October 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 has described herself as a healthy, active young girl with an affinity for the great outdoors. But things changed when she started having sporadic and unrelated health issues, like exhaustion, dizzinessand aches. After seeing a wide variety of medical specialists to uncover the root of these issues, her lab results were still inconclusive.
Unbeknownst to Bradshaw and his doctors, his illness originated from a parasite. Bradshaw had contracted Lyme disease, a bacterial infection that can come from the bite of a blacklegged tick – also known as a deer tick – if it remains attached to your body for 36 to 48 hours. Symptoms can include memory loss, articular pain, falling the muscles on one or both sides of your face, and tingling or numbness in parts of your body.
Bradshaw’s health continued to deteriorate as she bounced from the East Coast to the West Coast in her early 20s for work as Retail Manager at Nordstrom. It wasn’t until she got a promotion in Nashville that her illness became debilitating and bedridden. She could no longer perform daily tasks such as holding a toothbrush or washing dishes.
Bradshaw’s knees began to fill with fluid. His doctor diagnosed him rheumatoid arthritis, which is the closest thing he could think of to explaining his “mystery” illness. She had to have her hips replaced at 26 years old.
“This [the disease] was damaging 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 physician, who began asking questions about his education. Upon discovering that Bradshaw was from New Jersey, where blacklegged ticks are extremely commonher doctor asked a question that changed everything.
“Have you ever been tested for Lyme disease?
Fast forward a few years. Bradshaw has now had 16 of his joints rebuilt and eight joint replacements, all due to late detection of Lyme disease. She is preparing to have both elbows replaced, as well as her second surgery on each hand, all of which are expected to be completed within the next year. With any luck, she will “take a break”. But there will likely be more surgeries down the road to replace her joint replacements, she says.
Bradshaw’s experience is extremely rare for Lyme disease patients, says Glenn Gaston, MD, 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. If a patient has arthritis, it usually only affects one joint, which is often the knee.
“I’ve never even heard or read in a textbook of a case to the degree of Meghan’s, of having to go through multiple joint replacements and multiple surgeries, especially at such a young age,” Gaston says.
When asked why Bradshaw’s Lyme disease diagnosis has remained a mystery for so long, Gaston says the disease can be difficult to detect.
“The main reason I see for late detection and treatment of Lyme disease is primarily because it is not often at the forefront of clinicians’ concerns, particularly depending on where a patient lives,” he said. “If they live in Connecticut, where did Lyme disease come from (Lyme, Connecticut), it is more plausible that they think about it early. The further one moves away from the epicenter of the diagnosis, the less the doctors think about it in their differential.
If you remove the tick within 48 hours, you probably won’t get the disease. Ticks can be as small as a poppy seed, so spotting them can be tricky. But one of the main signs of a tick bite is a rash that looks like a bulls-eye. If caught early, Lyme disease can be treated and cured with antibiotics. But with late detection (like Bradshaw’s), treatment and cure become much more difficult. Good news: a vaccine to treat Lyme disease is currently in phase III clinical trials with drug manufacturers Pfizer and Valneva.
Dwelling on what life might have been like if doctors had asked questions about his upbringing early on was one of the hardest things for Bradshaw to grasp.
“I have severe medical trauma and i see it every 3 months after another traumatic surgery,” she says. “It constantly goes through the cycle of grieving.”
Bradshaw is often nicknamed the “bionic woman”, whom she finds endearing.
“I use humor as a coping mechanism,” she says. “I have to laugh about it. Because if I don’t laugh, I cry, and that’s healthier for me.
Good health care is a major source of gratitude for Bradshaw. His surgeries and medical treatment cost more than $1 million in medical bills, most of which her insurance covered, and she paid the rest out of pocket. Bradshaw often speaks publicly about the lack of access to quality health care for certain marginalized communities, such as LGBTQ+ people, immigrant groups, and people of color.
“I’m very lucky to have had access to the improvement of my conditions,” she says. “Many people don’t have the means to achieve their ends.”
Although it can be easy to get angry, or even irritatedfor her late diagnosis, Bradshaw focused on raising awareness of tick-borne diseases, which was “very healing” for her.
“I can look back and see all the things that were wrong with my path and in this experience,” she says. “I’m like, ‘This is how it should be. And here’s how we can fix it. I want to be apart of that.
Bradshaw recently co-founded a non-profit organization, Check the JEDI Coalition (JEDI stands for “Juvenile Education Advocacy Initiative”) which works to integrate tick safety education into health science curricula.
“Children should learn this [tick safety] as a basic life skill, the same way they learn to wash their hands,” she says.
To help avoid late detection of Lyme disease or any other illness, Bradshaw offers these tips.
You know your body better than anyone.
“Doctors are incredibly bright, talented and know a lot. But at the end of the day, everyone is still human. It may happen that you have something beyond the scope of their knowledge. If the doctor you’re seeing isn’t the right person and you can access care elsewhere, do your research and find someone who might be right for you.
Use patient support groups.
“I think you can learn a lot from other people and their experiences, whether good or bad. I have found them incredibly helpful in my own experience.
Have a support person.
“There were many times, especially at the beginning of my journey, where I was so emotionally upset about these things. My parents were there to take notes and record everything for me. Having a support person because it’s hard to do these things alone.”
Editor’s Note: Here’s more info on Lyme disease .