walk on his hind legs. She’d trap his front paws under her arm and walk alongside him. So I was convinced the kitty had freed himself, and accidentally (or not) scratched her during his escape. She denied any such encounter. When we asked about the scratch under her arm, she simply said, “Buggy bit me.” Crazy 3-year-olds.

Our pediatrician, who fortunately had office hours on that Saturday, reassured me over the phone that she did not have Cat Scratch Fever. I was insistent, telling him, “You really need to see it before you say that. I really think it is a badly infected cat scratch, and she is burning up.”

By that time, her fever was 103 or 104 and her headache was back. We drove her to the office, and that’s when we got the shocking news that our daughter had Lyme disease.

He examined her quickly, and raised her little arm high above her head.

“What do you see?” he asked me.

At first, I saw a flushed and lethargic little girl, and a mother who was in no mood for guessing games. Then I saw it. He gestured with his hand in a circular motion, and I saw a bulls-eye about the size of a lunch plate on my daughter’s torso.

“No,” I said.

“That’s a tick bite,” he said matter-of-factly. “And she has Lyme disease.”

My mind raced as he explained he would send blood to the lab, but those results are not always reliable for Lyme. He was so confident of the diagnosis, we would begin antibiotics immediately regardless of the lab results.

Stunned, I asked how a tick bite could do that much damage under her arm. He said it was impossible to know. She may have done it herself by scratching at the tick. Considering she and I were together constantly, and she asked for Band-Aids for imaginary boo-boos, I could not believe this had happened on my watch.

We started her on penicillin and thanked our lucky stars the symptoms had tipped us off to the disease. My infected friends had no such warning, and went untreated for years before being diagnosed. Now they pay the price.

Ten days into her antibiotics, Elizabeth toddled into our room at 4 a.m. and said, “I’m itchy.” I went to her room, expecting to find mosquitoes. When I snapped on the light, I saw that she was scratching her arms, which were covered in red spots. I lifted her pajama top and saw her belly covered in a rash as well.

No more penicillin for Lizzie.

After another week of a new medication, she was cured, and has had no lasting effects from her bout with Lyme disease. The ordeal did nothing to protect her from contracting it again — a warning from the doctor that I think of almost daily.

Tonight I went out with the dog before bedtime, and took an apple to our pony, who was standing in the barn. While he munched and crunched and juice dripped from his mouth, I straightened his mane and forelock, and patting the white blaze on his nose. Then I felt it. A bump. I was pretty sure it was a tick. The chase was on. He knew I had gone for my tick removal kit, and trotted into the field. I chased him for a minute in the dark, hoping ticks weren’t hopping onto me as I ran. I scolded, sweet-talked and bribed that precocious pony. There was nothing doing. He wouldn’t come to me.

So now I’ve checked myself for the blood-thirsty bugs, and gone to bed knowing Teddy pony probably still has a tick on his face. I’ll say a little prayer he doesn’t get Lyme disease. Or maybe I’ll wait ‘til he’s asleep, and sneak up on him.

And the beat goes on.

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