Parasite packs big bite: Tick-inflicted Lyme disease can leave a lasting mark for the unlucky few

Photo By: Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
Photo Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier Los Altos resident Kathleen O’Rourke and her son, Louis Sheridan, contracted Lyme disease and now advocate preventive measures through the Bay Area Lyme Foundation.

An afternoon of gardening may seem harmless, but it proved perilous for Kathleen O’Rourke more than four years ago. Bitten by a tick, the Los Altos resident was infected with Lyme disease.

Just months before her diagnosis, O’Rourke’s son, Louis Sheridan, fell severely ill from the disease, tipping her off to the possibility that she might also be infected. O’Rourke didn’t see or feel a tick bite, but she said she suspects coming in contact with a tick in her backyard, an area frequented by deer, one of the primary carriers. She believes a tick brought into the house by their dog bit her son.

While her son recovered within a year – thanks to antibiotic treatments – O’Rourke is only now recovering from the lingering fog that has hampered her cognitive and physical well-being.

“I’ve been through a war and I’m in repair phase,” she said.

Lyme – a bacterial ailment contracted through the bite of an infected tick – can cause severe brain and neurological damage if untreated. Anyone who frequents the outdoors or comes in contact with clothing or animals that transfer ticks is vulnerable to the disease.

According to the California Department of Public Health, an average of 200 cases of Lyme are reported annually in California. Santa Clara County recorded five cases in 2012 and 12 in 2011, the highest number of cases statewide.

“While Lyme disease is a health concern, our local case numbers do not indicate that Lyme disease is more of a health risk here in Santa Clara County than anywhere else,” said Santa Clara County health officer Marty Fenstersheib, who added that the rate of infected ticks is just 1-2 percent locally, compared with 15 percent along the northern coast of California. “But people should always be vigilant in protecting themselves, their children and their pets year-round.”

The Santa Clara County Public Health Department has reported only one case of Lyme this year, but the active tick season (April through September) still has a long way to go.

Difficult to diagnose

O’Rourke experienced many of the symptoms characteristic of Lyme – fatigue, heart palpitation, dizziness and breathing complications. But she never developed the signature Bullseye Skin Rash that frequently develops within one month of a bite.

Through advocacy on behalf of the Bay Area Lyme Foundation – an organization she helped found to close the gap between research and clinical practice – O’Rourke discovered that only 14 percent of Lyme patients in California develop a rash at the onset of the disease, complicating diagnosis. As the disease often presents with flulike symptoms, she said, some patients and doctors confuse it with other illnesses or incorrectly assume that Lyme isn’t a problem in the state.

“You could go to 16 doctors and diagnosis is still a matter of luck,” O’Rourke said.

Cutting it off at the source

Before her son fell ill with Lyme, O’Rourke had never even seen a blacklegged tick, the species that carries the disease to mammals like deer, rodents and pets. When her family moved to Woodside – prior to living in Los Altos – their puppy picked up ticks from the grassy areas of the property and brought them into their home.

That led to her removing a dangling tick from her son’s stomach.

“I did everything I wasn’t supposed to do,” she said.

Avoiding the outdoors altogether is unrealistic, but there are ways to prevent tick bites and deter infection if bitten. When outdoors, Fenstersheib advises people to apply a tick repellent containing at least 20 percent DEET and soak clothing, shoes and gear in a Permethrin-based substance.

“People should avoid direct contact with ticks, such as wooded and bushy areas with high grass and/or leaves,” Feinstersheib said. “Instead, they should walk in the center of trails.”

Conducting a full-body tick-check after time outside and showering and washing clothes in hot water are also advisable, he cautioned.

To remove a tick, do not follow the instinct to pull it off hastily – use tweezers to grasp it by the mouth and pull directly up.

Quick removal can prevent infection and preserve the bug alive for testing.

“If you find a tick, put it in an envelope or jar and bring it to Vector Control,” said Dr. Carol Kemper, MD, FACP of the Palo Alto Medical Foundation.

The center will perform a molecular test to determine if the specimen carries Lyme.

For O’Rourke and other Lyme patients, returning to outdoor activities can be difficult.

“I used to be afraid of going outside,” O’Rourke said. “Now, I’m not ... but I wouldn’t sit under an oak tree.”

For more information on Lyme disease, visit or

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