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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Facing the fear and finding the hope

Kathleen McQuillan
Posted 4/3/24

When I wrote an article months back about my intention to overcome my excessive anxiety over spiders, I had no idea the reactions I would get from readers! One email thanked me for publicly …

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Facing the fear and finding the hope


When I wrote an article months back about my intention to overcome my excessive anxiety over spiders, I had no idea the reactions I would get from readers! One email thanked me for publicly acknowledging my irrational fear of these mostly benign creatures. Another person sent a book all about the many spiders found in Minnesota, complete with close-up photographs. Staring at those photos — “feeling the fear and doing it anyway” — was a perfect at-home, self-inflicted form of Exposure Therapy. And it’s helped! Since the intent of my story was about facing fear and growing beyond it, I finished my article with… “Now onto my next endeavor — ticks!” I figured I had all winter to prepare myself for spring, but I didn’t really have a plan. Little did I know that my intention would not fall on deaf ears.
I soon received a message from a reader in Ely who asked if I’d be interested in hearing about her life-changing experience with a different arachnid, Ixodes scapularis — the infamous deer tick, a known transmitter of Lyme Disease. I accepted her invitation and arranged to meet for lunch at a local cafe. This woman’s story was harrowing and also remarkably informative.
Kelly began the conversation by sharing her passion for nature photography that often took her into Minnesota’s back country. She loved exploring the Northwoods, especially from unique angles, some of which were shot from ground level. She was aware of the risks of insect and tick bites, and the infectious diseases they were known to carry, so she took precautions to reduce those risks. But one summer day, while with her sister exploring some undeveloped land just outside of Two Harbors, things went terribly wrong.
During their scoping mission, weather conditions became warm and humid. Kelly stripped off her sweatshirt and inadvertently dropped it to the ground. Once ready, she stuffed her shirt back into her pack and resumed the hike. Unknowingly, it had landed on what she later realized was a mouse nest, the ideal place for female ticks to lay their eggs. Later that day, after having put her sweatshirt back on, she discovered close to three dozen ticks on her torso, and some already attached. She quickly went about removing them, but it wasn’t long before she developed signs of bites that were likely infected. She watched them worsen and soon decided to visit her doctor. She was tested for Lyme Disease.
Initially, test results were negative but she continued to develop more serious symptoms. Her doctors began suspecting other diseases and administered tests to rule out conditions with similar symptoms such as lupus, multiple sclerosis and other neurological and immune system disorders. In November, 2021, lab results came back positive for Borellia burgdorferi, the bacteria that causes Lyme Disease. Finally, she had a definitive diagnosis. Here’s where Kelly’s long and arduous struggle set her on a path of discovery.
Early in our visit, she emphasized that she did not want her story to frighten readers away from enjoying the outdoors. Her goal was to share information that could help keep them safer whenever they ventured out in nature. During our visit, she handed me research articles with info and statistics that supported her narrative. I appreciated all of it as it’s certainly helped me become more educated and less fearful of these little buggers and their potential for mayhem.
Kelly’s story will be told in two parts. This one focuses on the deer tick, perhaps our most feared “vector,” and how, during their reproductive cycle, they transmit Borellia burgdorferi, the microbe that triggers Lyme Disease. It will also explain the role that humans and other large mammals play in the deer tick’s reproductive cycle, as while we simultaneously provide a perfect environment in which undetected Borellia bacteria can multiply.
Interestingly, not every tick is a carrier and not every person who receives a bite from an infected tick will develop symptoms of Lyme’s. But when it does occur, this disease can have profound and sometimes lifelong effects on one’s physical, cognitive and mental health. This is why Kelly’s story is so valuable, especially with spring right around the corner.
A healthy immune system will attack and destroy Borellia just as it does with many other forms of bacteria that invade our body. But if our immune system is not functioning adequately, this bacteria can travel throughout our body via our blood stream, evading our immune system and infecting muscle and joint tissue as well as our vital organs. This usually triggers symptoms of pain, stiffness, chronic fatigue, and an array of other serious complications due to tick-borne illnesses.
Lyme Disease got its name from a small town in Connecticut when, in 1975, a mysterious outbreak of serious illness occurred in fifty-one people all reporting recent experiences with tick bites. Prior to this occurrence, other incidents of tick-borne diseases had been identified in humans. Scientists discovered frozen and fossilized ticks carrying Borellia burgdorferi dating back thousands and even millions of years.
Ticks are a wily and hardy parasite. At certain stages in their reproductive cycle they are smaller than the head of a pin. And they rely on other animals to participate in their successful reproduction. Ticks must feed on blood at each of their developmental stages. In spring, a blood-engorged female will fall from a “host,” seek a suitable nest, often amidst debris on the forest floor, and lay 2,000-3,000 eggs. After a month, the eggs enter a larval stage and may climb up branches, brush or dry grass, in search of an unsuspecting host upon which to feed. The larvae are so minute that they can easily escape detection before attaching to their host. With their bite, tick saliva is injected into the host’s bloodstream, possibly infecting it with Borellia bacteria. Studies estimate between 1 and 25 percent of ticks can carry the bacteria. Many variables like weather and climate conditions influence these carrier rates.
Larval tick populations generally peak in late summer and feed primarily on the blood of mice and other ground rodents like squirrels and chipmunks before entering the nymph stage and where they become more noticeable to the human eye. Developing nymphs’ feeding needs increase, requiring larger mammals like deer, dogs, and humans to serve as hosts. Here, female nymphs can gorge themselves with blood, drop from the host, produce more eggs, and begin the whole cycle again.
Ticks often engage in partial feeding which enhances their reproductive success and further spreads the bacteria. Partially fed ticks become the perfect vectors as they seek multiple hosts. Humans play a vital role in this quasi-symbiotic relationship. As for the individual bitten by an infected tick, becoming the host for Borellia, if left undetected, can turn their world upside down. Kelly contracted not just one tick-borne disease but three — Lyme, Bartonella, and Anaplasmosis. She presented with an overwhelming tangle of enigmatic symptoms that set her on a long journey with medical specialists in search of answers.
It was over a month before Kelly knew what was making her sick. And for nearly two years, she endured numerous tests and treatments. Her world became a nightmarish roller coaster of hope and disappointment. Her health swung from acute pain and discomfort to periods of improvement, then a return to exhausting impairment, only to see it turn into a chronic condition. Her illness was eroding her physical and mental health. She watched her ability to work, recreate, and concentrate deteriorate. She pointed out that she was more fortunate than many sufferers who have waited decades before identifying their illness.
Once receiving a definitive diagnosis, Kelly’s mission was to learn as much as possible about her disease. She looked at how the medical community was responding and discovered that all too frequently, it wasn’t. She investigated the research, diagnostic protocols, and treatment modalities being used by mainstream western medicine as well as alternative approaches from holistic, herbal, movement, and meditation therapies.
In the course of her self-education, Kelly’s primary goal was her own healing, but she didn’t stop there. She has dedicated substantial attention to developing materials for people suffering with Lyme Disease as well as other chronic conditions that are characterized by complicated and enigmatic symptoms.
Part Two of Kelly’s story will explore some helpful healing practices she’s discovered and resources she’s developed to help herself and others regain a more adventurous and gratifying life.