Chris Harris was gardening at his Owings Mills home when he noticed an odd bump on his right leg. Although he initially dismissed it as a spider bite, over the next few days he noticed a rash growing around the bump, and he had increasing fatigue and joint pain. He decided to go see his doctor, who immediately referred him to John Aucott, M.D., who would later co-found the Johns Hopkins Lyme Disease Research Center.
“After taking one look,” recalls Harris, “Dr. Aucott said, ‘That’s Lyme disease.’”
Little Bite, Big Impact
Transmitted by ticks, primarily during the summer months, Lyme disease has three distinct stages. First, bacteria in the tick’s stomach infects the skin, causing a large, round or oval rash that can grow up to a foot in size. As the bacteria spreads to the bloodstream, it can infect the heart, nervous system and joints, causing meningitis, arthritis, Bell’s palsy, and even fainting. Finally, if left untreated for six months or more, the infection causes late-Lyme arthritis in the knees and other large joints for around 60 percent of patients.
An Elusive Illness
Although well known, many things about Lyme disease make it difficult to diagnose and treat. Aside from the rash, which may appear in a hard-to-spot location or not form at all, initial symptoms are indistinguishable from other infections, and many patients don’t get treatment until the bacteria have spread. Additionally, the test used to identify Lyme-causing bacteria in the blood “can be negative for the first few weeks of infection before it turns positive. This is a very difficult illness to study,” explains Dr. Aucott.
Even after successful treatment, around one in 10 patients will experience symptoms that last for weeks, months or even longer. This is often colloquially called “chronic Lyme disease,” although Dr. Aucott prefers the more precise term post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS) to describe the symptoms, which include fatigue, musculoskeletal pain and trouble concentrating. Discovering the causes of PTLDS is one of the primary goals of the Lyme Disease Research Center, which was formally established in 2015 after eight years of research by Dr. Aucott and his partner, Mark Soloski, M.D.
Harris’s symptoms were severe enough for a clear diagnosis. Dr. Aucott immediately started him on an antibiotic treatment plan, then gave Harris his phone number. “He told me it was going to get worse before it got better,” remembers Harris. “I had no idea what I was going to face.” The Johns Hopkins professor recalls driving back from teaching an evening class in Washington, D.C.,with a 102-degree fever, and “spending the night feeling like I was dying.” After taking antibiotics for a month, he felt better for another few weeks, but soon the symptoms returned. “I was feeling horrible again. I’m a pretty upbeat, happy person, but I felt a sense of powerful depression, and I didn’t understand why.” Dr. Aucott explained that Lyme disease can cause neurological symptoms, including depression, and they agreed on a second round of treatment. After another month of antibiotics, says Harris, “I ultimately got through.”
Despite the months of pain and fatigue, Harris thinks he was lucky. “To think something as small as a tick can cause you that much debilitating pain is pretty scary. I was blessed to have such a leading authority on Lyme disease to walk me through the process.” A year after his recovery, Harris celebrated by running a 10-mile race in Washington, D.C., and has since kept his life full teaching, helping with Johns Hopkins University baseball team practices, and spending time with his wife and two daughters.
If your primary care provider has diagnosed you with Lyme disease, they can request a consultation with the Johns Hopkins Lyme Disease Research Center at 410-616-7596.