Out of breath and exhausted, I struggled from step to step as I planted my first bag up of the morning. After days of sleeping in my tent, only waking up for about six hours each day, I wanted to get back out and try to plant. I couldn’t string a sentence together without gasping for a breath, and my body seemed to be in the grips of a flu, unlike any I had previously experienced. My joints and bones were constantly aching; my vision was blurry with floating spots; I was short of breath with chest pains and heart palpitations; night sweats; dizzy; menstrual pain throughout the month; unexplained shaking and stabbing sensations in my body; unusual depression and anxiety; difficulty concentrating and with memory; and continual infections. After one excruciating bag up of trees, I knew it was time to go back to Vancouver and figure out what was going on in my body.
I had been to two doctors while planting in Cranbrook, BC; one had told me I had a lung infection, the other thought I may have strep throat. Upon arriving back to Vancouver, a doctor gave me a few days worth of antibiotics, but I continued feeling awful. I went to go see a family member who is an electro dermal therapist, hoping an alternative form of medicine could provide some answers. I hadn’t even thought about the possibility that I might have lyme disease, as I never found ticks on my body and I didn’t get the ‘bull’s eye’ rash, indicative of a tick bite. However, the bacterium which causes lyme disease, Borrelia burgdorferi, turned up in the electro dermal test so I decided to follow it up with a doctor.
I went to see a family doctor in Vancouver to ask about being tested for lyme, and her immediate reaction was that there could be no chance of having it. I explained to her that I had just been tree planting in the interior of BC and that health authorities have found borrelia bacteria in ticks collected from many areas of BC, leading them to believe the organism is present throughout the province. She begrudgingly ordered the blood work for the lyme test, but it came back negative. I had read that the Canadian lab test for lyme disease is considerably unreliable and many people who suspect they have the disease, pay to have their blood work sent to a lab in America for a more reliable diagnosis.
Fortunately, at that time, I was relocating to Scotland and was able to receive free health care through my ancestry visa. I was referred to an infectious disease specialist whom I was able to see within a couple of weeks. Acknowledging the lab tests are often unreliable, the specialist thought a clinical diagnosis was the best course of action. Over the next few weeks, the specialist tested me for any possible disease that may be causing my symptoms. Results came back negative on every test and he deduced that it was most likely lyme disease. He prescribed three weeks of doxycyclin antibiotics and the symptoms disappeared within the first week of taking them; I was back to normal after having struggled for five long months. The only lasting effect of the disease was on the cartilage in my knees which had been damaged by the bacteria and cause swelling and pain with certain activity. I was lucky to access a doctor who was able (and willing) to diagnose and treat lyme disease in a relatively short time. Chronic lyme disease, which can develop if left untreated long enough, is very serious and incredibly difficult to treat. Why Canadian doctors are reluctant to diagnose lyme disease and why there are so few reported cases in Canada compared to just south of the boarder, is an important and disconcerting question.
There are a number of preventative measures that can be taken to avoid being bitten by a tick while out on a cut block. Tucking pants into socks, shirts into pants, wearing a cuffed shirt and slathering on some DEET will help, but this isn’t always practical and it’s hard to find a planter without rips in their clothes. The best way to catch lyme early is to do daily examinations, with particular attention to the pubic area, base of the skull and scalp. Also, make sure to check clothes for ticks and never take your planting clothes into your tent at night. If a tick is found, remove it very carefully (refer to the relevant safe work procedures), bag it, and send it for testing. However, do not rely on finding the tick, instead, be aware of the symptoms so that if they persist, you can rule out the possibility of lyme disease, or be diagnosed and recover after a simple dose of antibiotics.
Heather has spent her planting days in BC`s interior and writes from camp in 70 Mile. Farming on Vancouver Island or city-dwelling in East Vancouver, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.