Rare bite turns Harpswell woman into tick activist

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HARPSWELL — Patty O’Brien Carrier was visiting her daughter at college in Baltimore last fall when she woke up in the middle of the night.

She instantly knew something was wrong.

“I was hot, I was itching, I got out of bed and looked in the mirror and I was covered in hives,” she said. “My breath was becoming labored.”

Luckily her husband, a physician, was on hand to call an ambulance and also administer O’Brien Carrier’s epipen to her, which she received for reaction to a bee sting 15 years before.

It would take months, hours of testing, and another serious episode of anaphylactic shock, however, before she learned the cause of her discomfort: a red meat allergy developed as the result of a lone star tick bite. 

Now, she’s working with scientists at the University of Maine who are trying to learn more about the ticks migrating around the state.

O’Brien Carrier tries to spend at least an hour a day in her garden in North Harpswell, and was apparently bitten while gardening last August. 

The lone star tick, named for the singular white splotch found on their backs, are typically found in the southern United States, and can cause a variety of illnesses in animals and humans. 

The allergy O’Brien Carrier developed is the result of an intolerance to alpha-gal, a carbohydrate found in the cells of many animals, including cows, sheep and pigs. Lone star ticks transmit alpha-gal to the people they bite.

O’Brien Carrier first learned of the root of her reactions after undergoing allergy testing in Portland. During the appointment, she had a skin reaction akin to a mosquito bite after being administered traces of pork, lamb, and beef. The allergist sent her blood to a lab for more testing.

“Five days later they called me back and they said, ‘Patty we’re so sorry to tell you but you’ve been bitten by a lone star tick,” she said. “They said, ‘It’s a tick that usually we find in the South, we don’t find it in Maine, and you may no longer eat mammal.”

A new lab at the University of Maine at Orono, however, has been trying to determine if the bugs are becoming more common in Maine.

Griffin Dill, an integrated pest management professional, said the university has offered a tick identification program for roughly the last five or six years.

The initiative allows anyone in Maine to send in a tick found in-state, either dead or alive, for researchers to study.

A tick identification form, which is available on the UMaine website, asks for the date the tick was found, where it was discovered, and other questions such as where on the body a person was bitten.

“Anyone who finds a tick can send it to us free of charge and we can let them know what type of tick they’re dealing with,” Dill said.

O’Brien Carrier discovered Dill’s work one morning when she saw him on a TV news segment while staying in Bangor. Dill was talking about how the winter climate in Maine had effected local ticks, and O’Brien Carrier said she was “riveted.”

“I took it upon myself to go to Orono and track him down,” she said.

Since that first meeting with Dill, she has been sending in ticks from her garden to the university at least once a week. But no other lone star ticks have been found on her property. 

Dill said scientists are seeing lone star ticks more frequently in southern New England, across states including Massachusetts and Connecticut. He and his team are hoping to do a field survey of O’Brien Carrier’s property at some point.

“What we think is going on is with the tick is it’s brought in on migratory birds, for the most part we think it’s these isolated incidents where that’s happening,” he said. “So when someone finds one and it was acquired here we really try to follow up and do some field surveys.”

Ticks his team are primarily concerned about are deer ticks, also known as black-legged ticks, which are far more common in Maine, he said, especially south of Bangor.

He added he does not want Mainers to be “afraid” of the bugs, and said people going into the woods should cover exposed skin with clothes, boots, and chemical sprays such as permethrin.

O’Brien Carrier has also become serious about tick precautions. She sprays her gardening clothes every two weeks with the chemical and keeping them in a separate area in her home.

She will also be tested annually to see if she can eat red meat again. 

Educating others about how to protect themselves has also become important to her.

“People need to know about it, because I think that people may have also been bitten by a lone star, but may not have the severity of the symptoms that I have,” O’Brien Carrier said. “They don’t go back and say, ‘Oh, wow, look what I had for dinner at 7 o’clock.'” 

Elizabeth Clemente can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or eclemente@theforecaster.net. Follow Elizabeth on Twitter @epclemente

Patty O’Brien Carrier in her Harpswell garden, where last August she was bitten by a lone star tick, which is most often found in the southern U.S. As a result, she developed an allergy to red meat.

O’Brien Carrier now works with researchers at the University of Maine to distribute educational information about ticks.

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