By Kim Walter
Vanessa Tracy is a 17-year-old rising senior who loves to laugh, dance and challenge herself academically. According to her mother, Theresa Tracy, Vanessa was never one to give up or lack motivation.
So in early April, when Vanessa began to complain of strange aches and pains, and would head straight to bed after a day at school, only to wake up the next morning and still feel tired, the family knew that something wasn't right.
"It started with this shooting pain in my arm," said Vanessa as she sat on the couch in her Woodstock home. "And then I got headaches, and my joints were sore and I just wanted to sleep all the time."
The Tracys decided to consult their family doctor, who suggested that the girl be tested for Lyme disease. After waiting three days, the test came back positive.
"Right away I thought, 'No way. I can't have Lyme disease,'" she said. "I never saw a tick on me or a bulls-eye rash."
Vanessa underwent a second phase of blood work to determine what system of her body was being most affected by the bacteria. Because of her neurological symptoms, the testing should've revealed another positive Lyme disease result in her nervous system.
However, it didn't, and doctors began questioning a Lyme disease diagnosis.
Tracy said she and her husband began taking Vanessa to a number of local specialists who focused on the types of symptoms she was having. However, none of the five doctors agreed that she was in fact suffering from the disease.
"We took her to all these specialists ... we had an EKG done to check her heart function, we were trying everything we could to get a diagnosis," Tracy said. "But the answer they were looking for wasn't Lyme."
Tracy said one doctor even suggested that Vanessa was making her symptoms up since her blood work wasn't corresponding with the way the girl claimed to feel. The mother refused to believe that, though, as she could see her daughter changing and her health declining with every passing day.
Vanessa was prescribed two antibiotics to treat her symptoms, but neither agreed with her body. If anything, she said the medicine made her feel worse.
The failed prescriptions frustrated Vanessa's mother, as she had figured that after taking the meds for a few days, her daughter would be back to normal. As Vanessa continued to get worse, Tracy felt the need for a diagnosis was the only answer.
"Her behavior, her mood, everything changed. She lost her smile," Tracy said. "It just wasn't Vanessa."
The family's hope was quickly diminishing, but they finally came across a Lyme disease specialist in Lexington after doing some research on the Internet.
Tracy said the moment the specialist saw Vanessa and took a quick scan of her skin and vitals, she knew the girl had Lyme disease.
"There was no question in her mind," Tracy said.
The specialist explained that something in Vanessa's genetic makeup likely would always make it impossible to match her blood work with the neurological symptoms she had. At that point, the focus wasn't on the discrepancies; it was on making Vanessa better.
Vanessa was prescribed two aggressive antibiotics, along with five supplements and a probiotic. Combined with the combative medication, the supplements would help boost Vanessa's immune system.
"It took about three weeks of taking the medicine before I really started to feel some relief," Vanessa said. "I went from constantly feeling terrible to only getting waves of symptoms every once in a while."
The student was grateful for the help -- after all, it was getting to be the end of the school year, and she had AP tests, projects and dance recitals to worry about. Her friends, family and teachers were all witness in the personality shift that took place.
"I was so worried that I had worked so hard to get to this point in school, and it would all be for nothing," she said. "I was starting to feel so bad that I almost didn't care about all the things I used to. And the worst part was that I couldn't control feeling that way."
Now, Vanessa takes 41 pills a day. She will have to remain on the schedule until she is completely symptom free for six weeks straight. Currently, she's gone two weeks without a problem.
But the specialist warned her that just because she was feeling better didn't mean the disease was gone. Vanessa knows that the symptoms can cycle back, and it could be months before she's truly done with treatment.
Even though the medications can seem a bit daunting, Tracy has tried to look on the bright side.
"The good thing is that Lyme is treatable, which is why it was so important that we got the diagnosis," she said. "And at least it's something that shows symptoms."
Through the whole ordeal, Tracy couldn't help but think about what she had experienced with Lyme disease. She said a family member had contracted it about 20 years ago, before much was known.
Because the relative went so long without a diagnosis or treatment, he is now permanently disabled.
"Of course I thought about that, but I refused to watch my Vanessa, a perfectly healthy person, just wither away," she said.
Thinking back, Vanessa can only remember one time in August 2012 that she noticed some kind of bite on the back her knee. She said she kept checking on it to see if a bulls eye rash developed. Her mother also looked for a fever or any other immediate symptoms.
Now knowing that the bacteria can take an extended period of time to take its toll, Vanessa encourages anyone who finds a tick or rash on them to get tested, especially if they develop symptoms. She said it's better to catch it early and treat it correctly.
She and her mom also wish the area had a Lyme disease or infectious disease specialist.
"I mean, we all know that Lyme is here," Tracy said. "And even people who do everything they're supposed to can still get it. It happens."
After all she's been through, Vanessa plans to carry out her summer as she normally would. At first, she was afraid to venture out into the woods and nature that surround her home, but she's gotten over it.
"I don't want to be scared to do things that I used to, and other people shouldn't be either," she said. "Right now, I just want other people to be aware, and do as much as they can to prevent getting Lyme disease."
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org