Delayed Diagnosis: The Cost of Missing Lyme Disease

By Grace Burns


My knees buckled beneath the weight of my malnourished adolescent frame. Cold, dripping sweat met its match on the tile floor. Every ounce of strength I had cried out to my parents for help. I didn’t stay conscious long enough to realize they raced up the stairs at the sound of my fall, as if on command.

The year was 2018. Losing consciousness was among the everyday occurrences in my middle-class household in suburban West Hartford, Connecticut. Life had been this way since July 5, 2017, just days before my 17th birthday, when my legs went fully numb during a run.

Not until I was almost 20 years old was I diagnosed with chronic and neurological Lyme disease — 16 strains of it, to be precise.

I blame this delay in diagnosis on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s refusal to recognize and legitimize chronic Lyme disease. Whereas many patients with Lyme disease can recover after two to four weeks of antibiotics, others, like me, suffer long-term side effects, and no one knows why.

Medical System Malfunction

This lack of understanding makes it difficult for any medical professional to treat me in a Lyme-specific manner. Doctors are often reluctant to acknowledge Lyme as a possible diagnosis and are not sufficiently informed to identify symptoms.

Lyme disease is caused by a bacteria that’s spread through tick bites. If left untreated, the bacteria can affect a person’s joints, heart, and nervous system.

Tests for Lyme disease are unreliable, often producing negative results despite patients later discovering they carry upwards of 5, 10, or 16 strains of Lyme-causing bacteria. There is no proven “cure” or treatment plan for chronic Lyme disease. Stringent criteria are required by the CDC to be diagnosed with the disease, and patients are often passed off to other autoimmune or psychiatric diagnoses.

During my three-year journey, 20 different doctors in hospitals across the country saw my case. I missed 61 days of my senior year of high school and stayed at a local college upon graduation to accommodate consistent care. My symptoms included fevers of 103 to 104 degrees, fainting, loss of nerve function in X, muscle atrophy, arthritis, nausea, migraines, brain fog, an inability to walk, appetite loss, and sores over my skin and mouth, among a host of others. These symptoms were misdiagnosed as leukemia, Crohn’s disease, generalized anxiety disorder, lupus, diabetes, and “hormonal changes.”

Misguided attempts of cycles of steroids and antibiotics did more harm than good to my immune system; I was taking 24 different medications every single day. I wore an electric muscle stimulator under my school clothes in an attempt to generate nerve responses, and would leave most classes I attended to throw up in the bathroom, either from pain or medication rejection.

The lack of care caused me to fall into suicidal depression, a common side effect of undiagnosed chronic illnesses. While my parents schlepped me through a revolving door of therapists and even to join a support group for patients of chronic illness, my social circles and medical professionals alike invalidated my pain.

During a defeating trip to Boston Children’s Hospital, the head of the infectious disease unit told my family, “We don’t see anything alarming in your testing…There seems to be nothing wrong. There is nothing we can do for you. This might just be something your child has made up in her head.”

But as my symptoms persisted, so did my fight.

The True Cost of Missed Diagnosis

In January 2019, my mother received a call that we had been accepted (after submitting various personal references and joining a waiting list) into a private Lyme facility in Wilton, Connecticut. Dr. Steven Phillips’ office sat in one of the wealthiest counties in the United States and serviced equally wealthy clientele.

I watched my mother, a third-grade public school teacher, play credit card roulette to pay the $800 out-of-pocket fee for each visit. While she didn’t bat an eye, I was inundated with guilt. We, like most American families, didn’t have the thousands of dollars to pay for treatments that I needed each month. For most families of Lyme victims, the staggering financial burden is a preeminent barrier to respite. As of today, it is the stance of the health insurance industry that chronic Lyme disease essentially does not exist. Insurance companies are not obligated to cover the treatment of chronic Lyme disease, according to the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

With extensive blood testing, Dr. Phillips finally diagnosed me with Lyme disease, after I had suffered in silence for three years.

Immediately, I began rounds of treatment. An amalgamation of antibiotic rounds, low-dose naltrexone, a strict diet, anti-virals, a robust supplement regimen, and anti-anxiety medication, among others, comprised my daily cocktail for the following three years. Treatment, therapy, and turning to alternative methods like magnet therapy, acupuncture, and Reiki paved my way to recovery.

After seven years of fighting Lyme disease, I am now a financial analyst on Wall Street, a master’s student at Columbia University, and training for a marathon — far from the tiled floors of my childhood bathroom. My parents have managed to stay financially afloat, and I can manage my persistent symptoms on a day-to-day basis with the aid of privatized care.

However, I will never get back the years that I lost to Lyme. If medical professionals were adequately informed of the gravity and scope of the disease, I could have been alleviated from years of suffering.

My case is not singular. According to the CDC, there are half a million cases of Lyme disease each year in the United States. Numbers continue to increase, and federal funding remains stagnant, with an average of about $60 of research funding being spent on each Lyme patient.

Lyme disease must receive sufficient funding and recognition by the CDC — to raise awareness, develop more accurate tests, and come up with more affordable and less haphazard treatment options. Only then can we alleviate the emotional, physical, and economic hardship placed on Lyme-afflicted families like mine.

Grace Burns is earning her master’s degree in Sustainability Management at Columbia University and works at S&P Global. This article is republished with permission from the Columbia Climate School’s “State of the Planet” website. Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute, or Columbia University.