Erin & Jimmy Walker: Our Lyme Disease Story
In the midst the COVID-19 outbreak, when precious time outside is at a premium, we all need to remember that it is also the start of tick season. Warm weather equates directly to the nasty little insects that can carry multiple diseases that can wreck your life.
I’m Erin Walker, wife of six-time PGA Tour winner and Major winner, Jimmy Walker. Both my husband and I experienced Lyme disease first hand and we want to share our story with you as a warning. A cautionary tale. And since May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month, this is the perfect opportunity to share it.
My husband Jimmy plays professional golf all over the world. The thought of getting bitten by a tick and having it severely alter his life never crossed our minds.
In the fall of 2016 Jimmy went on a hunting trip in south Texas. He never saw a tick or a bite or a rash, but a week later, while he was in Australia for a golf tournament, he experienced what he thought was a bout of the flu, including body aches, feeling run down, and exhaustion.
In short, he felt awful.
When he returned from Australia, he thought he would return to feeling normal, but the bouts of the “flu” feeling – which had come to include severe exhaustion and brain fog – kept reoccurring weekly or biweekly.
Something was not right.
The overall unwell feeling kept reoccurring over a period of months. His golf suffered tremendously because he didn’t have the energy to practice. He was experiencing something we deemed as “brain to body disconnects” where he would see the shot, know how to execute it, but his body would fail to do so. He even developed the chipping yips caused by the disconnect.
His confidence in his profession crumbled and with that, he fell into a depression about not feeling well and not being able to perform at his job.
After being urged by his Sports Psychologist, a blood panel was drawn in March of 2017. When all of the bloodwork finally came back, Jimmy was positive for mononucleosis, West Nile virus, two different types of bacterial pneumonia (which ticks can also carry) and Lyme disease - all active in his body at the same time.
Lyme is still considered “rare” in Texas so if the sports psychologist hadn’t suggested we test for it, the testing would never have occurred.
Lyme protocols are not a “one size fits all” treatment. What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for other people. A major factor in how successful treatment can be is how long a person has had the disease and how their own immune system handles the disease. I have personally met so many people that went years without an accurate diagnosis and who have struggled to get well.
There is so much unknown about Lyme and tick-borne illnesses and the research is severely underfunded. The testing is highly inaccurate and often times results in false negatives, so people don’t get diagnosed correctly.
After Jimmy was diagnosed in April of 2017, I became his “caregiver.” I made sure Jimmy could focus on healing and using what little energy he had to focus on continuing to play golf at the highest level. I joke that during those years, I would cook AND do the dishes.
I remember some nights when we would finish eating and put our kids to bed at 7:30, more often than not Jimmy would fall asleep while reading with them. I also recall brain fog incidents where he would plug the sink up to thaw something and would walk away, completely forgetting about the running water until the sink overflowed. Or even forgetting about a pot boiling on the stove and all the water would boil out.
There were several discussions of Jimmy retiring from golf because he couldn’t compete at the same level he was used to. Would Lyme end his career? Was it really possible that a tiny tick that he never saw - never even had a rash! - could possibly ruin his livelihood and career?
After 3 1/2 years of battling, Jimmy has slowly returned to normal. After we finally received an accurate diagnosis for Jimmy, he started an extensive protocol with a doctor in Connecticut and was on antibiotics for a year and a half. Once the antibiotic protocol was finished, Jimmy also did a series of Ozone treatments and drastically altered his diet. By following a Keto diet, he has been able to keep the Lyme symptoms at bay. The Keto diet lowers the inflammation in his body, and he feels “mostly normal” most days.
There are signs that “old Jimmy Walker” is returning to form on the golf course, as well. Hopefully once we are out of quarantine, those positive steps on the golf course will continue their upward trajectory.
I was also diagnosed with Lyme disease in December of 2017 during the time I was caring for Jimmy. I had a few of the same symptoms as Jimmy but also quite a few different symptoms, including chronic headaches and vertigo so bad that thought I would fall over. I also never saw a tick or a rash and have no idea when I was infected or where.
I followed a similar protocol to Jimmy and after 9 months of antibiotics and a few ozone treatments, I also feel mostly normal most days. I still have occasional headache flairs every once in a while, but I don’t experience vertigo anymore. I still have brain fog days, but I’m not leaving sinks on to overflow.
The CDC says that the typical erythema rash occurs in approximately 70-80% of people infected by Lyme. This rash is a major indicator of Lyme, but in my own personal meetings of several patients very few ever find the tick or a rash. I’ve met people that have been to dozens of doctors, even in states where Lyme is more prevalent, before receiving an accurate diagnosis.
I have met people with ports in their chests for IV antibiotic therapies, people who struggle to walk up a flight of stairs without needing to sit down, and children who are unable to attend school because they are too sick.
We are both very lucky because we are success stories. We both received an accurate diagnosis fairly quickly and found successful treatment. Early accurate diagnosis is key. You have to be the champion of your own health - that is the number one takeaway from this entire ordeal.
We are all very aware of our surroundings now. We haven’t let our situation keep us from enjoying the outdoors, but we definitely have changed the way we react to the outdoors. We wear bug spray and do tick checks diligently after being outside, and we avoid tall grass, leaf piles and other tick habitats.