Beautiful and Repugnant

Perhaps one of the most difficult accomplishments in life is to learn to respect and even admire something that has hurt or disabled you or someone you love. A more normal reaction might be despise or even abhor that which has caused you or a loved one pain. Personally I cannot condemn reactions that reject anything that causes someone or something to suffer. It seems nothing less than human.

But occasionally there are circumstances which can put us in a place where we can look at a situation from a different point of view. Such has been the case with me and a culprit known as Lyme disease.

As a professional field ecologist Lyme disease is an occupational hazard. I am constantly exposed to the black legged tick, also know as the deer tick, the primary carrier of the borrelia spirochete the spiral shaped bacteria that causes the Lyme disease symptoms. And despite taking every precaution; wearing light colored clothing with my pants tucked into my socks, spraying the repellant DEET on my clothing and even wearing permethrin coated clothes, checking for ticks both in the field, at the end of a field work day, and at night when I get home, I sometimes still find ticks embedded in my skin when I wake up in the morning. Typically when this happens I get a prophylactic treatment of antibiotics to kill the nasty bacteria before it can multiply in my body.

Even with these diligent efforts I still have contracted Lyme Disease more than fifteen times. Each time I was treated with antibiotics according to the protocol of the time. As luck would have it I am at a disadvantage with regards to treatment due to the fact that I am very allergic to tetracycline drugs which are the preferred treatment for Lyme disease. And so for many years I was treated with amoxicillin, a type of penicillin, and the 2nd most effective drug against the borrelia spirochete. But somewhere along my long history with Lyme disease I managed to contract a condition known as chronic Lyme; effectively a nasty long term infection that can have serious health consequences. Like many chronic Lyme patients I have endured severe memory loss, severe arthritis of many of my joints, lethargy, heart problems, and neuropathy. I have learned that I can control the disease and it has been this strategy that has made life more comfortable. A combination of antibiotic treatments, homeopathy, and herbal treatments has for the most part kept this disease at bay. Every once in a while the Lyme disease does manage to rear its ugly head and I respond by aggressively using one of the above options that sends it into hiding for months and sometime years.

Curiously, as an ecologist, one who studies the adaptations that are made by plants and animals to survive, I find the borrelia spirochete oddly fascinating. I am also somewhat amused that it is both my occupation that has exposed me to the disease and to marvel at its ability to adapt. Although I must say that given a choice I would rather have never experienced it at all.

Spirochetes are one of the oldest forms of life. It is thought they have been around for 1.5 to 2 billion years. And although they are a very primitive form of bacteria and have only evolved into a half dozen different major groups, they still are remarkably resilient and unbelievably adaptive.

When something has 2 billion years to evolve it can become a very efficient and effective organism. It has survived multiple cataclysmic events that have extirpated thousands of living species. Think about it. This organism has survived millions of years of a poisonous gaseous atmosphere, the movement of continents and continental collisions, hundreds of years of major volcanic activity that spewed dark ash and gases into the sky, glaciation where whole continents were nearly covered with a mile of ice, and multiple major extraterrestrial events like asteroids colliding with the Earth and filling the entire atmosphere with putrid ash. This bacteria has discovered the true secret of life, the ability to survive almost any situation, and found niches where it can successfully harbor its own genetic pool for the future. And although it is a simple organism biologically it is nearly perfect when it comes to carrying on.

When an animal is infected with the borrelia spiorochete it has been invaded by a very effective organism that only has one goal. That goal is to multiply and live on. And while that is the primary goal of every living species this particularly tiny, very effective bacteria, has two billion years of time tested experience that will help to guarantee its survival. It will most likely outlive the human race. And why not? It has already outlived nearly countless numbers of extinct species.

The first survival mechanism of the borrelia spirochete is its ability to lay dormant in its host for long periods of time. The black legged tick is merely a transportation system for this bacteria. An infected tick, perhaps one in five in our area, can wait a long time between hosts. An animal has to brush up against the vegetation on which the tick lies waiting in order for the tick to transfer itself from the plant to the animal host. And while the tick is waited for its victim the spirochete simply rests in a suspended animation state within the tick’s gut. The spirochete requires very little energy to live during this period. It is simply a dormant bacteria that lies in waiting until it finds an active host.

