The joys of Lyme disease

June 23, 2008

The summer before last, I was sitting on a bench on a golf course on Martha's Vineyard, waiting for the slowpokes ahead of me to putt out and passing the time by admiring the sharply demarcated tan lines around my ankles. As is the case with many avid golfers, in high summer I appear to be wearing white socks even when I'm barefoot. ("Your feet look like replacement parts," a non-player told me once. "Too bad they didn't have them in your color.") For variety, I also studied my shins and marveled that so many of my freckles resembled tiny insects.

Then I gasped: Quite a few of those freckles were tiny insects. Even without my bifocals, I could tell that they were deer ticks, at least a dozen of them on each leg. About an hour before, I had waded into a patch of tall grass (to take a whiz), and the ticks must have ambushed me there. I carefully removed all of them before teeing off and made a mental note to add a pair of tweezers to my golf bag.

Lyme disease, which is transmitted by tick bites, is a significant hazard for golfers -- especially for those of us who occasionally venture beyond closely mowed areas, seldom play in long pants tucked into socks and sometimes forget to bathe in DEET. I didn't get sick that time -- deer ticks usually can't infect you unless they're embedded for a day or two -- but the experience reminded me to be more careful.

Nevertheless, last spring I did come down with Lyme, for the third time in 10 years. Because I'm a veteran, I recognized the symptoms right away: flu-like aches and pains, throbbing head, a hip that hurt every time I swung a club. My doctor, whose handicap is 14, prescribed an antibiotic, even though neither of us could find evidence of a bite. I immediately took the pills but still got so sick that I had to miss not only a week's worth of golf but also my daughter's college graduation. A blood test later proved that I'd had both Lyme and ehrlichiosis, another tick-borne disease, which might be described as Lyme delivered by a sledgehammer. It is possible to get Lyme disease and ehrlichiosis from the same tick bite, as I probably did -- most likely while playing golf.

While my daughter was receiving her diploma, I was shivering in bed at home. I felt so ill that I called my wife and told her that I was going to check myself into the hospital. She called my regular golf buddy, Bill, who drove over immediately and took me back to his house instead. Bill's wife, Martha -- who introduced me to golf 16 years ago by taking me out for nine holes -- is a registered nurse. She gave me orange Jell-O and a Popsicle, and Bill made me white toast cut into star shapes. That night, they put me to bed in their son's old room, and the next morning I felt well enough to go home. When I thanked them for taking such good care of me, Bill said, "Hey, what are golf buddies for?"