Two months ago, Ottawa high-school teacher Julia Brown* was a healthy woman enjoying a summer day at a riverside cottage. Yet a bite from a tick nearly took her life. But it was not Lyme disease; it was something worse.
Brown and her family were visiting a friends’ cottage on the waterfront in the south of Luskville, along Ch. Pins on Black Bay in mid-August.
“A couple of days after I got home, I noticed a tick on my shoulder,” she recalls. “We were not in long grass, we were down by the water, but it’s pretty much clear. We walked a lot but along the cottage roads in an established environment. My husband took [the tick] out and we went to the doctor; they gave me a single dose of antibiotics, which is the common dose for a tick. They can give you that one dose or the full regime which is pretty heavy duty. I did due diligence, I took the one dose. My doctor and the doctors at the Family Medicine clinic, they all felt that the chances the chances of infection were very slight; they kind of minimized it.”
Two weeks later, Brown and her husband and were in BC when the location of the bite turned bright red, becoming the size of a quarter. “I went again to a doctor and she called someone in charge of infectious medicine in Ottawa,” Brown said. “That doctor also said there was nothing really to be concerned about. With Lyme, it [the reacting area] is like a bull’s eye, but this was like a quarter.”
Days later, in Kelowna, Brown became violently ill with vomiting and a very high fever. The couple assumed it was a bad case of the flu but, after three days, Brown’s husband went to a pharmacist, who advised they go to hospital. The next day, Brown was in intensive care with encephalitis [inflammation of the brain] and lung clots, fighting for her life. “I was in and out of consciousness for three or four days,” she admits. “They thought I would not make it. But because I was really healthy, I did.”
Initially the medical team thought the illness was Lyme disease from the tick bite and gave heavy antibiotic doses that would treat Lyme. But the Powassen virus is not bacterial and therefore antibiotics have no effect. Rare in Canada, the virus got its name after a Powassan, Ont., where it was first diagnosed in the 1950s.
According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the disease takes the form of infection and inflammation of the brain, either encephalitis or meningitis. A tick bite is considered the major, possibly the only, significant route of exposure for people. The likelihood of contracting Powassan is much lower than Lyme disease, which the CDC says impacts 300,000 people every year. Unlike Lyme, the amount of time within which the tick can be removed before infection from the Powassen virus occurs is far shorter.
“Within 15 minutes of being bitten, it’s game over; there is nothing to be done, you have to live through it,” says Brown.
She was eventually air-lifted to Ottawa, spending a week in the Civic Hospital and is now staying at the Élisabeth Bruyère Hospital for ongoing rehabilitation.
“It’s like I had a stroke,” Brown continued. “In Élisabeth Bruyère, I am on the stroke ward and everyone else has had a stroke but me. My face is drooping, my left hand is […] almost non-functional. The cause is not the same as a stroke, but the way it has manifested is like a stroke. The result is I can’t walk, I’m in a wheelchair. I have very little use of my arms, they are very weak. I can’t dress myself, I can’t toilet myself, but I am beginning to be able to feed myself. Things are starting to improve. I’m optimistic that I will walk again, as my legs were less involved than my upper body.”
Brown is now undergoing seven weeks of physiotherapy and occupational therapy.
“I can speak well and I can’t tell you how grateful I am for that,” she said. “I could have been a quadriplegic; I could have lost intellectual functioning. Because of the encephalitis, there is actually brain damage, brain trauma. There is still a question of what I will regain. But I was in good shape, and I credit that for being alive: good muscles, good tone, all of which I Iost. I lost 20 pounds. I can’t scratch my head; my arms won’t go up that far.”
The region of the riverfront in Luskville where the virus was contracted.
The tick that bit Brown had been sent to a lab in Winnipeg to be analysed for Lyme, with an expected wait time of six weeks. “I knew that the tick could tell if it was infected. I don’t know how I knew this, but I knew to bring it with us when we went - we just put it in a plastic bag and brought it to the doctors.”
When Brown became seriously ill in Kelowna, it was still in the queue. The sample was fast-tracked and was eventually identified as carrying the Powassen virus.
Brown is determined that the tale of her near-death experience can serve as a warning for others living along the river’s edge in the Luskville area.
“I am eager for the story to get out there; it really needs to be common knowledge that there is something deadly out there, something anyone could get. I was fully dressed. I don’t handle the sun well [so] I was pretty well suited up with long pants, long shirt. And yet it was on my shoulder. My grandson was at the cottage and he’s ten; it was lucky it was me and not him. In this case [with Powassen], there is no reprieve; you get bitten, you’re done.”
A tick can be a small as a sesame seed. This is a grain of wheat. So it's a lot smaller than this.
Prevention is obviously the best course of action here.
The CDC suggests you check these parts of your body for ticks after spending time outside: under the arms, in and around the ears, inside the navel, the back of the knees, in and around the hair, between the legs and around the waist. So, basically everywhere. Also check your pets.
To remove a tick, use fine-tipped tweezers to grab it as close to the surface of the skin as possible. Pull upward with steady even pressure, trying not to gag too much. Thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub, or soap and water.
As we have just learned, KEEP THE TICK. Put it in a small, well-sealed container or something.
* Not her real name; withheld by request. Our sincere thanks for this important story.