Ten years ago, I was proud to be following in my father’s footsteps. I had a degree from James Madison University and a dream job at a local winery, where I was by all measure a top performer. My hard work and studies—my determination and work ethic—were paying off as promised.
But then, I started feeling “off.” At first, it just seemed like a bad flu. But the symptoms persisted, and they got worse—more frequent and more severe. I was walking around foggy most of the time. I lost my ability to focus; tasks that would previously take 10 minutes now took an hour. And, I was in excruciating pain—even though I was taking 16 ibuprofen pills a day. I could hardly walk. Washing my hair was torture. Work was almost impossible. My mouth was so swollen, I could only eat yogurt with a knife.
Whatever this was, it was affecting my job—my whole life. And there was no end in sight. I went to a long line of doctors, who ordered a multitude of tests: EKG, EEG, MRI, cat scans. Everything came back “normal.” The consensus? There was “nothing wrong” with me. I was divorced and far from family, fearful of losing my job, feeling like I must be crazy.
No one in Loudoun should have to face a life of pain and fear alone.
The next chapter
A year and a half after experiencing the first symptoms, I took a medical leave from my job and started to see a therapist to help me cope with the stress. After hearing my story, she sent me to a specialist—a Lyme-literate physician who was able to finally give me a diagnosis. I had never found a tick on my body, nor had I ever seen the bulls-eye rash. Nonetheless, I was suffering from a severe case of Lyme Disease, an autoimmune disease afflicting at least 320,000 Americans each year.
My doctor put me on an 18-month journey to health. An aggressive regime of medications, a tightly controlled diet, and a commitment to reducing stress were the keys to managing and ultimately eradicating my symptoms.
During my recovery, I found a new spirituality and a personal calling—to help those who are struggling with undiagnosed autoimmune diseases. Virginia and Loudoun are at the epicenter of the Lyme epidemic. Today, I work with multiple organizations to educate the public on the prevention, symptoms, and treatment of this horrific disease.
It is my great purpose and passion in life: To help the people who must walk the path I followed. If I can just point them to the resources and information I did not have, help them advocate for their own answers, and avoid all the misinformation that warps the public understanding of this disease, I can shorten their suffering and get back to a healthy, fulfilling life.
O’Brien is the founder of KeyLyme, a Loudoun County-based health and wellness company that shares information about Lyme. She is hosting the upcoming Hope for Lyme Festival at Tarara Winery on Oct. 20. Health and wellness information will be available beginning at 4 p.m., and music begins at 5 p.m. Students from School of Rock will perform, and the evening’s headliner is 1980s tribute band The Reflex. Tickets are available for $25 per person through Oct. 19. Day-of-event tickets are $30. Visit keylyme.org/hopeforlyme for more information. O'Brien wrote the above essay as part of the Community Foundation for Loudoun and Northern Fauquier Counties' Faces of Loudoun campaign.