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Column: Tick-borne walk-up call has one man wishing for winter

He was dying. He just knew it. Flat on his back on a bed in the intensive care unit in a hospital in Alexandria, Minn., hooked up to strange machines that measured just how fast, he kind of figured, his death was arriving.

His wife was there beside him. He kind of remembers telling her things like what to do about the farm, what needed doing, where things were, how to run the furnace, other odds and ends that seemed important (but in fact were not, all things considered).

Mostly, he remembers nurses draining blood from him by the gallon. They would walk into the room with a tray holding more glass vials than he could count, and proceed to cheerily fill every one of them. He had tractors that didn’t hold as much oil as they had taken.

The doctors didn’t know what was wrong with him. It didn’t look good. He was barely 50 years old. All this was like some kind of bad dream.

Just days ago he and his wife had been coming back from a trip. They were halfway home when he became ill in a diffuse, nothing-in-particular way, and barely was able to get the truck and trailer he was driving home. Maybe the flu, he told me, although it sure didn’t feel like it. He kept getting worse, to the point that later that evening he just looked at his wife, L., and said: “Take me to the ER.”

When a man says that, something is definitely wrong.

The doctors weren’t sure; diagnosed it as some kind of pneumonia, gave him antibiotics and sent him home. The next day he continued to feel worse. And worse. And worse.

“Take me back,” he said, and she did.

This time, they admitted him to the hospital, and began to take blood samples in earnest, none of which seemed to point in any direction.

He worsened. And that’s how he ended up in one of the ICUs, talking to his wife, thinking about the unthinkable.

“I was dying,” he told me later. “I knew it.”

Then a doctor down at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., a blood specialist who was examining one of the many samples he had given, pointed the Alexandria doctors at the possibility of a rare tick-borne disease, rare to the point of only a few cases of which he was aware in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

“L. took a weird black-legged wood tick from my back a week or so ago,” he told me later.

(Yes, he lived.)

She threw it away, after both of them remarking how it was larger than most common ticks.

Most of us have heard and are wary of Lyme disease, which is carried by ticks. Then there’s Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, which ticks also carry. But this tick carried anaplasmosis, which responds favorably to only one particular antibiotic, which they immediately put him on.

“Every day for two weeks,” he said as he was telling me this story, “I’d get up and remark how I was back to normal.”

Until the next day, when he felt even “more” normal.

The story gets better. L. is talking to a nurse while all this is going on. The nurse was focused on a case of rabies that someone had gotten from a bat. There were two small puncture marks, she remarked.

Well. He had awakened a week or so ago with a bat in the house and two small puncture marks on his arm. Just to add insult to injury, after he began to respond to the antibiotic, he had to go through the rabies shot sequence.

All is well. I Googled anaplasmosis, and what he called the black legged wood tick is in fact a deer tick. They’re not all small. Some of them are larger than normal.


Winter is looking better and better.