Ehrlichiosis: It's a Thing, I Promise

I recently spoke out about my dad’s pet tick Omar.  (I love using phrases like “spoke out about” when it comes to my dad’s antics; it makes me feel like a real celebrity who exaggerates trauma for book sales.)

It was traumatic, but speaking out about Omar reminded me of the time in high school that I almost died from a tick disease, which was called—and I swear I’m not making this up; who could possibly make this up?—ehrlichiosis.

I don’t know if you know this about me, but my four siblings and I were raised by my dad because my mom was too busy gallivanting around small town farm animal swap meets, buying goats to use as lawn mowers after guzzling Bud Lights all day (true story; we’ll delve into that in another post) with random boyfriends she’d met at her job at the chicken plant after she left my dad.  That lady was livin’ the dream.  Who could blame her?

In any case, my dad is and always has been a really good dad, so he more than made up for us not having a mom around.  But the summer that I ended up on my death bed through no fault of my own, he happened to be out of town for a few weeks completing a continuing education course in Texas.  This was before cell phones, so we only talked to him sporadically during that time, and he didn’t realize how very sick I had become back home in Missouri in the weeks since I had come down with what we had all mistakenly thought was just a summer fever.

My older sister worked the night shift training to be a nurse and had a serious boyfriend, so she was busy that summer, but she came by the house to check on me daily.  One afternoon she brought me a cup of water and was horrified as she watched me struggle to raise my head an inch off the pillow, take a difficult swallow, and then puke it right back up: my body had become so dehydrated that I couldn’t keep it down.  “I’m taking you to the hospital,” she announced firmly.

I was so sick that a trip to the hospital didn’t even scare 16-year-old me, who was not only young but also very naïve for my age.  I ambled through life wearing rose-colored glasses, stopping and smelling every rose as the world carried on around me.  It was actually a pretty great way to live…except when doctors shock that naivety right out of you when they tell you that you'll be getting a catheter.

(My sister gasped, so I turned to her.  “What’s that?” I asked.  “Like a really big pill?")

Anyway, at the time I didn’t realize the implications of being so sick that my body was rejecting water; I just knew that the hospital sounded like a welcome reprieve from what I had been experiencing. As did death.  At one point during the 15-minute drive there, I turned my head and looked at my sister from the passenger seat.  My eyes were glazed over.  “I think,” I rasped out, trying to lick my crusted lips with my thick, sticky tongue, “that God is calling me home.”

Then my head swung back the other way and my eyes rolled into my head.

My sister floored the gas.

We laugh about it now even though we were both pretty scared on that car ride to the hospital.

When we arrived, my older sister said she realized stuff was pretty serious when they took one look at me, grabbed a wheelchair, and rolled me into a room to urgently begin running tests.  She stayed behind to give my information for processing. I don’t remember that part.

The first pretty lucid memory I have after they’d pumped some IV fluids into me and I’d regained some consciousness was when a nurse was changing my IV bag.  "Am I going to die?" I asked her.

"We don't know yet," she replied, flicking her eyes in my direction. 

My older sister was in the room and I saw her jaw drop, and I would later find out that she made a formal complaint to the hospital about that nurse's horrible bedside manner.  In the nurse's defense--as one of the doctors later explained to my sister--I was 24 hours from my organs completely shutting down and so they weren't actually sure if I was going to die or not.  What did my sister want that nurse to do...lie?

But still.

Alas, the nurse's response is the gift that keeps on giving. My sister hasn't stopped telling that story to her fellow nurse friends for the last 30 years. It always gets a shocked, disbelieving chuckle.

When they finally figured out what was wrong with me, the doctor told me the name of my tick-borne illness:  ehrlichiosis.  Pronounced ear-lick-iosis.

“Ear-lick-what?” I asked, furrowing my brow because that used to sometimes help me understand things.

“Ear-lick-iosis,” he responded in that no-nonsense way some doctors have.

I turned my head toward him, hair matted to my pillow with sweat, eyes still a bit glazed from fever. “Ear-lick-iosis?” I whispered.  “Who’s the one responsible for coming up with names for diseases around here?  Couldn’t you have given me something cooler--or at least easier to say?  I mean, I’m glad it’s not AIDS or anything, but ear-lick-iosis?”

I’m pretty sure I saw the corner of the doctor’s mouth twitch a little bit, but I think it was a pretty fair complaint.

This was back in the 90’s when the government had scared innocent children into believing that they could get AIDS from doing things like drinking out of a cup. I’m Catholic and drank the wine after Lord-knows-how-many parishioners. Little 11-year-old me used to wake up in a cold sweat shaking in the middle of the night: What if the wine chalice gave me AIDS?  How would I ever get a boyfriend or live a normal life?

Thank GOODNESS they started wiping the wine chalices down with those little white cloths between every sip so we could at least prevent the rampant spread of AIDS in our own small community of church-going farmers.

In any case, there was no way the 16-year-old dork me who had landed in the hospital was getting AIDS, either, unless you could get it from wearing your orthodontist-prescribed headgear or cracking open a Chemistry book.

But a tick-borne illness was almost harder to believe.  I love the outdoors now, but it’s definitely been more of an acquired-taste thing for me.  When I was 16, I wasn’t going outside (ew). Could the tick have possibly caught a ride inside my house by hiding between the pages of a book, then crawled onto my sheets and cozied into my thigh as I was holed up in my bedroom reading?

That’s more the type of kid I was. 

Anyway, ehrlichiosis it was.  Life is so unfair sometimes. 

I remember seeing my older sister smile both with pity and amusement over the rage I had expressed—albeit in my tired, weak way—about the unfortunate name of my illness just before I passed out again, and it made me glad because I was pretty sure I going to die soon and at least I had made someone laugh during my final moments.

Ehrilichiosis landed me in the hospital for a solid two weeks, during which I was slipping in and out of consciousness because my fever was so high and simply wouldn’t stay broken.  During the times when I was more aware, my dad would call the hospital and they’d put the phone to my ear so he could deliver nuggets of encouragement and wisdom all the way from Texas like this one, which, in all of its absolute stupidity, has been repeated so much that it’s become family legend:  “You’re making yourself sick.  You’re thinking about it too much. Think of rainbows and dresses instead.”

I’m not sure how easy it is to think of anything else but your illness as your body is regurgitating water into the nearest bed pan because that’s the only thing they can find to catch it in time.  But I didn’t bother explaining that to my dad. He was only trying to help.  So instead, between waves of water puke, I managed to choke out the words “I hope you flunk all of your exams” before hanging up on him.

“Ehrlichiosis” is one of those words like “ramekin”…you’ve probably never heard the word before in your life until this moment, but from now on, you’ll hear it all the time.  That’s what’s happened to my family and me over the last 30 years.  Recently my dad reminded me of an article that had come out several years ago, just after I’d recovered from my case of ehrlichiosis. It didn’t give my name, but apparently I was the first recorded case of adolescent ehrlichiosis in Missouri.  I’m basically famous, and I didn’t even have to pad my celebrity memoir with trauma to make it real.

And about a year ago, my husband came back from the vet with our dog, Noodles, chuckling.  Turns out dogs can get the disease, too, but it’s not as serious in animals as it is in humans, so we were just supposed to watch Noodles for “any slight changes in behavior” that made it look like he was feeling uncomfortable.

So basically I got a dog disease, and that’s really great. 

Nobody makes fun of me for that at all.


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