Illustration by Anuj Shrestha

When Lyme Kills

The extremely rare complication you should know about

Robert Kolker
Published in
10 min readJun 24, 2019

This story is part of “Tickpocalypse,” a multi-part special report.

JJoseph Elone just felt tired at first, like he wasn’t sleeping well. A 17-year-old high-school student from upstate Poughkeepsie, New York, Joseph was a quiet but popular science whiz and electric-guitar lover who had just finished a summer environmental fellowship at Brown University. He’d spent two weeks studying on campus and hiking in the Rhode Island woods and was still riding high from the experience. It was late July, and life had a carefree feeling to it. “He was really happy that he had this chance to really open himself up,” says Joseph’s brother, Emmanuel. “He knew that as soon as senior year started he was going to apply early to Brown.”

Soon, however, Joseph developed cold symptoms — a cough, a sore throat, head and body aches, digestive problems, and a low-grade fever.

Poughkeepsie is located in New York’s Hudson Valley region, an area known for high rates of Lyme disease. Joseph had seen no signs of a tick, a tick bite, or the bull’s-eye rash that is often the telltale marker of Lyme, but he and his parents decided he should see his pediatrician in any case.

The doctor saw little reason for concern. Joseph likely had the flu, he said. He prescribed the standard regimen — rest, fluids, and the like — and suggested they give it time.

But a few days later, Joseph’s symptoms worsened. He was feeling light-headed and said he was sensitive to bright light. He returned to the same doctor, who ordered blood tests for strep throat, Lyme disease, and another tick-borne illness called anaplasmosis. The results were all negative.

Joseph and his family were aware that the antibodies indicating the presence of Lyme disease can take weeks to show up in tests, but even if Joseph were to develop the disease, they weren’t worried. Joseph was young and otherwise healthy, and Lyme is usually curable in a matter of weeks with antibiotics.

“It just seemed like he had a cold or something, or a little fever, but nothing crazy,” Emmanuel says. “It wasn’t something that you would take seriously in the moment.”



Robert Kolker

#1 New York Times best-selling author of “Hidden Valley Road” (an Oprah’s Book Club selection) and “Lost Girls”

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