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Life and living after Lyme disease

By Ciaran O’Donnell


It was back in June, 2013 that Karol Harvey first realised he was a bit off form. He’d just returned from a holiday in Spain with his partner, Anne Robinson.

Just before they headed abroad, he broke an ankle which saw him laid up in a cast at their home on High Road in Letterkenny.

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“I got this awful pain in my arm and soreness in my chest,” he recalls.

He was totally unaware that he was suffering from Lyme disease. It would take four-and-a-half years before he would be diagnosed with the illness.

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that is spread to humans by infected ticks. Ticks are small, spider-shaped creatures that feed on the blood of mammals, including humans. The most common symptom of Lyme disease is a red skin rash that looks similar to a bull’s eye on a dart board. Lyme disease is not a common infection. According to the HSE, between 50 and 100 cases are diagnosed in Ireland each year.

During the summer of 2013 Karol found himself being overcome with extreme tiredness. His role as planning and operations manager with Animal Health Ireland, which is based in Carrick-on-Shannon, involves plenty of travelling. Weekly trips to Portlaoise and Dublin were the norm. In the space of a couple of weeks, he couldn’t drive as far as Derry without pulling in at Manorcunningham for a sleep.

“It was extraordinary. It was day turning into night very, very quickly. Then I started to get joint pain. A month after it took hold, it was Christmas. I had been to the doctors a number of times because I knew things just weren’t right. I had the bloods done. Nothing was showing and it could have been one of a hundred things. It could be fatigue – work was busy and stressful.”

Things went from bad to worse, quite rapidly.

“It got to the stage where I wasn’t going to be able to walk from the couch to the bathroom. Anybody who wants to know the story behind it all should really ask Anne about it. I had no balance, I was dizzy and had no sense of trust in my body. I had no energy whatsoever,” he says.

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The most frightening aspect of his sickness was feeling totally lost and having no idea what was happening to his body. It was a tense and protracted process which would last.

“Dr. Jimmy McDaid was very good to me. And still is. He’s a phenomenal man, and open-minded at that. He said there was something not right here, we can’t see what it is but we’ll get tested for this, that or the other.”

As the pattern progressed, Karol would head back to bed for a couple of hours in the afternoon.

“Every day at 11 o’clock the whole system would start shutting down. The simplest way I can put it is that it was like someone pouring two glasses of wine down your throat at the same time every day and it hits you just like that,” he states with a click of his fingers.

It felt like a haze coming over his body.

Days ran into weeks. Weeks folded into months. One test followed another. More blood tests were ordered and MRI scans were had, but all to no avail.

Not surprisingly, Karol’s sense of optimism that his condition would resolve itself began to nosedive. Because his symptoms varied so much so often, it was difficult to determine what the problem was. ME was mentioned. Ditto MS.

He thought it was a virus. Maybe stress. The guessing continued.

Karol’s sickness, he notes, also had a major impact on Anne’s quality of life.

“She deserves to come out of all this with a warm glow and a medal. We didn’t go away for weekends. Anywhere we went, she drove. I remember going to a concert in Belfast. I slept the whole way up. I slept when I got to the hotel. I slept afterwards and slept the whole way home. Anne had no life for all this. She was training away and doing her bit. Part of it was she was enjoying it. And part of it, to be fair, was for release,” he comments.

“I was lucky in that I had great support from Anne and from Mum and Dad, yet they still couldn’t give me the answers. All the support you get gets you through a day or a moment, but it’s the answers that get you through the event.”

It’s only in recent months that he’s began making headway in working through the emotion of the last six years. There were many days when he sat with his own company feeling utterly terrified.

To keep his hand in with work, he would start earlier and finish earlier in the day. But it eventually got to the point where work was going to have to stop because he simply wasn’t able.

“I was sick of going outside the door and trying to be cheery and upbeat. I had that moment in the house. It was a Thursday morning and I remember it well. I remember thinking there are two options and one choice – you either stick with this and go the way you are going and it’s going to get dark very quickly, or else you pull the bootstraps up again and see how you get on. And that’s when I went to see Enda Masterson, an applied kinesiologist who I’d never met before.”

This was July 2017, and that was when Karol’s story turned.

During his first consultation, Karol told Enda he didn’t really think this was for him. That said, Karol also figured there was something different about Enda. They spent a few months working around the basics of foodstuffs and ruling out the obvious.

It was during his third visit that he told Karol he had Lyme disease. Working things back, Karol noticed the change in his form on his return from a holiday in Spain with Anne. He was asked by Enda if he could remember having a rash in the shape of a bull’s eye. Karol asked Anne and she remembered him having the rash.

“I had broken my ankle two days before we went out. I had a movable cast and Anne remembers the bull’s eye rash on the right calf. It’s a remarkable coincidence that all hell broke lose after that.”

