Insect bite in the park left me in agony for SIX years
23:15 GMT, 27 August 2012
'It was such a terrible time I can hardly bear to look back on it,' said Rebecca Lane
Rebecca Lane wasn’t too concerned about the rash that developed on her tummy.
Dark in the middle and lighter on the outside — like a bullseye — it flared up within two hours of a visit to Richmond Park, in Surrey, with her young son.
Her GP said it was a fungal infection and the rash cleared up within a fortnight, but then two weeks later she developed a series of mysterious symptoms.
‘I started having pain in the joints of my knees, fingers and toes, numbness and tingling in my face and back, as well as difficulty swallowing,’ says Rebecca, 41, who lives with her partner Justin, a scaffolder, and son Ben, in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire.
‘I didn’t connect the symptoms to my rash and, for a few years, the pain was manageable — I even set up a beauty salon during this period.
‘But I was back and forth to my GP trying to figure out what was wrong — for three years I saw my doctor at least once a fortnight.
'I was convinced the problems had to be symptomatic of something serious.’
Blood tests came back as normal, as did the results of a barium swallow, used in X-rays to examine the upper gastrointestinal tract.
‘Everyone was baffled,’ says Rebecca.
It would be six years before Rebecca learned what was wrong: she had Lyme disease, a bacterial infection spread to humans by ticks — tiny spider-like insects found in woodland.
Ticks are 1-2mm across and their bites are painless, as the insects first inject their victims with an anaesthetic.
They feed on blood and, if left undisturbed, will feed for five to seven days before letting go and dropping off.
In this time, if they are infected with the Lyme borreliosis bacteria, it can pass into a person’s bloodstream and spread around their body including the joints, nervous system and heart.
In the years after she was bitten, Rebecca’s symptoms worsened to a terrifying degree.
She suffered such blinding headaches, violent vomiting, severe joint pain, difficulty breathing and numbness that she was largely housebound for two years, between hospital admissions.
‘It was such a terrible time I can hardly bear to look back on it,’ says Rebecca.
‘I was too unwell to go into work and tried to oversee my business as best I could from home.
‘One of the most frightening symptoms was confusion.
'I’d forget how to do the most basic things like opening a window or which foot goes first when climbing into a car. I was worried I had dementia.
'I was too unwell to go into work and tried to oversee my business as best I could from home. One of the most frightening symptoms was confusion,' said Rebecca
‘But the worst of it was not knowing what was wrong with me and fearing — because the test results were coming back normal — that the doctors were overlooking something serious and assuming it was a psychological condition.
‘One GP told me I was suffering from severe stress, but I knew he was wrong.
'I was happy with every aspect of my life, all I wanted was to be well enough to get on with it.’
Rebecca’s hair gradually fell out and her stomach swelled up like a basketball.
When her sister had a baby in 2006, Rebecca had to lie flat in the back of the car to be able to make the half-hour journey to the hospital to see her nephew, Harry, without vomiting.
‘My lowest point came a few months later in hospital — I had been admitted with severe head pain and vomiting.
‘I had difficulty breathing and my head and joints hurt so much I couldn’t stop crying.
'I didn’t want my son, who was 12, seeing me like that so I begged Justin not to bring him. I thought they were my dying days and wanted Ben’s memory of me to be from happier times.’
Internet searches for conditions with symptoms that mirrored Rebecca’s alerted her family to Lyme disease.
In 2007, she saw Dr David Owen, a GP with an interest in tick-borne diseases, based in Cardiff, who made a clinical diagnosis based on Rebecca’s symptoms and prescribed antibiotics.
She then went for blood tests at The Hospital For Tropical Diseases in London, which confirmed the diagnosis of Lyme disease.
‘It was such a relief to know what was wrong with me,’ says Rebecca.
‘But, by that time, the bacteria was so entrenched in my body that recovery took another two years. I still experience some joint pain.’
The Health Protection Agency estimates there are between 2,000 and 3,000 new cases of Lyme disease infection in England and Wales each year, most occurring during the summer, and numbers are rising.
Ticks are found all over the UK, other parts of Europe and North America, and are most prevalent between April and September
The increase is most likely due to damper summers and milder winters, which create a good breeding ground for ticks, people spending more time in the countryside and greater awareness of the disease.
Ticks are found all over the UK, other parts of Europe and North America, and are most prevalent between April and September.
Between two and 17 per cent of ticks carry Lyme disease.
According to the charity Lyme Disease Action, infection can be prevented if ticks are removed immediately, with fine-pointed tweezers — this prevents their bodies being crushed, which increases the risk of infection — and the area around the bite treated with antiseptic cream.
A lack of knowledge among GPs means the disease’s flu-like symptoms are often confused with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Dr Owen says: ‘It is a complex condition. A blood test carried out in a GP’s surgery, certainly early on in an infection, would be likely to come back negative. It can take months before patients infected with Lyme disease make antibodies.
‘The most common symptoms of Lyme disease are fatigue, joint pain, feeling extremes of hot and cold and sometimes neurological symptoms which create odd sensations in the body, like numbness or tingling.
‘The bullseye-shaped rash can be a key indicator, however not everyone infected develops a rash. Most people recover after a couple of months of antibiotics.’
Rebecca spent more than 3,000 on private specialist appointments, tests and antibiotics trying to get to the bottom of her symptoms.
However, following the positive test result from The Hospital For Tropical Diseases, her GP was able to prescribe antibiotics on the NHS, which killed the infection.
She says: ‘Life had to be put on hold for a few years, but one good thing to come out of my illness is it helped me to appreciate all the things I have.
'I’m determined to do everything to the best of my ability and my business has won lots of awards over the past four years.
‘Occasions I used to take for granted, like family holidays or dinners out with my partner and son, now have an extra joy about them.’
Justin proposed to Rebecca in 2002. They will finally exchange vows in front of 70 guests in September.
‘We’re getting married in Richmond Park, which some may find an odd choice of venue,’ laughs Rebecca. ‘But I have very happy memories of taking Ben there.
‘There are signs up in Richmond Park now, warning people of the risk of Lyme disease.
'I wish they had been there a decade ago — it could have spared me a lot of pain.’