'A tick bite while visiting pandas in China ruined my life'
Sophie Ward was a champion swimmer on the cusp of following her Olympic dream - but her life took a massive downward plunge when she became plagued with a multitude of health issues that baffled doctors.
She tells AASMA DAY her story and how she was finally diagnosed with Lyme Disease caused by a tick bite while visiting the pandas in China.
Visiting the pandas in China was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and a 14-year-old Sophie Ward enjoyed stroking the giant creature and watching it happily chew on bamboo.
Little did Sophie realise what a deep and lasting impact that trip would have on her life as she now believes that’s when she suffered a tick bite which led to deadly Lyme disease which went undiagnosed for nine years.
Sophie, now 24, who lives in Garstang, was a champion swimmer destined for the Olympics – until her world was turned upside down by a tick bite.
Sophie explains: “I started swimming at the age of eight and went into Elite level at 11 and went in for lots of national competitions.
“At the age of 12, I was national champion in swimming and, at 13, I managed to swim for Lancashire, England and Great Britain. I competed at the European Youth Olympics at 13 in Belgrade, Serbia, and was lucky enough to win a gold, silver and bronze. It was a fantastic out-of-this-world experience.
“Then when I was 14, I broke the British record for 100m butterfly.”
With Sophie’s swimming career flying, her future was looking bright with Olympic stardom beckoning and she was on the London 2012 World Class Programme.
At the age of 14, Sophie, who was a pupil at Kirkham Grammar School, went to Beijing in summer 2008 with her parents and brother to soak up the experience in preparation for London 2012.
Sophie recalls: “Going to Beijing was an amazing experience and the Olympics were such a showcase of excellence.
“Some of my friends were competing in swimming so I went to support them as well.
“I was out there with my family for two-and-a-half weeks. We watched the Olympics for the first week-and-a-half and then we went to do some sightseeing.”
As well as going to see sights such as The Great Wall, Sophie and her family went to visit the pandas and Sophie had a close-up encounter with a panda.
Sophie remembers: “They bring a panda to you and you get the chance to stroke and touch it. It was a once in a lifetime experience and the panda was so big in real life! But it was very calm and happy and was just eating bamboo.”
After meeting the panda, Sophie and her family got back on the coach ready for the next trip. However, Sophie recalls suddenly feeling very unwell and told her mum she didn’t feel right.
Sophie says: “I just felt really poorly and was sweating uncontrollably. We went back to the hotel and I saw the doctors. They said it was a fever and gave me two days of antibiotics. They made me feel better and I carried on with our holiday and came home and carried on with life and felt absolutely fine.”
It was around four years later that Sophie remembers getting ill with different ailments including recurring water infections, migraines, food intolerances and sore throats. As time passed, she began suffering with more and more debilitating symptoms but, despite visiting the doctors countless times, they were unable to get to the bottom of her issues.
Sophie explains: “I was getting severe pains in my muscles and my joints. I kept going to the doctors but they treat all these things separately.
“They sent me for lots of scans but I kept getting told everything was fine. People start questioning you so you start questioning yourself.
“Everyone is telling you you are fine but deep down, you know you are not. My health was declining and I did not feel right. But I even started hiding my symptoms or lying about them as I felt people wouldn’t believe me.”
Sophie had to give up swimming as the pain became so much, she couldn’t carry on. She says: “It was getting to the point where the pain was so bad, I was starting to hate and dread the sport I used to love. I did not want to hate it as it had been my life and my everything and I loved it. But it was taking its toll on my health so I had to give it up.”
After leaving school, Sophie went to Runshaw College but the pain she was experiencing and her health issues were affecting her so badly she could barely function.
Sophie remembers: “I was too weak to even carry my bag with my folders in it. I wasn’t sleeping properly and my grades were suffering.
“At this point, I was advised by the college to stop college and reapply when I felt better as the grades I was getting in my exams were not reflecting the work I was putting in. I felt terrible at this and a real failure. I went to the doctors hundreds of times and to hospital and saw so many consultants.
"They looked into food intolerances and did MRI scans and investigated my migraines and even did tests on my kidney and bladder but they could not identify what was causing all these problems. I felt guilty and like I was being a drain on my family.
