My 3-year-old daughter fell out of her room this morning. She landed on the hallway carpet with a soft thunk.
“Mommy!” She giggled. “Look.”
She planted her hands on the ground, head bent forward in concentration. Her impossibly thick, long hair covered her face like a curtain. She raised her rump in the air in an approximation of a yoga downward dog, and then collapsed. Her legs bent at odd angles, like a marionette’s.
“See? My legs don’t work.” She giggled again.
I tried to help her stand, but her legs were useless and limp. She didn’t have enough strength to hold herself up on a piece of furniture; she just kept crumpling to the ground.
It is an understatement, of course, to say that I was filled with panic and horror. And yet, as I scooped her up, I remembered an article I had read years ago about tick paralysis. It was a frightening story, written with humor, and I remembered thinking, I didn’t know ticks did that, and wondering if it was a Missoula family. I stripped my daughter down. Look in the easy places first, I thought, find the tick as fast possible. Nothing under the pajama top. Both her armpits were smooth and clean.
“What if this isn’t a tick thing?” I thought, pulling down her bottoms. The backs of her knees were clear. I looped a finger in her trainer and pulled it down. “How could I have not checked for ticks yesterday?” I berated myself. But we were only in the yard, even though we were outside most of the day. “What if this isn’t a tick thing?” I thought again, seeing that her bottom side was tick-free also.
I began digging my fingers through her masses of hair, being clumsy and erratic about it. Small snarls from her recent slumber tripped up my efforts. Then I felt it. A thing, where a thing wasn’t supposed to be. My hands jerked back, and I started digging in earnest. It was centered on the back of her skull, about a quarter of an inch long, looking like an oblong lentil. It was vaguely shiny, sporting insidious black legs. I yanked it off and my daughter said “Ouch, Mom!”
That was at 7:30 in the morning. My husband called a local infectious disease doctor whom he knows. He confirmed that she likely had tick-borne paralysis. The doctor felt she would be fine, but that my pediatrician should call him if she had any questions. I called our pediatrician’s office when they opened at 8. Instead of seeing us, the nurse instructed me to go to the emergency room. I explained to her that this was not an emergency, that my daughter was regaining her mobility, that we had already conferred with the ID doc who recommended a visit with her pediatrician. But she was adamant this was an emergency, and even after conferring with the doctors in the practice, refused to see us. The woman I spoke with at the Health Department, while far more reasonable and compassionate than my pediatrician’s office, was also unfamiliar with tick-borne paralysis.
Hence the reason for this column. While not typical, tick-borne paralysis happens in western Montana in the spring. Tick paralysis is the only tick-borne disease that is not caused by an infectious organism. The illness is caused by a neurotoxin produced in the tick’s salivary gland. If the tick is not removed, the toxin can be fatal. One of the two ticks most commonly associated with tick paralysis is the abundant, and commonly found Rocky Mountain wood tick. Knowledge is critical. Check yourself and your kids for ticks April through July.
Twelve hours later, my daughter regained enough mobility to dress herself up as a butterfly. As I write this letter, she is running around the kitchen shooting droids with her older brother. She still seems a tiny bit wobbly to me, but maybe that’s because I can’t take my eyes off her. I wanted to share our story in case it helps someone else if they end up in a similarly terrifying situation. Be well this spring.
Alisa Reich lives in Missoula.