Lyme disease often mimics other ailments

May 02, 2004|by WANDA T. WILLIAMS

WILLIAMSPORT - Gary Finster thought he was having a stroke.

In late August 2002, the 51-year-old Williamsport resident was traveling on Interstate 81 on his way to visit a client in Chambersburg, Pa.

"All of a sudden, the whole left side of my face just went numb," Finster said. "I lost control and I couldn't close my eyes. I couldn't blink my eyes. I couldn't talk and I was drooling out of the side of my mouth."

Finster drove himself to Washington County Hospital's emergency room, where Dr. George Long asked him to "try and make a full smile," he said.


"The right side of my mouth went up, and there was no reaction from the left side," Finster said.

Thirty minutes following his arrival, Long broke the news - Finster had Lyme disease.

"It was just like that," said Finster, who had been through a series of medical tests in the weeks prior to going to the emergency room. He had been trying to find a reason for the sudden onset of debilitating headaches, insomnia and extreme fatigue. Doctors had been unable to find a cause, he said.

"We did a test for Lyme disease on him and it was positive," Long said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site, Lyme disease is spread by bacteria transmitted to humans and other warm-blooded mammals through the bite of an infected black-legged tick, also known as a deer tick. The disease's symptoms include a red rash on the back that resembles the shape of a bull's eye, fever, arthritis in lower joints and neurologic manifestations such as facial palsy.

However, symptoms can vary and patients with dark skin may not notice the bull's eye rash, Long said.

Finster said he never experienced joint symptoms and doesn't recall a rash on his back or a tick bite. His only symptoms were severe headaches, a twitch in his left eyelid and constant fatigue.

"The twitch in his eyelid was a facial paralysis symptom called Bell's palsy," Long said.

The constant fatigue was hard for Finster.

"No matter how much sleep I got, I never felt rested," Finster said. "I'd walk my subdivision at night unable to go to sleep. Life was terrible."

Long reported Finster's positive Lyme results to Dr. David Heydrick of Frederick, Md., who was treating Finster for migraine cluster headaches. Heydrick prescribed an intravenous antibiotic administered at home by Finster's wife Pam, a registered nurse. Within a few days, Finster said his headaches and symptoms subsided.

Lyme disease mimics several illnesses, said Dr. Dino J. Delaportas, chief of staff at Washington County Hospital.

"It's like putting together pieces of a puzzle," he said. "Just because one physician misses it doesn't mean he or she is not competent. Especially in cases where symptoms are nonspecific."

People exposed to areas with high black-legged tick populations should perform routine tick checks in their hair and other body parts when ticks are active outdoors. The CDC offers several tips to help avoid Lyme infection at

Finster's house borders a black-legged tick infested area near the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal in Williamsport.

Long said Lyme disease also can produce heart problems, and arthritic symptoms can appear six to eight months after an infectious tick bite with no other symptoms occurring. That is why Finster wants to share his story.

"I don't want anyone else to suffer like I did," he said. "I thought I had a brain tumor or something. Getting the word out will help raise awareness."

Finster said the only lasting symptom is a slight numbness on the left side of his face.

His dog, Buffy, also has been diagnosed with Lyme disease, according to Hagerstown veterinarian Ben Byers. Buffy, who didn't present any symptoms, first was diagnosed last spring. The dog is undergoing a second round of treatment for Lyme disease.

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