By Laura McAlister
When Mountain Brook High School senior Laura Matthews starts school at Samford University in the fall, she already knows what she plans to study.
The teen hopes to be a pharmacist, and she’s already gotten a good bit of experience with medications. Laura has to take some 50 pills a day to treat Lyme disease and related illnesses, she said.
While the amount of medication she’s on now may seem daunting, Laura said she’s starting to get better, and her family of three finally believes they know what’s been ailing the 18-year-old all these years.
“We’re just excited to have an answer,” said Libby, Laura’s mother. “She’s finally starting to feel herself again. She’s getting better. There are still days she feels rotten, but it’s getting better.”
Laura was diagnosed with Lyme disease about three years ago, but her family suspects she’s been suffering from the disease and other related illnesses since she was 6 years old. That’s when, after a day of playing outside their Mountain Brook home, Laura’s parents found three ticks on her.
“We’d always heard that as long as you got the head out, it was fine,” Libby said. “But then she started having problems big time.”
Laura suffered from anxiety and depression. She was always getting sick with flu-like symptoms. She even began to develop asthma, her father, Kit, said. A painful rash that caused her feet to peel and crack made it difficult for her to walk.
“Sometimes it was so bad, I couldn’t walk around the house barefoot,” Laura said. “I’d have to walk on the sides of my feet.”
Doctors came up with a variety of diagnoses, from obsessive compulsive disorder to an incurable skin disease called keratoderma.
None of the treatments worked, and Laura’s symptoms seemed to be worsening.
She had night sweats that would soak her sheets, and Laura recalls being so tired she could hardly hold her pencil during school. Her speech and ability to grasp objects with her hands were starting to deteriorate.
The Matthews family sought all sorts of treatments and medical care, but none seemed to work. That’s when a friend of Libby’s suggested Laura get tested for Lyme disease.
The symptoms of the disease caused by tick bites sounded spot-on to Laura’s, Libby recalled. The family finally thought they had an answer and a treatment, but it wasn’t that simple.
“Basically we didn’t have a tick,” Kit said, “so nobody here wanted to even test her for it.”
With a suspect tick in hand, doctors can then test the insects for this disease.
After going through several doctors, the Matthewses found a specialist in Tennessee who agreed to test Laura for Lyme disease.
“She went up there and got tested, and three weeks later they told us it was positive for Lyme disease,” Libby said.
In September 2009, Laura started receiving treatments for Lyme. Kit said they almost instantly noticed a difference in their daughter.
“There was a dramatic decrease in her symptoms,” he said.
Laura still struggles with the disease. It’s curable, but since it’s been in her system so long, Libby said they don’t know how long it will take Laura to be completely rid of the disease.
In the meantime, Laura is taking her 50 pills a day and reconnecting with friends that her illness robbed her of.
The Matthewses have also started a website, www.fightforlaura.bbnow.org, chronicling Laura’s battle with Lyme. They’re accepting donations there to help with Laura’s medical costs, which they said is “thousands and thousands” a year since much of her treatments are not covered by insurance.
They also hope the site will spread the word about this disease, rarely diagnosed in this state.
“We want to find out who else has this and let them know that they are not alone,” Libby said. “We need to get the guidelines changed on how they treat this. Basically if you don’t have the tick and a bite with a bull’s eye, they won’t even test for it.”