Ross Douthat Illness: Lyme Disease, Catholic Suffering And The Frontiers Of Medicine

Ross Douthat ’02, a journalist for the New York Times, has written a heartbreaking and evocative memoir titled “The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery” in which he describes his five-year battle with Lyme disease.

The Gazette spoke with Douthat about his experiences with Lyme disease, the controversies surrounding the disease, his eventual recovery, and the lessons he learned about his own and other people’s suffering. This interview has been condensed and streamlined for readability and length.

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Personal Life

Douthat was born in San Francisco, California on November 28th, 1979, however, he spent much of his childhood in New Haven. Douthat switched religions twice during his formative years, first to Pentecostalism and later, with his family, to Catholicism. Patricia Snow, his mother, is a published author.

Charles Wilbert Snow, his great-grandfather, was the governor of Connecticut. Charles Douthat Sr. is an attorney and poet with a New Haven practice. Abigail Tucker, a journalist for The Baltimore Sun and a writer for Smithsonian, and Ross Douthat tied the knot in 2007. He and his family make their home in New Haven.

As previously mentioned, Douthat has chronic Lyme illness, a condition not acknowledged by conventional medicine despite his claims to the contrary. After relocating to Connecticut with his family in 2015, he began experiencing symptoms shortly thereafter. That’s what his book The Deep Places is about.

A Memoir of Illness and Discovery

The first few chapters of “The Deep Places” flow like a horror film’s opening credits. Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist, and his wife purchased a 1790s farmhouse on three acres of Connecticut pasture after feeling the tug of home and becoming worn out by life on Capitol Hill.

He’s feeling upbeat and perhaps a little self-satisfied. He explores the backyard meadow on the day of their last home inspection, watches the deer play, and muses that the acquisition “felt like validation that we were on the correct path, that I had planned and toiled and won the things I wanted and that I deserved them.”

But there’s a sinister undertone to the scene—something is waiting in those woods. Douthat is experiencing unusual vibrations in his head and lips, a swollen lymph node, and a stiff neck at home in Washington, D.C. His initial visit to an urgent care provider is diagnosed as a benign boil.

A few weeks later, he experiences a terrifying full-body shutdown that is “as if someone had twisted knobs randomly in all my systems” as he sits in an emergency room at dawn. The emergency room physician blames stress, as do an internist, neurology, rheumatologist, and gastroenterologist on future visits.

A psychiatrist who has seen him 11 times in 10 weeks disagrees. Local physicians only begin to realize that Douthat has a tick-borne illness once he has finished moving up north to Connecticut, the state that bears the moniker Lyme disease.

The results of the tests eventually show Bartonella co-infection and some Lyme antibodies, though not enough to make a conclusive diagnosis. Anyone familiar with the so-called Lyme Wars will predict that the treatment plan is less straightforward.

There are acknowledged hazards and, as of yet, no advantages to long-term antibiotic usage for persistent symptoms. The official recommendation is therefore to essentially wait it out. With various regimens and outcomes, several patients and a dissident group of physicians have disregarded this counsel.

Ross Douthat Illness
Ross Douthat Illness

Ross Douthat Illness

Specifically, two false beliefs are connected. First, all it takes to feel better is a round of antibiotics lasting four to six weeks. Many people believe this because it’s true; most cases of Lyme disease respond well to treatment in less than two weeks.

However, there is a sizable subset of the population for whom this short treatment does not prove effective, leading to persistent symptoms for which the current scientific consensus offers no remedy.

The fundamental issue is that while most people may be effectively treated with relative ease, a sizable minority faces insurmountable challenges. The third common error concerns chronic sickness in general, not only chronic Lyme disease.

When you haven’t had to deal with a chronic illness yourself, it can seem like nothing more than a little upgrade from the typical difficulties of life. Those who aren’t afflicted with a chronic illness may hear a person with a chronic illness complain of a headache, trouble sleeping, or exhaustion and think, “Well, that seems like what everybody goes through sometimes.”

This contributes to the widespread belief that those who suffer from chronic health issues are exaggerating their symptoms or otherwise acting dishonestly. Although these generalizations can indeed be accurate at times, the reality is that most people who suffer from what we call chronic Lyme disease experience something far more debilitating than just weariness or headaches.

This is an agony that never goes away. My goal in writing this book was, in part, to make the point that chronic illness, be it Lyme disease, long-term chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), or anything else, is a serious and life-altering issue for those who are affected.

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