Laurel Feretti | image from HIV Here & Now
Faith Carried Me: Battling The Ravages of Lyme Disease
On the morning of March 19, 2006, I awoke to a piercing migraine. I was unable to get out of bed in order to attend church. After a sinus infection healed, my incapacitating migraines and headaches remained. In search of relief, I bounced back and forth between an ear, nose and throat (ENT) physician and neurologist. That is, until four months later, my parents and I found a doctor who diagnosed me with Lyme Disease.
As a sophomore at a small, private high school, my teachers and classmates supported me. My ability to concentrate and read was challenged by continuous, aggressive migraines and headaches. By the end of high school, various herbal and antibiotic treatments had affected my body such that I was barely able to attend several class periods per day before folding under the pressure of physical pain.
I was blessed with loyal friends and peers who prayed for my healing, encouraged me with cards, and spent time with me. Still, I felt alone, that there was not another teenager struggling with the amount of pain I could not escape. In those moments of loneliness, I found that God provided comfort and understanding within the Bible—particularly Psalms—and by placing my family and friends around me. I am especially thankful for the grace that I was provided in order to matriculate from high school on time.
I was devastated. My accomplishment of academic excellence became my identity. Thus, when I was unable to be a student, I did not know who I was or how I had value.
I enrolled at George Mason University. In my second semester, the various treatments had unearthed new symptoms of the disease. I experienced arthritis, spinal pain, neuropathy, and cognitive difficulty. I was unable to return to school.
I was devastated. My accomplishment of academic excellence became my identity. Thus, when I was unable to be a student, I did not know who I was or how I had value. The time I spent bedridden, sidelined by pain and illness, aided me in exploring an identity beyond my accomplishments and beyond being “the girl with Lyme Disease.”
For years, I identified as Lyme Disease incarnate: when I looked in the mirror, I found myself looking at an illness and found pain that occupied the figure before me. I did not feel human. I was surrounded by the daily, numerous acts of love and loyalty that were demonstrated by my mom, dad, brother, and best friend, yet felt unworthy of their kindness and attention. My perspective forced me to isolate myself and avoid social interaction.
Finding Dr. Jemsek
In 2011, my parents and I made an appointment with Dr. Jemsek, as his Washington, DC, office was now easier to visit. In our first appointment with Dr. Jemsek and Kim Fogarty, PA-C, I remember his reserved compassion and willingness to treat me. While other physicians had seen my case as a “puzzle,” Dr. Jemsek was ready for the challenge. He was patient in preparing for treatment, allowing my body to gain nutrients and rest before treating the illness with aggressive antibiotics. After a year, I received a Power-PICC line and began over a year’s worth of IV antibiotic therapy.
I had been bedridden since leaving college. My life felt empty. In the darkest thoughts and moments, I knew that I had to fight. My only motivation to survive rested in the resistance of further breaking the hearts of my parents, grandparents, family, and best friends. I could not see beyond the somatic psychology of unavoidable pain in order to desire my own life.
After finishing the IV antibiotics, due to the resulting pain flares, Dr. Jemsek suggested that I take a break in order to detoxify. The many attempts at detoxifying my body of Lyme, coinfection bacteria, and powerful antibiotics made the pain intolerable.
However, I still had my dream. I decided to return to my studies at Mason, this time with an English major. My compassionate dean allowed me to continue my studies in the Honors College and take one class per semester. I aspired to be a creative writer.
I grew up during that summer. If my life were a tape player, I felt as though I was paused as a fifteen-year-old girl. Now, the fast-forward button allowed me to be twenty-four; I was able to see myself as an adult woman and take responsibility over my life.
During the Christmas break, I felt God tell me that it was pivotal to withdraw from the prescribed narcotics, as they were not tempering my pain. That summer, I withdrew from all narcotics and a benzodiazepine. It was the most difficult decision that I have made, but the most rewarding. The narcotics—all of which were prescribed and taken as prescribed, often less than such—had removed my pain tolerance, thus early withdrawal caused each hair upon my head to feel as if pins were pricking my scalp.
I grew up during that summer. If my life were a tape player, I felt as though I was paused as a fifteen-year-old girl. Now, the fast-forward button allowed me to be twenty-four; I was able to see myself as an adult woman and take responsibility over my life. This allowed me to enter a mature relationship with God, who delivered me from and protected me in illness. Through many sessions of healing prayer and counseling, I found God’s love for me anew. He restored my identity, as beloved by Him, which swallowed whole any previous identity in illness, pain, or suffering.
I am Healed
While I was liberated from narcotics, a great measure of pain remained. I found relief in prayer and announcing each morning, “My name is Laurel and I am healed!” I attended the fall semester at Mason, taking three classes and focusing upon poetry. By the spring semester, I was able to be a full-time student again, after eight years. The pain decreased as I regularly attended physical therapy and exercised. I felt that my body and life were resurrected, in that I was able to attend class, complete my work, and enjoy time spent with my friends. I found a church with a heart for loving others and a community within it.
My life has been restored. I now have the ability to dream again, to avoid the entrapments of fear. I am grateful for every morning that I am able to rise from my bed, for every shower, for every step, and every moment without pain. In maintaining a mindset of gratitude, I am now able to see and expect progressive change and healing. While I have still not completely reconciled the past, I am grateful for all that I have learned about my relationships, my faith, my dreams, and myself.
Laurel says that while she still encounters pain today, it pales in comparison to the agony she felt while she was ill. She engages in physical therapy and regular exercise to build her strength and endurance.
She states that Dr. Jemsek is the only physician she would recommend to those wrestling with Lyme Disease. “He is the one physician who refused to give up on my well-being. He is constantly thinking beyond the rigidity of illness and pushes his team toward innovative treatments. I am grateful to have a physician partner with me in the fight for health.
“The Jemsek Specialty Clinic provides holistic care in attending to one’s physical needs,” she continues. “However, the providers at the clinic are also compassionate and understanding in supporting my dreams and accomplishments.”
In addition to Dr. Jemsek and Kim Fogarty, PA-C, Laurel also saw Tara Fox, CPNP, who directly supervised her IV treatment. “When my body was highly reactive to each treatment, she patiently tailored the protocol,” explains Laurel. “She was encouraging and sympathetic when I was weary and fatigued.”
Laurel believes her life has been restored by God’s healing of her body and mindset. “I know that the Lord led me to be a patient at the Jemsek Specialty Clinic, and equipped the team with the wisdom to treat me effectively.”