Class diagnoses rare tick-borne disease in student

Paul Smith’s College student-veteran has been through a lot

Bryan Giguere points to one of the many places he has been bitten by a tick in his years of hiking and camping. He recently was diagnosed and cured of the tick-borne illness babesiosis. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

PAUL SMITHS — Paul Smith’s College student Bryan Giguere had been feeling sick for most of the 2018-19 school year and didn’t know what was going on.

For around nine months he had been experiencing fatigue, dehydration and muscle cramps — once even landing him in the emergency room — with no sign of what was causing it. The waves of debilitating cramps were getting worse, doctors thought he might have leukemia, and then he learned he had a tick-borne disease.

“He had gone through several different hospitals, including (Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital), and went undiagnosed,” Paul Smith’s College professor Lee Ann Sporn said. “He really thought that he was going to die. (He thought) his liver was failing. (He thought) his kidneys were failing. They thought maybe he had leukemia. He was just really distraught.”

It was actually one of Sporn’s students who triggered the diagnosis. Sporn, who does research on ticks and the diseases they carry for the state through the school, said she was listening to a student in her class give a presentation on babesiosis near the end of the spring semester when the symptoms they were describing sounded familiar.

“I’m like, ‘Wait a minute! I think one of my other students has that!'” Sporn said.

Bryan Giguere sits on a bench beside a statue of Apollos “Paul” Smith. Giguere, a Paul Smith’s College student, was diagnosed with the tick-borne illness babesiosis after a professor told him to get tested for it. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

Giguere went to the VA hospital in Albany — he’s a Navy veteran — and was diagnosed through a blood test with babesiosis. After 10 days on antibiotics, he was cured.

Sporn said Giguere’s case was a perfect example of the need to get information about tick-borne diseases from the backcountry field to the medical field so health care providers can properly diagnose victims.

“It was just ridiculous that my classroom of undergrads had to figure out what he had,” Sporn said.

Giguere finished the semester on the dean’s list and in September will start his junior year in the wildlife management program.

Living with babesiosis for most of a year had been difficult, he said. The fatigue sometimes kept him from being able to shovel his way out of his driveway. That’s not just an excuse he gave his fiance. Babesiosis, while not commonly lethal, produces severe flu-like symptoms.

Blacklegged (deer) tick (Photo provided — Lennart Tange)

It is caused by parasites transmitted into the human blood stream by ticks.

Giguere said he is not sure where the tick that infected him bit him or where he was when he was bit.

“It could really be anywhere. I hike all over the place,” Giguere said. “I get tick bites all the time.”

He had just accepted that tick bites were a part of hiking and camping. Giguere said even with bug spray he would get bit, once having to remove a tick from his eyelid.

“In Ohio on a camping trip, I got home, and I still had 48 attached to me,” he said, running his hand up and down his left side.

Lee Ann Sporn speaks at Paul Smith’s College in summer 2017 about a bill that would require a federal task force to study tick-related diseases. (Enterprise photo — Justin A. Levine)

This is not the first time he has contracted a tick-borne disease, either. Several years ago he was bit by a Lone Star tick which gave him a meat allergy he has lived with since.

Giguere has survived a lot in his life. At age 18 he was diagnosed with lymphoma, a cancerous lymph node, which he had cut out of his shoulder. He also spent months at a time deep underwater as a Navy submarine nuclear electrician for nine years.

He pointed to the many cuts on his hands and arms from the different occasions he has been cut or stabbed.

“He’s got stabbed 17 times or something. I mean, his life story is just crazy,” Sporn said. “But the thing that almost got him was this tick bite.”

Giguere talks about these serious, life-threatening experiences lightly, and with a lot of sarcasm.

“I wish there was actually more information on (babesiosis),” he said. “But this disease is relatively new, at least new to this area, so nobody has any idea, which is always nice.”

Sporn said babesiosis can go undiagnosed often, and even if the carrier is not experiencing any symptoms, there is a danger that they can pass it on through blood transfusions.

Giguere works at AuSable Point state campground on Lake Champlain, south of Plattsburgh, and said he has been taking more precautions against ticks now.

“I’ve been very vigilant with bug spray, and treating my gear with permethrin before I go out,” Giguere said. “I’ve had enough tick-borne diseases for now. I’ll have to wait a while.”


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