Kayla Oblisk’s told Fox News she removed a tick from her toddler Jackson’s body in May after he played outside. Days later, on May 20, she began to notice symptoms of what she would later learn was a potentially fatal disease called Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF). Roughly a week later, her son was in the intensive care unit at Norton Children’s Hospital in Louisville.
“We didn’t realize the actual seriousness of the situation until we were in the ICU,” Oblisk, 24, said.
At one point, Jackson had swelling in his face that made it difficult for him to open his eyes. He was dehydrated and struggled to eat, and the pain led doctors to consider morphine for the toddler, who turned 2 while in the hospital, according to his mother’s Facebook posts. He also experienced low blood pressure and developed a stress-related heart murmur, among other symptoms and complications.
“My kid wouldn’t get up, he wouldn’t eat, he wouldn’t drink, he was running a 105-degree fever,” Oblisk told local news station 11 Live. “We couldn’t get him to do anything, if you touched him he screamed.” She also knew something was seriously wrong when her normally vocal child stopped talking.
“This experience has been something that I honestly wouldn’t wish upon my worst enemy. Watching your son laying in a hospital bed and not knowing for sure whether he’s going to make it out of this is just insane,” Oblisk told Fox News.
A bacterial disease, RMSF is spread through the bite of an infected tick, typically an American dog tick, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This type of tick can be found throughout most of the U.S. but primarily exists in the Eastern, Central and Western parts of the country. The brown dog tick, too, has been known to spread the disease in the states near the U.S.-Mexico border.
More specifically, states such as Arkansas, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Tennessee account for over half – 60 percent – of RMSF cases each year, per the CDC.
Symptoms of RMSF can include fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain and muscle pain. It can also cause a nasty rash, which “usually develops 2-4 days after the fever begins,” the CDC reported.
“The look of the rash can vary widely over the course of illness. Some rashes can look like red splotches and some look like pinpoint dots. While almost all patients with RMSF will develop a rash, it often does not appear early in the illness, which can make RMSF difficult to diagnose,” the CDC continued.
RMSF is reported under a category called “Spotted Fever Rickettsiosis,” or SFR, which is rare. In 2017, just more than 6,200 cases of SFR were reported.
As for Jackson, the toddler developed what his pediatrician at first thought was a viral rash. But Oblisk said “following her gut” helped her to realize the rash was a sign of something more serious, especially when her son’s condition continued to worsen.
“If you think something is wrong with your baby then you need to keep asking until you get real answers. Because you are your child’s voice,” she advised in one Facebook post.
To prevent serious complications, RMSF has to be treated quickly — specifically within the first five days symptoms appear. If not, the disease can be fatal. It can also lead to loss of limbs, the CDC warns. An antibiotic — Doxycycline — is typically administered to combat the ailment. Jackson received this antibiotic, but his doctors at first thought it was too late, according to Oblisk.
Luckily, Jackson is “doing much better,” his mother said, though she noted that the toddler will spend a few weeks in a rehabilitation facility to regain “normal functions of his legs and balance,” which were also affected.
“I have been bitten by hundreds of ticks and never thought that something like this could ever happen because you hear about tick-borne illnesses, but you never really see them around,” she said. “I knew that ticks carried illnesses, but I really thought that it was so rare that it would never happen to us.”
There is no vaccine to prevent RMSF, according to the CDC. Rather, it’s best to check yourself thoroughly for critters after being outside, especially in summer months when tick season is at its height. In addition to checking clothing and showering after coming inside, the CDC suggests checking under the arm, in and around the ears, inside the belly button and around the waist, among other areas.