Yet Another Tick-Related Golf-Ruiner

Penny (left) and golf-antagonistic arachnid

I felt increasingly tired and achy, and several times at night I’d wake up in a sweat, then get the chills. I’ve tried to be really careful about ticks—and I’d managed to avoid tick-borne illnesses for eleven years, after missing my daughter’s college graduation with Lyme and ehrlichiosis—but my symptoms felt depressingly familiar. My doctor agreed, and put me on Doxycycline, the preferred Lyme antibiotic, without waiting for the results of the blood test.

People often say that once you’ve had Lyme you’ll always test positive, but that’s not true. Lyme antibodies can remain in the blood for months after treatment, and in some cases for a few years. But they eventually disappear. And, in fact, when my test results came back they were negative for both Lyme and ehrlichiosis. But they were positive for babesiosis, which the New York Department of Health describes as “a rare, severe and sometimes fatal tick-borne disease.” WTF!

Babesiosis is caused by a parasite that attacks red blood cells, and is therefore similar to malaria. My friend Ed was hospitalized with it a couple of years ago, and was very seriously ill, but sometimes it’s so mild as to be symptom-free, or virtually symptom-free, and in those cases the Centers for Disease Control recommends doing nothing but paying close attention. (The treatment is semi-nasty, and different from the one for Lyme.) Anyway, my doctor decided that I probably have Lyme, too, even though it hadn’t shown up in the blood test yet—you can get a full banquet of tick diseases from a single bite—and that I should complete my three-week course of Doxycycline. That means playing golf in long sleeves, long pants, a huge hat, and lots of sunscreen, because Doxycycline makes your skin extremely sensitive to the sun. In fact, Gene’s daughter once went skiing while taking it, and high-altitude solar exposure caused the whites of her eyes to temporarily turn brown.

On the other hand, I’ve had four of my best rounds of the year since I started taking the pills.

Reese in Doxycycline-driven golf gear, July 10, 2015.

Lyme Disease Central: Report From the Field

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Hacker (real name), David W., and Peter A.’s wife, Denise, have Lyme disease, and Reese has ehrlichiosis, which my wife and I both had several years ago and which can be thought of as Lyme disease delivered by sledge hammer. (You can get Lyme and ehrlichiosis from the same tick bite, as I did—a nasty combination.) The standard treatment for both diseases is the antibiotic doxycycline; all three are taking it.

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When you’re being treated for Lyme, you have to be extra careful about the sun, because doxycycline can make your skin extremely vulnerable to burning. Gene P.’s daughter once went skiing while she was taking it, and even though she wore tinted goggles the sun made the whites of her eyes turn brown. They stayed that way for a few days, too. Reese played golf while he was in treatment—what else was he supposed to do?—but he was careful to wear lots of sunscreen, and he covered up everything he could bear to cover up:

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Appropriately, I guess, we declared last Sunday Lip Balm Day, because the people who make Golfersskin, the official sunscreen of the Sunday Morning Group, had sent us a bunch of tubes to try:

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I got careless about sunscreen during one of my bouts with Lyme, because it was mid-October and I wasn’t thinking about the sun, and midway through a round of golf I suddenly felt as though my lips had burned off. Never again. Here’s Stanley, who is also a veteran of both Lyme and ehrlichiosis, putting some Golfersskin on, even though it looks like he’s just pulling on his lip:

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We had to tee off at 6:30 on Lip Balm Day—an hour early—because our club had created a new event, called Family Day, to encourage more people to become interested in golf, and had scheduled it for 10:00. That was annoying. Still, there were just sixteen of us and more than seventy of them, and getting home earlier than usual turned out to be a good thing because if you fall asleep before noon you’re not taking a nap—you’re just going back to bed. Here are the people who showed up for Family Day:

P1160263It’s never too early to teach golf etiquette. The thing we emphasized to the kids is that, if they serve themselves from the Sunday Morning Group’s kegerator, in the storeroom next to the men’s locker room, they need to leave two dollars in the beer-money box. You would not believe how many people “forget” to do that.

Blood-sucking Arachnids and Golfers’ Legs

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 bugs.

Then I gasped: Quite a few of those freckles were tiny bugs. 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 (in order 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 in my part of the country—especially for those of us who occasionally venture beyond closely mown 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, in 2006 I did come down with Lyme, for the third time in ten years. (I’ve had it once more since then, and so has my dog.) 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 began taking the pills immediately, 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 is like Lyme delivered by sledge hammer. It is possible to get Lyme 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, twenty 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?”

Two great things about about links golf in the British Isles and Ireland: hardly any lightning and no Lyme-bearing ticks. In 2008, eight friends from home and I spent a week playing golf in Scotland. Toward the end of the trip, Stanley suddenly got the sweats and felt lousy. He knew it was Lyme—he’s had it more often than I have—so he went to the medical clinic just down the road from Cruden Bay Golf Club. The doctor there had heard about Lyme but never seen a case. He looked it up in a book, agreed that Stanley’s symptoms matched the description, and prescribed doxycycline—no charge for the visit or the pills. It was Stanley’s seventieth birthday, so we all pitched in and got him a caddie. That’s Stanley below, on the mend at Cruden Bay, holding a birthday balloon that we also gave him. (We found it in a trash can.) Hey, what are golf buddies for?

Stanley, Cruden Bay Golf Club, Scotland, 2008.