Here in Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia, a very different risk is at the forefront, one often no bigger than the period at the end of this sentence: the deer tick. This critter, so easily overlooked, is the carrier for Lyme Disease. And when you live in Pennsylvania, you
know Lyme Disease well, too well. Someone in your family has had
it. You know someone who has been devastated by it.
When Lyme Disease is straightforward, it is a nuisance that must be knocked out by a month of antibiotics. But when it is overlooked for too long, misdiagnosed, or
just acting funny, it can literally wreak havoc on someone's entire
life, affecting balance, motor skills, mood and causing chronic joint
pain. My friend's mother was misdiagnosed with Lupus for years; turns
out it was Lyme Disease, caught too late, and now she is practically an
invalid, hardly able to walk and needing constant care. Another friend's
brother is an emaciated 136 pounds at 6 feet tall because repeated
antibiotics for Lyme Disease has destroyed his digestive tract. He was
once an active, outdoorsy twenty something, now he is weak, pale, bald,
and spending most of his time trying to regain the health that he lost.
There are many more stories. Too many.
So, how to balance this terrifying and real threat of Lyme Disease with the need for our children, and our selves, to be outside, especially as the weather beckons us out? We all do different things:
I have organically-minded friends who have sprayed their yard with insecticide after 4 cases of Lyme Disease in one season, in their family of 4.
Some use DEET, which is not advised for children.
Some put rose oil or geranium oil on their children.
Some wear long pants and long sleeves in 90+ degree weather. White is best for spotting ticks. (And utterly impractical for young children.)
Some have chickens or guinea hens as pets to roam their backyards and eat the ticks.
Some use Damminix tick tubes.
Some don't go out in the woods, the grass, even the beach. The stress is just too much.
Lyme Disease makes neat play areas like swimming pools, wood-chipped playgrounds and paved basketball and tennis courts much more attractive, not to mention all those indoor play spaces.
In my family we do 'tick checks' every night, inspecting every nook and cranny on our children's perfect little bodies for the insidious creatures who like to hide, who might make them sick for life. We also
have chickens and tick tubes around the yard. The chickens are really
cute, and they give us eggs.
We play outside regularly, and pluck off ticks regularly, and try not to worry. Only one of my three children has had Lyme Disease, and it was a straightforward case: fever, bulls-eye rash at the site of the
bite. But when his knees ache, I wonder if it's growing pains, or Lyme.
It's an insidious kind of worry, that low-grade stress that can get to
me over time, and ask too many questions.
Is it global warming that has made the ticks flourish and spread? Is it that the US has stopped using terrible pesticides like DDT? It is the deer "overpopulation" due to destruction of their
predators and habitat to build more homes for humans? Or is it fragmented forests creating a habitat for mice?
Really, the ticks are just being ticks, doing what ticks are supposed to do. Whatever the exact cause or causes, it's human meddling with nature that has caused this rise in tick-borne diseases (yes, there are others).
Sometimes I think, "Well, ticks are a part of mother nature." And they are, as much as we are. But it doesn't make me feel much better. I just want my kids to grow up to be healthy. And being outside is a
huge part of being healthy. What would life be like without the
feeling of mud between my toes, smelling a flower deeply, or lying down
in the grass and looking up at the clouds through the trees? What would
my children's lives be like without rambles in the woods, climbing
trees, creek walking and chasing fireflies? I don't want to know.
There will always be something that challenges us, big or small, and I think it's how we meet the challenges, how we face risk, that really matters. I hope that's the idea I pass on to my children, anyway.