After a tick is on its host and has exchanged body fluids with the unsuspecting victim (the tick uses an anticoagulant to keep the wound open while it extracts the blood from the host) the tiny spirochete is introduced into its new environment. This is where the second strategy is employed that helps the bacteria to survive. Unlike other bacteria that may divide to populate every twenty to thirty minutes a borrelia spirocheter may divide only once every eighteen to twenty four hours. Most bacteria are only susceptible to the fatal effects of antibiotics when they are multiplying thereby making rapidly multiplying bacteria more exposed to an antibiotic regime whereas the very slow dividing borrelia spirochete is much less susceptible unless the antibiotic is delivered at exactly the right time.

If the Lyme disease bacteria goes undetected, untreated, or if it is not treated for long enough (some protocols call for a minimum three week treatment) than the spirochete will populate the host, go into hiding when the hosts defense system kicks into gear, and reappear to repopulate the host after the defense system has determined that the danger has cleared. The spirochete goes into hiding by morphing into a cyst form. In this form the spiral shaped bacteria rolls itself into a ball and covers the ball with a thick layer of mucus where it will typically tuck itself away into a relatively anoxic environment. The mucus coating makes it relatively immune to most antibiotics. The idea that these bacteria can survive in low oxygen environments is also another miracle of evolution and a decided advantage over most organisms which requite oxygen as one of the main components of life. In the human body the spirochetes are small enough to penetrate the blood/brain barrier where it can easily hide amongst nerve and brain tissue where few antibiotics can reach. Most antibiotics are too large to pass through the blood/brain barrier. The spirochetes will also populate other anoxic areas of nerve tissue in the back and the feet, as well as the heart muscle, where the bacteria will change into their cyst form and lie in a dormant state until a time when repopulation is both necessary and sustainable.

The most obvious symptoms of Lyme disease occur when the bacteria is being attacked by our white blood cells. The most dramatic symptoms of Lyme disease occur when a humans loose their memory from damage to nerve tissue in the brain, experience neuropathy from nerve tissue damage in the feet or extremities, or have heart block where heart muscle tissue is damaged from these nefarious bacteria that have only one goal and that is to live on.

To make matters more interesting it appears that the borrelia spirochete is now evolving rapidly to adjust to our understanding of its current state. New forms are appearing that utilize different strategies to survive. It continues as the master of evolution much to my own chagrin.

And yes, this paradoxical arrangement, with me being both the victim host and the observing ecologist reveals the twisted side of life that can produce a few momentary chuckles. The fact that I am an involuntary but active participant in one of the planet’s best survival acts seems beyond amusing. I have the descendant of two billion years of evolution living in my body. I can think of no other organism that has lived for so long, adapted to its various environments so well, and seems to be capable of even more changes to carry on. From an evolutionary point of view its ability to adapt and survive is simply beautiful. And at the same time I live in fear of the next resurgence of this painful and complicated disease.

And this, my friends, is simultaneously both repugnant and beautiful when one considers personal health contrasted to a healthy ecological view of the world. It kind of defines irony, does it not?

Originally written for the Heath Herald in July of 2014.

  • Montucky

    Ironic and kind of scary, although reassuring to know that you have learned how to live with it.

  • Wild_Bill

    Basically I have two choices at this point. Live with it or…………………! Living with it is the far better option, no doubt. That I find pleasure in laughing at what others might consider to be a real pain in the butt gives me joy. So why not? Plus, there is so much to learn about the natural world shouldn’t I take the opportunity.

  • Ratty

    The whole thing kind of makes me afraid to go out to areas I know have ticks. But I’ve learned from you how to reasonably protect myself for the most part. And none of us can let fear stop us from doing the things we enjoy or the things we need to do.

  • Wild_Bill

    That’s the spirit Ratty….”Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”

  • Emily B

    Hi Bill, I’m only just getting to this now, but what a relevant post this is for me. My mother learned she had Lyme disease right before Christmas of this last year, and it’s been a very difficult adjustment for her to say the least. As you might recall from some of my own writing, she and my father are outdoor enthusiasts, so to reach a place of debilitation (she had significant pain in one knee while walking for a while, and it also has affected one of her eyes) as a result of spending so much pleasurable time outdoors? Definitely ironic. And sad! But it’s helpful to hear from other people who have gone through it and what they’ve done to both find relief from pain and still be able to get out an enjoy the world they love. Thanks for sharing your experience here; it does feel comforting. And I will wish the ticks–no matter how interesting they are–far from you, friend.

