James L. Schaller, M.D.  •  239-263-0133


Lyme Disease in Florida

FLORIDA TODAY

CANAVERAL GROVES — Blair Huggins, dressed in only a tee shirt and a pair of silk swim shorts, glanced out the window of his Canaveral Groves home with a sullen look.

"I love my turkey hunting. I sure miss my turkey hunting," he said, shaking his head.

It was last Thursday, two days before the opening of central Florida's bowhunting season, and Huggins knew all too well that he won't be joining his friends in the woods this season. He hasn't been able to go hunting for almost two years, and for Huggins hunting is a way of life.

Peripheral neuropathy, a disorder of the peripheral nerves, causes severe burning sensations throughout Huggins' body. Anything other than lightweight clothing causes pain comparable to horrible sunburn. Except for trips to doctors and maybe the grocery store, Huggins doesn't leave his home.

The 41-year-old Huggins is a victim of Lyme disease, a bacterial infection that is transmitted primarily through the bite of ticks, usually the black-legged tick, also known as the deer tick. Lyme disease is one of about a dozen conditions that can cause the neuropathy.

Because of their exposure to woodlands, hunters are especially vulnerable to ticks, which pick up the disease from mice, deer and even some birds. The bacterial infection then is transmitted to humans by the bite of a bacteria-carrying tick.

Lyme disease was first described in the United States in Old Lyme, Conn. in 1975. Today it has been reported in most parts of the country, with at least 382 documented cases in Florida between 1990 and 1999. But many more cases are misdiagnosed, or unreported.

Huggins never will forget the morning in February 2000 when he discovered hundreds of pinhead-size ticks covering his body after returning from a spring turkey scouting trip at the Seminole Ranch Wildlife Management Area west of Titusville.

"I picked them off with tweezers, and didn't think much about it because I'd gotten into ticks before," Huggins said. "It's just part of hunting in Florida."

Within a couple days, a rash covered much of Huggins' body, and two weeks later he had a sore throat, headaches, fever, and aching muscles.

"I just assumed the ticks have come off some poison ivy or poison oak, and that produced the rash," he said, "and then I figured I'd gotten the flu."

Again, Huggins never gave any thought that a poison ivy-type rash is one of the telltale signs of Lyme disease, followed by flu-like symptoms. He never developed the "bull's-eye" rash around a bite area, which develops in many victims.

Years before, Huggins had leaned not to worry about the small problems in life. After all, he had survived a car crash in the summer of 1980, and a stroke during neurosurgery to remove a benign brain tumor in September 1989. Despite a partial paralysis of his right side from the stroke, and arthritis in his left arm from the car wreck, Huggins still managed to get into the woods. He hunted turkey for the most part, but also deer. During archery season he had a special permit to use a crossbow because he didn't have the strength to pull a compound bow. He also hunted with a muzzleloader, and during the general season with a rifle or shotgun.

Huggins was raised a hunter, in a family vested in hunting. His grandfather, the late Harvey Huggins of Melbourne who died in 1987 at the age of 84, was one of the state's best turkey hunters. His father, Bud Huggins of Deer Park, taught Blair to hunt turkey and deer as a boy. And Blair Huggins' wife, Annette, is an avid hunter. When hunting season rolls around, everyone in the Huggins family goes hunting.

For the next two years, Huggins' arthritis grew worse in his arm and also a foot, probably a result of the Lyme disease bacteria that he still didn't realize was in his body. Lyme disease is called "the Great Imposter" because it can have such a broad range of symptoms, which can be misdiagnosed, or else victims with less serious reactions simply don't seek treatment.

Huggins' arthritis got so bad that a doctor decided to treat him with steroids. But the steroids affected his immune system, allowing the peripheral neuropathy to develop. Huggins said he was feeling the effects within a month after starting the steroids.

"For many, neuropathy is a numbness or a tingling, but mine was more severe." Huggins said. "In a matter of weeks it spread to my legs and all over my body. My whole body felt like intense sunburn. Anything that touched me burned. I was constantly getting up, I couldn't sit, I couldn't lay down."

The 5-foot-9 Huggins lost 40 pounds, dropping to 122 pounds. But he still didn't relate the neuropathy to the ticks, the rash, and the flu like symptoms two years before.

"I was ignorant. I didn't think Lyme disease was in Florida," he said. Five weeks later, a neurologist prescribed an anti-depressant he said would help the nerve pain, and the doctor told Huggins he was suffering from a tick-borne virus that should get better.

But, Huggins had his doubts, and he started his own research of Lyme disease on the Internet.

"On Friday I had the doctor's appointment, and by Sunday I knew I had Lyme disease," he said emphatically. "All the symptoms I'd had were there. But most doctors don't believe there's Lyme disease in Florida."

A year ago this month, Huggins got the results of four special tests, and all came back positive.

"Mine were a lot positive," Huggins said, able to smile.

The tests also revealed that Huggins had a second tick disease known as babesiosis.

"Other tick diseases go hand-in-hand with Lyme," he said.

In addition to the burning sensation, Huggins also suffers from chest pains several times a week, and he has a loud ringing in his ears.

"It feels like a heart attack, and it'll last from 15 minutes to two hours. The ringing sounds like loud crickets, and loud noises bother me."

Presently, a Tampa doctor with a specialty in Lyme disease is treating Huggins, and there's been some progress.

"I'll have a few days when I feel better, but then it comes back hard again. But, we're trying," Huggins said.

Through it all, Huggins hasn't given up hope of returning to his beloved hunting sports, and he prides in the fact that he is able to teach hunting methods and techniques to some of the younger members of his family.

One of Huggins' proudest moments came on the opening morning of the spring gobbler season in March 2001 when he guided his 14-year-old nephew, Chad Stephens of West Melbourne, to an 18 1/2-pound gobbler. And, Stephens was on crutches at the time, following a basketball injury.

"I just keep hoping that with each new season I can go," Huggins said. "Last spring came and went, and I know I won't hunt this fall. Now I hope I can hunt next spring for gobblers.

"It's one of the things that just keeps me going."

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