SURREY — A Surrey woman who has been fighting Lyme disease for three years will speak at a conference in Ottawa next week that aims to educate medical practitioners on how to better help patients with this debilitating illness.
Linda Kilgallen, 50, was tending a garden on a 10-acre lot of land in Surrey, cleaning wisteria vines with a blower one October day three years ago when a bunch of bugs fell on her. She shook them off, and didn't give it a second thought.
That, she believes, was the incident that changed her life, and not for the better.
After she went to bed that night, her head became itchy. She felt like something was laying eggs.
The next day, she went to a walk-in medical clinic and asked them to check her out, she said, but the physician didn't look at her head.
"She patted my arm and said 'Sweetie, you're really stressed out. Go need to go take yourself a pill and a nap, and relax," Kilgallen said.
"She wrote me a prescription for what I called 'happy pills.' I never filled the prescription for happy pills. I don't need to take drugs."
"That was the beginning. Every two to three days was something completely bizarre."
Kilgallen said she was working as a road flagger at the time. "I was working great hours. One hundred and twenty eight hours in eight days, I did."
But she started feeling run down.
"It started with itchy feet, at two in the morning. Got up because it was so unbearable, I couldn't sleep. By five in the morning the itch had gone from my feet to about my waist. As soon as the clinic opened I went in, they wrote me up as 'patient is trying to remove skin from entire body' because I was literally standing there going like this," she said, feigning wild scratching.
"'Please, please, just make it stop, and I was bawling and clawing at myself," she said, re-living the moment.
"They thought I was a drug addict."
Six weeks and eight walk-in clinics later, a naturopath told her she had Lyme disease. She figures a female black-legged deer tick had lodged itself in her scalp, bit her and transmitted borrelia bacteria.
According to CanLyme (Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation) ticks pick up the bacteria by biting woodland animals like mice or deer and then pass in on to their humans hosts.
The symptoms of the disease are many and varied, making it difficult to diagnose.
"I would wake up in the middle of the night screaming in pain," Kilgallen said. "I went from being perfectly healthy to six weeks later I had a seizure, and couldn't walk and my hair fell out."
She said she now knows a lot of people stricken with Lyme disease but hadn't heard of it before contracting it herself.
"I had no idea," she said. "That much hair (lost) in one brushing, I thought I was going to die that day. That was the scariest day ever."
Kilgallen expressed frustration that some medical practioners not only don't know how to treat or diagnose Lyme disease, they don't believe it exists.
For her, the horror continues. Just last week Kilgallen spent seven hours in hospital. "Severe tremors and I puffed up and turned beet red," she said. "Fun times."
Kilgallen said her meds cost her a financially crippling $900 to $1,400 a month.
She has been invited to share her experience with the disease at Health Canada's Federal Framework on Lyme Disease Conference, being held in Ottawa from May 15 to 17.
"The government is sponsoring me. They're flying me and putting up my hotel."
May, she noted, is "the first official world-accepted Lyme Month."
The conference, according to Health Canada literature, aims to "develop a framework that will help prevent and reduce Lyme disease-related health risks to Canadians" and will focus on medical surveillance for tracking, standardizing educational material for Canadian public health providers to use, to increase national awareness of the disease and establish better guidelines for treatment, prevention, identification and management.
"I am hoping to help them know how to handle the disease," Kilgallen said, with tears. "I don't want anybody else to ever have to suffer through this. If they had looked at my head and found that tick, and if they believed in Lyme disease, five weeks of antibiotics and I would have been better. And now I don't even know what's going to happen."
MORE YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT LYME DISEASE
The number of reported cases of Lyme disease in Canada is growing, from 128 known cases in 2009 to 707 cases in 2015.
The federal government lays out the risks associated to contracting this malady, what its symptoms are, and the precautions you can take to avoid it, at healthycanadians.gc.ca
When it comes to transmission, blacklegged deer ticks, which unfortunately thrive in southern British Columbia, are the culprit. These disgusting creepy crawlies are dark reddish-brown, changing hues as they feed and are dark grey-brown when stuffed with blood. A fully fed tick is egg-shaped and about a centimetre long.
These ticks carry a type of bacteria called borrelia burgdorferi after feeding on infected wildlife like deer, birds, mice or squirrels. You might not even know you've been bitten because the ticks are so small and their bite is typically painless.
Some symptoms are fatigue, fever, chills, headaches, muscle and join pain, spasms, weakness, numbness or tingling, swollen lymph nodes, skin rashes, cognitive dysfunction, dizziness, nervous system disorders, arthritis, and heart palpitations. And, though not common, death.
It can be beat with two to four weeks of antibiotics if diagnosed early. Removing ticks within 24 to 36 hours usually prevents infection. Here's how it's done: Using clean tweezers, grapes the tick's head as close as possible to the skin and slowly pull it straight out. Then, wash the bite with soap and water or disinfect with alcohol, and hope for the best.
Outdoor enthusiasts — such as hunters, golfers, campers, fishermen and hikers — are most at risk of getting bit. The government recommends using insect repellents that contain DEET or Icaridin. But in town, some good ways to reduce tick habitats is to keep your lawn mowed, move woodpiles and bird feeders away from your home, keep your dogs and cats out of the woods, move children's swings and sandboxes away from any forest edge and trim tree branches and shrubs around your lawn edge to let in more sunlight.