  • Wild_Bill

    I’m so sorry to hear your mother has contracted Lyme disease. It sounds like she is a later stage so it will take both determination and effective medical treatment to successfully put this in the rear view mirror. Hopefully there are Lyme literate MD’s in your area who know exactly what to do. My doctor actually recommended alternative treatments to be used in harmony with a very long course of antibiotics. Although it occasionally rears its ugly head I now know the warning signs (they are different for nearly everybody) and deal with it immediately. With a little patience, determination, and good medical treatment she will defeat this illness. Tell her I give her my best!

  • Emily Brisse

    Will do. Thanks, Bill!

  • Wild_Bill

    I just thought of something. I had people that really helped me when I was at the worse stages of Lyme disease. These were people who mostly listened by offered good advice because they had dealt with the advanced stages of the disease. If your mom ever needs to talk to someone she can contact me. Perhaps she could look me up on Facebook and send me a personal message. If that doesn’t work we can figure out some way to get her my phone number. Sometimes this can get a little rough. It’s good to know there is someone out there that she can call if she so chooses.

  • Jansen

    Interesting that I just came across this post almost exactly a year after you originally wrote it. What’s also interesting is that our son, Enso, had an odd illness earlier this year marked mostly by lethargy and an on-and-off low-grade fever. We never determined exactly what the cause was, but after a week or so, his doctor prescribed a 10-day course of amoxicillin, which cleared things up dramatically. I didn’t know then that it was actually effective against Lyme, and there are at least some ways that could make sense. Of similar concern, I pulled a nymph deer tick off of his face about a week ago and have been watching for any signs of infection since then. It wasn’t obviously engorged and I don’t believe it was attached for more than probably 12 hours. It seems that ticks are becoming a regular part of our life though, so I’m constantly concerned about over-reacting and/or under-reacting to everything about them.

  • Wild_Bill

    While we have deer ticks (black legged tick) in Heath there are relatively few as compared to surrounding areas. This year I’ve not encountered one from my adventures in Heath, and believe me that’s a lot of time in the woods. Dog ticks are very common so I have them land on my all the time.

    Amoxicillan is not the preferred treatment for Lyme Disease, doxycycline is. The treatment time is a minimum of 21 days but research tells us that 30 is better and more effective. Some, like me are allergic to both and so other, less effective antibiotics are in order. Likely the reason I contracted long term Lyme Disease from which the residual effects still impact me to this day.

  • Jansen

    Yup–we’ve seen many more dog ticks than deer ticks. I’ve counted four or five dog ticks that we’ve caught crawling on us this year, and there’s no question that they are not deer ticks since they’re so much bigger and a different color. Once or twice, I’ve wondered if I was actually looking at a lone star tick, but I never hung onto them to really identify since they hadn’t attached. I usually don’t see many deer ticks either, but in the last week, Enso and I have each had one very tiny nearly black tick attached to us. The one I pulled off of myself (at 3am) was hard to definitely identify, but the one on him was still moving it’s legs and we got a good look at it under a magnifying glass. (We held onto both in case we need to do something with them later) Given pictures and comparisons, I can’t think that it was anything other than a nymph deer tick. (We’ve also seen and detached adult deer ticks in previous years, and they’re even easier to identify and differentiate from the dog ticks). So far, no symptoms of anything have driven us to a doctor to be treated, and as far as I know, we’re neither of us allergic to any antibiotics, so if we need to, I hope we’ll be able to do what we have to. I visited a doctor once a number of years ago when I pulled what he identified as an adult deer tick off of my arm, and he advised that since I was pretty sure that it was attached less than a day and wasn’t engorged that we shouldn’t treat unless I developed any symptoms. That’s pretty much the advice we’ve run on since. I’m pretty sure all of these have been from just around our land, so I wonder if the swamp moisture and environment contributes to their population here. I do my best to keep things mowed and take care of ourselves, but they seem unavoidable.

    My respect and sympathy for everything you’ve been through. Let’s share the good of what we have…

  • Wild_Bill

    There’s little, very little chance, of being infected from a black legged tick that has not exchanged body fluids with you. This requires it be attached for a prolonged period, typically 24-36 hours, but documented cases of 12 hours and more (very rare) have been noted. If it’s engorged you know the body fluid exchange has taken place. About half of the deer ticks in our area carry Lyme Disease. The tick population is closely related to the primary carriers, white footed mice and voles. Consumption of these by red and gray fox lowers the populations immensely. HIgh numbers of eastern coyotes (coywolves) lessen fox populations dramatically. Currently our eastern coyote population is down from previous years and fox population is up, hence the lower number of deer ticks.

    Vigilance in inspecting yourself and Enso is the real answer. Every day before you go to bed when you’ve been outside, particularly in brush areas.

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