|Local News - Saturday, July 24, 2004|
By Mike Hazelwood
EMONCOVE -- Cindy Pinkham used to kill bugs for a living. Some day, she'd love to do it again.
But right now, the 44-year-old is too sick.
Pinkham owns Lady Bug Pest Control. But that hasn't stopped a die-hard pest from infesting her body for 25 years.
It's called a spirochete, and it's the spiral-shaped terror responsible for Lyme disease. It mimics other diseases, hides from medicines and drills into all parts head to toe.
As a result, Pinkham requires daily medical attention -- including the delivery of medicine through a hole in her chest.
"They're evil," Pinkham says of the Lyme disease bacteria.
Pinkham's ordeal began with a tick bite on the back of her neck in 1978. Since then, chronic illness has kept doctors and insurance companies busy.
Worse, she says, it has ravaged her daughter. Tricia Ingham, now an adult, was born with Lyme disease.
Recently, mother and daughter stood side by side in their country kitchen, discussing life and mirroring each other in tears and symptoms.
"We don't know if we'll ever get better," the mother says.
Lyme disease, spread mostly through tick bites, is a national problem, according to the Center for Disease Control. About 24,000 cases have been reported this year -- the highest total ever -- and experts say it's grossly underreported.
One reason: Lyme disease shares symptoms with some 300 other diseases, experts say.
"That's why they call it 'The Great Imitator'," says David Weld, executive director of the American Lyme Disease Foundation.
Lyme disease is rarely deadly, Weld says, but it can make life a living hell. There's achiness, fever, fatigue and severe headaches. There are muscle, heart, nerve and memory problems. Victims lose weight, sleep and -- at times -- hope.
"I've had [all the symptoms]," Pinkham says. "At [their] worst I've thought, 'Screw it, I don't want to live anymore.' "
If treated early with intense doses of antibiotics, Lyme disease can be controlled, experts say. If not, it's like a flu that never goes away.
And that's where many victims find themselves, driven crazy by an unknown illness.
There's not yet a fool-proof test for Lyme disease, and for every case that is diagnosed, Weld says, five to 10 are not. That's why Pinkham, who for two decades wondered what was wrong with her, wants to spread the word about the disease.
"I even wanted to go on 'Oprah,' " she says.
A long road
Pinkham's 1978 tick bite took place while she was hunting. She was bitten again in 1986 while getting firewood.
After the first bite, she felt severe flu-like symptoms than haven't stopped since. Four times she's had meningitis, which is common for Lyme disease sufferers.
The overall symptoms intensified after the second bite, which caused a bull's-eye rash on her inner thigh. That's when Pinkham finally was diagnosed with Lyme disease.
A month's worth of antibiotic shots were thought to have cured her, but the treatment didn't work. She slowly began to feel worse, wasting away to muscle and skin. Loved ones feared she was dying.
More than 20 doctors from UCLA to Stanford University weighed in on the continuing health problems of a woman "cured" of Lyme disease.
Their shared conclusion: "I just don't know."
Some told Pinkham it was all in her head. Then, late last year, she was accurately diagnosed. Or, rather, rediagnosed.
It was Lyme disease.
Like mother, like daughter
Tricia Ingham stares out her kitchen window, her body weary from Lyme disease and her soul bored by it.
"I'd rather be working," she says.
But the 24-year-old is on disability and unable to drive herself. She worked for four years as veterinary technician, but some of that time was spent vomiting between tasks.
Ingham sleeps much of the day and has blackouts, her mother says. Often she sits in the new truck parked in front of her home, going nowhere. Doctors have warned her against having children.
Medical treatment keeps failing, but Ingham keeps trying. Strong antibiotics, as regular as family meals, make her as sick as the disease.
"That's what sucks," Ingham says, hugging and kissing a kitten as the two cuddle on the couch. "You have to get sick before you get better."
Ingham doesn't tell many people about her illness. It's only when she blends into the world outside that she forgets about it.
The road ahead
Today, Pinkham spends $624 a month on medical insurance. And that's just for herself. And it doesn't pay for everything.
Looking at a pile of bills and medical paperwork on her kitchen counter, Pinkham talks about another affliction: red tape.
"It makes me sick," she says.
Her husband, Dan Pinkham, also has tested positive for Lyme disease. He has shown no symptoms, however, and hopes to get a clean bill of health at his next test.
The Pinkhams and Ingham share their Lemoncove home with six cats, six dogs and dozens of turtles and birds. There's also Ida the IV Pole, which -- wearing a straw hat and bandana -- delivers antibiotics to Cindy Pinkham every day.
But there's a larger world out there, and Cindy Pinkham can't wait to rejoin it. She's eager to return to work.
But one thing's for sure.
"I won't take any more tick jobs," she says.
i Lyme disease was discovered in 1975 after a mysterious outbreak of arthritis near Lyme, Conn.
i In Central California, the creature most likely to spread Lyme disease is the Western black-legged tick -- though not every tick is infected.
i Ticks are most often found in "grassy, brushy" areas below 5,000 feet, Sequoia National Park Ranger Malinee Crapsey said.
i Ticks can't fly or jump, but they do attach themselves to whatever brushes by. They mostly travel on deer but also latch onto birds -- which means they can eventually end up in your yard.
|Originally published Saturday, July 24, 2004