After almost dying of Lyme disease, Sacramentan heads to World Triathlon Championships
Four years after she almost died from Lyme disease, Pamela O’Kane is one of three Sacramento women competing for Team USA at the World Triathlon Championships this week in Budapest, Hungary.
It’s the second year in a row she’s qualified for Team USA. The 49-year-old lecturer from CSU Sacramento hopes there will be many more such adventures to come.
It’s a far cry from how things looked in the spring of 2006. With her kids grown, a job she liked, and a love of athletic pursuits like running, swimming, and biking, she should have been on top of the world. Instead, she started experiencing weird symptoms her doctors couldn’t explain.
She lost weight and muscle mass. She developed facial pain, jaw problems, difficulty speaking. Then trouble walking, twitching in her face, tingling in her arms and legs. Her doctors variously thought it might be multiple sclerosis, Guillain-Barre syndrome, or ALS. They could do nothing to help and her condition continued to deteriorate. By early December, there was doubt she’d live to see Christmas.
Then, O’Kane developed an ear infection and was given antibiotics. The medicine cleared up more than her ear problem. Suddenly, her whole body felt better. Within a week, she took part in a 5K race. (“Didn’t do very well,” she said. “But I crossed the finish line.”)
Although her physical progress didn’t last, the incident provided an important clue. Her mother and sister researched on the internet. What medical condition mimics diseases such as MS and ALS, and can be affected by antibiotics? The answer they stumbled upon: Lyme disease.
In early 2007, O’Kane saw a Lyme specialist in the bay area, who began treating her not only for Lyme, but for several additional tick-borne diseases. It was not an easy road. There were episodes of muscle seizures, speech difficulties, and generally feeling horrible. There were ups and downs in finding the right medications–some would help for a while, and then seem to lose their effectiveness. She spent time in a hospital, and then needed to re-learn how to walk.
It was during this time she knew she needed a goal to focus on, something to keep her going through the difficult days. One day, she decided to start training to climb Half Dome, the rocky peak in Yosemite National Park. She kept that image in her mind, as she worked through the hard, hard times of Lyme treatment. In August 2008, she accomplished that goal.
She kept training. In 2008, O’Kane completed her first-ever half-ironman race. In 2009, she climbed Half Dome again, and also competed with Team USA in the Aquathon event in Australia. (“It was the first time I’d ever had a passport. The first time I’d ever left this country.”)
This week, she’s in Budapest, Hungary, once again with Team USA, to compete in the ITU Triathlon World Championships. Her category is Women age 45-49. She’ll do the Aquathon (a run/swim/run event) and the Sprint/Triathlon (swim/bike/run).
(Two other Sacramento woman have qualified for Team USA in different age brackets, O’Kane’s sister, Denise DeTrano, and her friend and training partner, Janet Trippet, a teacher at St. Francis High School.)
It would be tempting to assume that O’Kane’s health problems are behind her. Surprisingly, that’s not true. While Lyme treatment helped immensely, she still must cope with residual neurological difficulties.
“I make involuntary moaning sounds while I’m running–can’t help it,“ she says. “And I often have lots of shaking and trembling. I get strange looks from the other athletes. But you know what? That’s their problem, not mine.”
O’Kane has a message for other Lyme patients: “You can fight this disease. It’s hard, but you can do it.”
O’Kane will compete in Budapest on Sept. 8th & 11th, and then do some sightseeing with her traveling companions. (“None of this put-off-until-tomorrow stuff anymore. I want to travel now!") She’ll return in time to take part in the Sacramento Lymewalk & Picnic on Sept. 25. (11 a.m., McKinley Park, 601 Alhambra Blvd.)
The Sacramento event is part of the 2010 CALDA Lymewalks, six events throughout the state in September and October. Sponsored by the California Lyme Disease Association, the walks are meant to raise awareness of the disease while raising money for Lyme research. For more information about how to participate, go to www.lymedisease.org.