“I also felt disappointed and letdown for myself as I had been so successful with my swimming and now I could barely get out of bed.”
Sophie went undiagnosed for nine years and it was only in January last year at the age of 23 that something began to happen in her quest to get an answer to what was wrong with her.
When Sophie was at a hospital appointment having an allergy test to see her level of allergy to different foods, a consultant who listened to her symptoms mentioned it might be Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
Sophie and her family discovered Breakspear Medical Centre in Hemel Hempstead specialised in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Sophie booked an appointment there.
She says: “I saw a consultant and he examined me for an hour-and-a-half and then he told me: ‘I think I know what it is’ and said he was going to send some of my bloods to Germany to be tested.
“While I was waiting for the results, I went on holiday to Cuba and I dropped to my lowest weight when I was out there as I struggled to find any food to eat which my body could tolerate.”
Sophie went back to see the consultant on her return and he told her: ‘I honestly don’t know how you are sat in front of me when you have had a five-hour trip to get here and are so poorly.’
He then said the tests had come back positive revealing she had Lyme disease. Sophie recalls: “I just burst into tears. I had known for years that I was not well and I felt no one had believed me.”
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection that can be spread to humans by infected ticks.
Many people with early symptoms of Lyme disease develop a circular red skin rash around a tick bite described as a “bullseye rash.”
However, not everyone with Lyme disease gets the rash. Some people also have flu-like symptoms in the early stages. Sophie says: “Lyme disease is such a complex condition and it can mimic so many other conditions so that makes it really difficult to diagnose. They went through all my medical history and asked if I got a lot of bites.
“Then when I described what had happened in China and how I had got the fever, they told me that it was highly likely that’s when it happened because a fever is one of the main symptoms.
“The consultant said I must have got bitten by a tick while seeing the pandas. I did not get a bullseye rash. But only around 50 per cent of cases get a rash and Lyme disease can lie dormant in the body for up to 30 years. Mine was dormant for four years before I started getting poorly.”
At first Sophie recalls feeling relieved she had finally got an answer but after learning more about Lyme disease, she realised the true reality of her health. Sophie says: “I went to Breakspear for inpatient treatment and was put on antibiotics and herbal treatment through an IV drip.
“While I was there, I got talking to other people with Lyme disease and there were people who had been having treatment for 30 odd years.
“That’s when it hit home that I had a lifelong condition and not something with an overnight fix.”
Since then, Sophie has been on herbal treatment as her body is too weak to take antibiotics. Her health is up and down with good days and bad days and Sophie now has a wheelchair for long trips. She helps out at her parents’ family business of holiday and home parks and a health club and spa.
Losing out on a potential Olympic swimming career is something that still plays on Sophie’s mind. She admits: “My Olympic dreams being dashed was hearbreaking. A bite from a tick completely changed my life and ruined my dreams.”
Sophie is now highlighting awareness about Lyme disease and trying to drive change when it comes to research and treatment. She is one of eight administration members for Lyme Disease UK and manages 8,700 members made up of sufferers and carers. She also writes a personal blog for Lyme Disease UK.
Sophie says: “Schools will be breaking for summer soon and children may be rolling around in the grass.
“Lyme disease is a tick-borne infection and it is important to educate everyone and make them aware of this awful disease. Lyme disease is widely unknown, yet it is now a bigger epidemic worldwide than HIV. There is no clear-cut accurate test or direct effective treatment for late-stage Lyme.
"Lyme disease does kill but because it is the mastermind behind the murder and causes something else to fail or give up, Lyme disease is never noted on death certificates so the medical community and Government do not recognise this issue properly.
“If the infection is caught in the first month, then a course of antibiotics should aid you back to full health.
“However, if the infection is left longer than a month the bacteria begins invading the body’s cells, tissues and organs causing lifelong health problems and it is a long drawn out death sentence. I want people to be aware of the prevention methods and the symptoms.
“Lyme disease shape shifts to hide from your immune system so symptoms change all the time and are very varied.
“My goal for the future now is to stabilise my condition and live life to the fullest.
“I have told my family that we should spend time making memories and enjoy time together doing things I am still well enough to do.”
* Visit Sophie’s blog at: www.sophantastic.org