After deliberating about the type of treatment to embark on, Karol opted for the natural method and was prepared to give it three months.

When he was told that his illness was due to Lyme disease, he was horrified.

“I didn’t know anybody with a good story. I didn’t know of anybody else who got over it or could get over it. I was heartbroken. I was panicked by it and was so shook by it.”

He wasted no time in investing in the herbal process. With that commitment came an understandable release after so many false dawns. All the days sitting about frustrated, seeing others making headway and progressing while he was going backwards at the same rate, came to mind.

Weight gain is one of the symptoms of Lyme disease. When he took his first steps back into physical activity in January, Karol weighed 16 st. 2 lbs. When he took the starter’s gun in the 2019 Dublin Marathon in October, he had dropped to 13 st. 7 lbs.

“I loved going to the pool sessions with the Letterkenny 24/7 Triathlon Club on Wednesday nights. One of the wee things that made the difference to me was that people were social to me and kind to me. There was always great crack and I got a great lift out of all that. Without actually knowing it, they were so inclusive of me. It was just kindness by nature.”

The progress and improvement were slow, but he was happy to be moving forward. He also became aware of other people who were also suffering from Lyme disease.

“There were three or four in particular and some had gone the anti-biotic route.”

Natural tiredness after a walk or a swim replaced the unforgettable feeling of utter exhaustion. He could drive more often. The brain fog which affected him hugely has only recently lifted in its entirety.

“And that’s an important part of the story because the physical side of it has been unreal this year,” he adds.

All of Karol’s friends are big into sport and fitness. Truth was, he’d had enough of being the good luck wisher, sipping coffee and looking on from the sidelines. He wanted to be inside the arena.

He remembers getting to the top of Knockalla during the cycle section of Sheephaven Half Iron Man in Downings in June and the buzz at realising he was alive. Truly alive. And living life to the full with the free buzz of adrenaline pumping through his veins. That moment had been six unforgettable years in the making.

Karol and his partner Anne at the finish line of a Triathlon

He’d turned to local coach and triathlete, Gavin Crawford, for guidance at the start of 2019.

“He’d been training Anne and I knew I needed the extra help because I wasn’t coming from the same background as everybody else. I had ground to make up and wanted to set an ambitious target.”

His coach suggested earmarking the North West 10K. But Karol had a somewhat different take on things.

“I told him I liked the look of the Half Iron Man in Downings. So we hatched the plan that day in Mac’s Deli on the High Road. I had a pile of weight to lose and went to Neil Barrett of Fit Hub for help with that.”

Anne was the person who set the example and Karol was glad to follow. Gradually, he got into shape. Steadily, he shifted the pounds and his ability to do more on a gradual basis increased. The training and local road races were proving a great remedy for the years of frustration.

“Every time I did something new, or did something bigger, or longer, or faster I would think ‘that’s another wee bit that I have sliced off’.”

Getting to the finish line in the Sheephaven Half Ironman was something Karol focused on when he stuck it on the bucket list eleven months ago.

“It was, to my mind, shaking hands with the past. While I was living my normal day-to-day life, this unseen story in the background was the most consuming of all.”

When Karol takes time to reflect on the year that was over the holiday period, he’ll have a memory choice to cherish – the lifts he got when seeing family members at various points along the way during the Sheephaven Half Iron Man and the Dublin Marathon among them. In essence, those close to him were there because of all that had been.

Regardless what event he signed up for this year and regardless where he finished in the overall standings, Karol felt he was always going to be the biggest winner.

“In some small way, that has to provide some reassurance to those who were worried for me and worried about me.”

Karol’s sickness has given him a real sense of appreciation for what he has now.

“I’m not athletically-backgrounded, but there isn’t one session I didn’t enjoy. There were tough moments, of course. But it’s always been part-fuelled by the sense of time lost. And it’s only a fool who’d think there aren’t others among us walking a similar walk or who are fighting a private struggle. It’s only someone who has truly not looked around that thinks they can own suffering or own victim-hood. I’ve never felt like that. And that helps.”

Karol and Anne at the Letterkenny 24/& Triathlon Club Awards night. Karol was named Most Improved Male for 2019, and Anne picked up the 2019 Senior Female Award

Good training partners and like-minded people have played a major part in Karol’s progress. Motivation is high and with the wind at his back, it’s upwards and onwards for 2020.

At that, the conversation rewinds to the moment Karol was told last year that he had Lyme disease in September, 2017.

“I wouldn’t want anyone else to feel the way I felt that day. I’m sure many do. There are so many horror stories out there and they are true. But if someone is fortunate enough to say they’ve been there and have come out the other side of it, I would like to think that my story can give hope to others.”

It can only but.

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