Onaway man almost dies from allergic reaction

by Peter Jakey-Managing Editor

There have been numerous stories on the Internet over the last few months regarding tick bites leading to life-threatening allergies.


RICK MCDOWELL’S health is improving, but the allergic reaction he suffered two weeks ago has taken a lot out of him. He believes it was caused by a tick bite. (Photo by Peter Jakey)

There are stories on USA Today’s Web site, along with the New York Post, that the lone star tick is sending people to hospital emergency rooms.

Most of the reports are coming out of the southeast part of the United States, but they could be here in northern Michigan.

According to a map released by the Center for Disease Control, there have been reports of lone star ticks as far north as the Michigan/Ohio border.

The map may have to be revised.

Rick McDowell, who lives six miles south of Onaway and has been coming to the area since he was nine, said two ticks bit him last June.

He’s cognizant of ticks because his wife Jeanne was bit by one in the Upper Peninsula and contracted Lyme Disease.

The couple took up fulltime residency from Lake Orion seven years ago and are always conducting “tick checks” before going into their Allis Township home. They found 24 of them on their dog this past summer.

Rick says he remembers when there were no ticks around, and that was 15 years ago.

In July, he had a reaction. His airway closed off and he broke out in hives.

“I had no clue what caused it,” said Rick.

As time went on, it became apparent that the severe allergic reactions were being caused by red meat. He noticed a reaction with pork, but had no issues with chicken.

Then, he tried hamburger two weeks ago.

Three hours later, he went into anaphylactic shock.

“It hit me hard,” said Rick, who was treating other episodes with over-the-counter liquid Benadryl. Nothing helped. He stopped breathing. His blood pressure was non-existent. Some family members though they had lost him.

The blisters looked like a “horror show,” said Jeanne. “The blisters were on top of blisters.”

The family transported him to Petoskey for treatment and for an overnight stay.

The couple was pleased with the treatment and the diligence of staff at McLaren Northern Michigan Hospital. The next morning an allergist entered his hospital room and asked him if he had been to Texas. He has not.

Rick is recovering well, although he admits, “It took a lot out of me.”

He is prepared for any other situations with an epinephrine auto injector, or EpiPen that has a spring-loaded needle that exits the tip and will go through clothes. In the meantime, he can’t eat hamburger, but the part that makes it real difficult is not being able to eat bear meat or venison. It’s not worth the risk.

“It’s going to be tough,” said Rick.

Though it has not been scientifically proven, researchers believe the lone star tick produces a sugar from its gut called “Alpha-Gal” for short. In some cases, the human immune system develops an allergic reaction to the sugar. Because Alpha-Gal is also found in red meat, a bite by the lone star tick may translate to an allergic reaction.

Repeated tick bites can potentially cause the antibody response level of Alpha-Gal to rise, worsening reactions. Jeanne said regular food allergies react quicker. This can take two to six hours to develop. Kevin Prevost, an environmental sanitarian with District Health Department No. 4 that covers Presque Isle and Cheboygan counties said he was unaware of any instances of someone suffering a reaction to eating meat in the region.

Prevost advises people to wear long sleeves and pants in the woods, and to tuck pant legs into boots and socks.

>“To cut down on the opportunity for a tick to get inside your clothing and onto your skin,” said Prevost. “Use tick repellant spray or lotions.”

He also suggests “tick checks,” before going in.

Prevost said there seems to be a higher occurrence of people encountering ticks.

“I’m not necessarily sure that’s the case always. I think a lot of it has to do with knowledge now. People have been more aware of it with the onset of Lyme Disease and things like that. I think people are more cautious and more careful and find more that way.”