Lyme disease has overwhelmed the northeastern states in America over the last several years, and here in Pennsylvania alone over 10,000 new cases were reported last year.
But as local doctors and patients are learning, diagnosing the disease can be a bit of a challenge.
Eric Painter of Bullskin Township began his Lyme disease journey in 2010.
“At first, it felt like I had the flu for probably two weeks, and then it started to subside, but after a week or two the same symptoms came back, and this continued to be a cycle,” said Painter, who is a physical education teacher in the Connellsville Area School District.
Most days he would go to work, come home and sleep until 7 p.m. when he would get up to eat dinner before going back to sleep again for the night.
“I did this for two or three years,” Painter said. “The night before I got sick, I was running 10 miles a day, three weeks into my sickness, I could barely climb steps. I was completely debilitated.”
After time, his symptoms began to get a little more bizarre.
“My vision would get weird, I would get joint pain, but it would travel,” he said. “It would be in my knees one day and then maybe in my hips the next. About a year into it, I started not being able to control different neurological things — I would shake when I walked.”
Then, one day he was driving his daughter to a school event in a town in which he was very familiar, but got lost.
“I’ve lived here all my life, but I had no idea where I was or where I was going,” he said.
Painter went to his primary care physician to find some answers.
“I started talking about my symptoms, and I know I sounded crazy because they were just all over the place,” Painter said. “He said he thought maybe I was depressed.”
Painter told him he wasn’t depressed — that he felt just fine about himself and his life, it was just that he didn’t feel fine physically.
An antidepressant medication was prescribed, but he didn’t take it. Over the next year, Painter said he went through every invasive test possible, always showing no issues.
“I went to the urologist because I kept getting bladder infections, and I went to a rheumatologist because they thought that maybe it was fibromyalgia, and then they tested for Multiple Sclerosis and then Lou Gherig’s disease, but all the tests kept coming back negative,” Painter said.
At the start of year two, with symptoms persisting and no clear answers, he started to give up.
“My personality changed — it was just such a mental struggle,” Painter said. “I thought I was dying and no one could figure out why.”
Towards the end of his second year, his mom told him that she was talking to someone at work who knew someone with Lyme disease.
“She told me that the person had gone to Dr. Joseph Joseph in Hermitage (Mercer County), which is about 2 1/2 hours away and asked if I would go,” Painter said. “I said I would try anything at this point.”
Dr. Joseph started Painter on a light dose of antibiotics right from the start, and every three days Painter would do a urine test. If the antibiotic was working, then there would be evidence of dead bacteria in the urine.
From there, the doctor ordered a Western Blot Test and sent Painter’s blood off to California.
“Two days later, I got a phone call and CDC (Center for Disease Control) came up on the caller ID,” Painter said. “I’ve never been happier for a phone call in my life.
“They told me that I had Lyme disease and asked if I needed to talk to anyone,” Painter said. “I told them the news didn’t upset me — it made me so happy to know that after all this time there was finally a diagnosis - that I wasn’t crazy.”
Every month for 13 months, Painter had to go back to the Hermitage doctor to review his symptoms for that month and adjust or change the antibiotics he was taking.
“He said it was like we were treating each symptom and chasing the disease around the body to kill it.” Painter said.
Today, seven years later, Painter said he gets mild flare-ups every three months or so, but nothing that is debilitating or hinders him from living a normal life.
“The joint pain is almost a constant, but it’s not debilitating like it once was,” he said.
Painter encouraged anyone going through a similar ordeal to find an infectious disease doctor and to not let anyone write off symptoms.
“Just don’t give up,” he said. “Know that if you get the proper treatment, you can live with the disease. And prayers can get you through a lot. At times, they were the only thing that got me through.”