THE WIDENING CIRCLE: A Lyme Disease Pioneer Tells Her Story. By Polly Murray. St. Martin's Press, 321 pp., $23.95
By Ann Hirschberg
Infectious disease sleuths are supposed to be lab-coated AIDS researchers or Dustin Hoffman types in "hot zone" suits as seen in "Outbreak." A genteel, New England landscape painter and mother of four does not fit the picture. Yet this medical pioneer uncovered Lyme disease, the fastest growing infectious disease next to AIDS and the number one vector-borne disease in our country.
The "Widening Circle" in Polly Murray's title refers not only to the expanding tell-tale rash which is the sure sign of Lyme disease, but to the research that has had to reach further and further to find the answers to this insidious tick-borne scourge. The "Circle" also encompasses the incredible numbers of medical professionals to whom Lyme disease sufferers are sent by uninformed doctors who can't or won't try to treat them.
After an incredible range of symptoms and many hospital stays for pain and procedures for the whole Murray family, Polly was told the illness was "all in her head." Her doctor became furious when she approached the health department with her findings that not only her family, but a large cluster of people in her Lyme, Connecticut area were afflicted. He accused her of "stirring up trouble."
Murray's intelligence and persistence led her to more research and finally to Yale University in 1975 where her findings were considered researchable by the doctors there.
"They were spirited, like archaeologists who'd unearthed an intriguing artifact, some bit of pottery that promises even greater riches will surface with just a few more turns of the spade.
"I certainly shared their enthusiasm. On the other hand, I'd been "in the field" for a while, and I knew it wasn't going to be easy to figure everything out so fast. Whatever this illness was, it was complicated, in that it involved so many systems of the body, and my instincts told me it was going to elude definition for some time to come."
Twenty years later, the search should have come to a happy ending with the advance of medical technology and millions in grants for research. The definitive test for Lyme disease and the "magic bullet" treatment should have been discovered.
Sadly, there is still no conclusive, reliable test for Lyme disease. Grants are sparse and the medical archeological "spades" are turning slowly. It is known that early treatment with antibiotics can arrest the disease. Left untreated, patients face the horrific sequalae Murray and her family still endure.
Though the disease has been reported in all 50 states, most doctors are not well informed and many are still saying," You can't have that in Ohio" and "There has never been a case reported here." The Ohio Department of Health Vector-borne Disease Unit figures stand at close to 500 reported cases. Though many doctors are not reporting cases (too much paperwork), the Centers for Disease Control case numbers showed a 58% increase in the U.S. in 1994.
Polly Murray's measured journey through this painful odyssey continues. Her tenacity and reasoned clarity shine through her writing. Along the way, you get to know her wonderful family, two of whom became doctors: a heroic accomplishment, all things considered. Murray continues the search for answers and has become not just a symbol, but a dedicated educator. She addresses medical professionals and researchers, including an appearance at Case Western Reserve Medical School in Cleveland, where one son was a student in 1989.
"The Widening Circle" goes beyond a tale of medical sleuthing. Murray knows the patient's struggle with Lyme disease and the parent's anguish. This book has much well researched and first-hand information for physicians and patients. She examines the need for education, collaboration, and respect, and explains why these are required not only of researchers, but of physicians treating Lyme disease patients in order to deal with this puzzling affliction.