WILLIE RAWLS JR., 50, survived Lyme disease, but it was so much more than a tick bite by the time it was discovered. Cross-country truck driver by trade, his job kept him mostly removed from the outdoors. In May of 2011, Willie was working pulling refrigerated trucks cross-country.
Nearing the end of a haul from California to Pennsylvania, Willie misjudged how far his fuel would take him. “I was trying to make it to a certain truck stop, and I ran out of fuel on the turnpike. I called a tow truck to pick me up, not knowing this tow truck driver had just pulled a big truck out of a wooded area, and he had been covered in ticks.”
The New England area is notorious for a dense population of black-legged ticks. In 1975 a study was done to determine why so many children in Lyme, CT and two neighboring towns were being diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, and the city became the namesake of the newly discovered disease.
Willie watched the tow truck operator pull tick after tick off himself, not knowing the ticks would later affect him. “Once they were done repairing my truck, I picked up and went back to California, and I didn’t know I was carrying a tick that whole time.” Two days later he laid down to sleep and felt a tiny wiggling bump on his back. “I popped it with my thumb, and it was full of blood—no bigger than a sesame seed.”
It took three months to notice any symptoms. His usual long-haul schedule became grueling, and fatigue and heart palpitations (Lyme carditis) required him to make frequent breaks. Joint pain, shortness of breath, and flu-like symptoms began at six months, followed by loss of appetite and weakness. It eventually became difficult to walk.
“I was in Hayward, CA, and I stopped in the ER. They said my vitals were fine, but my heart felt like it was about to jump out of my chest.” Later, in Arkansas, he pulled over and was taken by ambulance to Methodist University hospital, where the undiagnosed Lyme symptoms with a co-infection appeared to be a heart attack. Palpitations threw off the EKG, but bloodwork was normal. One of the doctors didn’t know why Willie complained of chest pain. Another doctor said, “You have good insurance, let’s put a stent in, it’s not going to hurt him.”
For Willie it was emotionally upsetting, and every doctor told him it was all in his head or that his issues stemmed from stress. “I live downtown on the river, life is good, I have a truck,” says Willie.
Lying in bed, experiencing seizure-like spasms and full-body pain, Willie said to himself, “‘I’m dying. I’ve got to find somebody who knows what’s going on with me.’” He was active to his own recovery and went online, finding Lesley Ann Fein, MD, in Caldwell, NJ. She was a rheumatologist who specialized in Lyme disease and chronic infections—all of which fit his symptoms.
“Maintaining my health means conventional as well as herbal medicine and a good clean diet. Food heals the body.“
He drove from Memphis and passed out in the waiting room in New Jersey. While he was hospitalized, Dr. Fein told Willie there were angels watching over him and if had he not come, he would have likely died in a few months. With a heavy dose of antibiotics, Willie noticed a difference in his pain and energy levels within two weeks, Years later, he has regained the ability to walk through physical therapy. Regular workouts keep him strong enough to fight the chronic infections related to his Lyme disease. A combination of homeopathic and modern medicine treats symptoms and keeps infection mostly in check, but he still experiences flare-ups.
Willie credits diet as well as medicine for his recovery. “I’ve met people who have made a turnaround and are completely healed from it, but it’s trial and error. Maintaining my health means conventional as well as herbal medicine and a good clean diet. Food heals the body. For me, I’m still going through it, and I believe the Lyme disease can be cured. You have to fight and find what works for you. With Lyme disease, there’s no one silver bullet. They say that antibiotics will get rid of it, but I went a whole year and a half being undiagnosed.”
By Robin Beaudoin. Photo by Sarah McAlexander.