Oct. 7, 2022 — Exploring the woods, hiking, summer camp, and regular trips to the dog park were all normal activities growing up in New Jersey. Meghan Bradshaw described herself as a healthy, active young girl with an affinity for the great outdoors. But things changed when she started having sporadic, unrelated health issues like fatigue, dizzy spells and body aches. After seeing a variety of specialist doctors to uncover the cause of these problems, her lab results were always inconclusive.
Unbeknownst to Bradshaw and her doctors, her illness originated from a parasite. Bradshaw had contracted Lyme disease, a bacterial infection that can result from the bite of a black-legged tick — also known as a deer tick — if it’s attached to your body for 36 to 48 hours. Symptoms can include memory loss, joint pain, sagging muscles on one or both sides of your face, and tingling or numbness in your body parts.
Bradshaw’s health continued to deteriorate when she moved from the East Coast to the West Coast for work in her early 20s as Retail Manager at Nordstrom. It wasn’t until she accepted a promotion in Nashville that her illness became a debilitating illness, leaving her bedridden. She could no longer perform everyday tasks like holding a toothbrush or washing dishes.
Bradshaw’s knees began to fill with fluid. Her doctor diagnosed her with rheumatoid arthritis, which was the closest he could come to explaining her “mysterious” illness. Her hip had to be replaced at the age of 26.
“It [the disease] deteriorated every joint in my body,” says Bradshaw, now 29. “I was a shell of myself. It was terrifying.”
A specialist referred Bradshaw to a functional medicine doctor, who began asking questions about her upbringing. When she found out Bradshaw was from New Jersey, where blackleg ticks are very common, her doctor asked a question that changed everything.
“Have you ever been tested for Lyme disease?”
Fast forward a few years. Bradshaw has now reconstructed 16 of her joints and had eight joint replacements, all due to late detection of Lyme disease. She is preparing to have both elbows replaced, along with her second surgery on each hand, all of which should be completed within the next year. Hopefully she’ll take a break then. But there will likely be more surgeries to replace her joint replacement, she says.
Bradshaw’s experience is extremely rare for Lyme disease patients, says Glenn Gaston, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at OrthoCarolina in Charlotte. Only a small number of Lyme disease patients develop arthritis, especially if treated early, says Gaston, who operated on Bradshaw’s hands. When a patient develops arthritis, it usually affects just one joint, often the knee.
“I’ve never heard of or read about a case like Meghan in a textbook that required multiple joint replacement surgeries and multiple surgeries, especially at such a young age,” says Gaston.
When asked why Bradshaw’s diagnosis of Lyme disease has remained a mystery for so long, Gaston says the disease can be difficult to spot.
“I see the primary reason behind the delay in detecting and treating Lyme disease in the first place is that it’s not often on the forefront of doctors’ minds, especially depending on where a patient lives,” he says. “If you live in Connecticut, where Lyme disease comes from (Lyme, Connecticut), it’s more plausible that you think about it early. The further one gets from the epicenter of the diagnosis, the less physicians think about it in their differential.”
If you remove the tick before 48 hours, you are unlikely to get the disease. Ticks can be as small as a Poppy, so it can be difficult to spot them. But an important sign of a tick bite is a rash that looks like a direct hit. If you get it early, Lyme disease can be treated and cured with antibiotics. But when detected late (like Bradshaw’s), treatment and recovery become much more difficult. Good news: A vaccine to treat Lyme disease is available for now in phase III clinical trials with drug manufacturers Pfizer and Walneva.
Contemplating what life might have been like if doctors had asked questions about her upbringing from an early age was one of the hardest things Bradshaw could come to terms with.
“I have severe medical trauma and I experience it every 3 months after another traumatic surgery,” she says. “It goes through the cycle of grief all the time.”
Bradshaw is often referred to as a “bionic woman,” which she finds endearing.
“I use humor as a coping mechanism,” she says. “I have to laugh about it. Because when I’m not laughing, I’m crying, and that’s healthier for me.”
New found purpose
Excellent healthcare is an important source of gratitude for Bradshaw. Her surgeries and medical care have resulted in over $1 million in medical expenses. most of which her insurance covered, and she paid for the rest out of her own pocket. Bradshaw often speaks publicly about the lack of access to quality health care for certain marginalized communities such as LGBTQ+ individuals, immigrant groups and people of color.
“I’m very fortunate that I had access to an improvement in my conditions,” she says. “Many people have no means to an end.”
While it could be easy to get angry or even upset over her late diagnosis, Bradshaw has shifted her focus to raising awareness of tick-borne diseases, which she has found “very healing”.
“I can look back and see all the things that were wrong in my journey and in that experience,” she says. “I say, ‘This is how it should be. And here’s how we can fix it.’ I want to be separate from that.”
Bradshaw recently co-founded a non-profit organization, Tick JEDI Coalition (JEDI stands for Juvenile Educational Defense Initiative), which strives to bring tick safety education into mainstream health science curricula.
“Children should learn this [tick safety] as a basic life skill, just like they learn how to wash their hands,” she says.
To avoid late detection of Lyme disease or any other disease, Bradshaw shares these tips.
You know your body better than anyone.
“Doctors are incredibly brilliant, talented and knowledgable about many things. But at the end of the day, everyone is still human. There may be times when you have something that is beyond the scope of your knowledge. If the doctor you see is not the right doctor and you have access to medical care elsewhere, do your research and find someone who is a good fit for you.”
Use patient support groups.
“I think you can learn a lot from other individuals and their experiences, both good things and bad things. I have found them incredibly helpful in my own experience.”
Do you have a companion
“There were many times, especially early in my journey, where I was so emotionally upset when dealing with these things. My parents were there to take notes and record everything for me. Have a helper because it’s hard to do these things alone.”
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