Bob Reichenberger was perfectly healthy last June when he drove to a pasture near Andale to adjust the sights on two rifles. "I'm an athlete," he said. "I work out. I eat good food. I don't drink. I don't smoke. I've never had any health problems."
Reichenberger didn't worry about the two ticks that bit him that day.
"I felt one crawl up my neck," he said. "I pinched it in half and threw it out the window. Later that night I pulled one off my head."
Reichenberger, a detective on the Wichita Police Department's gang investigations unit, said he was used to chasing down 20-year-old gang members. But over the next several months, he was debilitated by one of the tick bites.
He spent a week at Wesley Medical Center, missed two months of work, began experiencing paralysis and watched his weight drop from 175 to 140 pounds — all without knowing the cause of his mysterious and painful illness.
In December, when he finally was diagnosed with Lyme disease, he began what has been a long and slow recovery from an illness that's not often discussed in Kansas.
"It's a physically and emotionally devastating disease," he said.
Prime time for Lyme
Reichenberger said he was happy to share his story during what has been designated as national Lyme Disease Awareness Month.
As warm weather brings people outdoors, health officials say, May is a good time to learn about tick-borne diseases and how to take precautions to protect pets and yourself from them.
Janice McCoy, health protection coordinator for the Sedgwick County Health Department, said April through September are the prime months for tick-borne disease in Kansas.
She said there were 18 suspected cases of Lyme disease reported last year in Sedgwick County, and four suspected cases of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, which also is spread by infected ticks.
"If not treated by antibiotics, they can cause long-term problems," she said.
The bite of a Lyme-infected tick often leaves a distinctive bull's-eye rash that can grow to 12 inches in diameter.
"That is generally the first sign of infection," McCoy said.
For the 20 to 30 percent of Lyme patients who don't get the rash, she said, diagnosing the disease can be tricky.
From three to 30 days after the bite of an infected tick, she said, a victim begins to exhibit symptoms that mimic many other diseases — fatigue, chills, fever and muscle pains.
"The best thing you can do if you think you have been bit by a tick and have the symptoms, is to see a physician,'' she said.
Kansas state epidemiologist Charlie Hunt said there were 16 confirmed cases of Lyme disease statewide in 2008, the last year for which figures are available. Cases are confirmed after two lab tests come back positive.
Three of the confirmed 2008 cases were in Sedgwick County, while four each were reported in Reno and Johnson counties.
"It's been a reportable disease here for many years," Hunt said. "The organism has been identified in Kansas. It's just not as thick as it is in the northeast.
"We know physicians are looking for it."
Reichenberger said neither he nor his doctor suspected Lyme disease when he first started experiencing symptoms — muscle spasms and pain in his feet and lower calves — about a month after the tick bite. If he developed the bull's-eye rash, he said, it was probably under his hair and he didn't notice it.
Over the next several weeks, Reichenberger said, the pain spread steadily throughout his body. Eventually, he said, he felt like knives were stuck between the vertebrae of his spine. He said he felt excruciating pain in every muscle in his body.
He was unable to sleep, he said, and prescribed pain medications offered no relief.
In November, after nearly collapsing at work, he was admitted to Wesley. While in the hospital, he said, doctors took blood tests and did an MRI of his brain.
"I had all kinds of doctors looking at me," Reichenberger said. "They just couldn't quite figure out what the problem was."
One doctor suggested that he might have post-traumatic stress syndrome after working 17 years as a police officer. Another diagnosed him with fibromyalgia.
"One of them thought I had Lou Gehrig's disease," Reichenberger said. "Others just flat out said, 'We can't find anything physically wrong with you. You need to see a psychiatrist.' "
After Reichenberger returned home, he and his wife began researching his symptoms, and they began to suspect Lyme disease. But initial tests to determine whether he had the disease were negative, he said.
In December, as he began to fear his disease would prove fatal, he made an appointment with a Missouri doctor who specializes in Lyme disease.
"He immediately diagnosed me as having all indications of Lyme disease," Reichenberger said.
He said tests performed at a California lab were positive for the disease. He said the pain continued during his first month of treatment, but that by February he began to show signs of improvement.
"I still have a few glitches here and there," he said. "But I'm strong again, and I'm pain free.
"I feel like I came back from dead."
Reichenberger said those seeking more information about Lyme disease can visit www.lymenet.org or www.turnthecorner.org.