Lyme in Loudoun County | Denise Corbo’s Story


Loudoun County teacher Denise Corbo truly is a woman who has it all. A radiant beauty by any measure, many would envy Corbo for her large and loving family, fulfilling lifetime career, stellar professional accolades, business savvy, and community service. The kicker? Corbo also has Lyme disease, which she has battled for almost 20 years.

“The person you see today is not the person I was in 2000, when I first came down with Lyme,” said Corbo. “It’s been a long road, but I got my life back – and I’m making up for lost time.”

Corbo, who was named Washington Post 2018 Loudoun County Teacher of the Year, is currently a candidate for a seat on the Loudoun County School Board, all while working as a nationally board-certified teacher for gifted and talented for three Loudoun elementary schools: Horizon and Sugarland in Sterling, and Steuart Weller in Ashburn.

Despite the many challenges Lyme presents, Corbo also founded and runs her Ashburn-based nonprofit corporation, StoryBook Treasures, which provides curriculum and materials that instill a love of reading for thousands of at-risk students across the country.

IT STARTED WITH A TICK IN HER HAIR
Corbo has a glorious mane of thick hair, so she’s not sure how long the tick had been attached to her scalp. One day in 2000, she noticed a hard bump and upon inspection realized it was a tick. She had no knowledge or understanding of Lyme disease, so she removed the tick and thought no more about it.

As a mom to three young children, Corbo often played with her kids in their new Ashburn yard. “No camping, hiking, or anything like that,” she said. They had a small dog, but she suspects the tick arrived when sod was installed in the yard, or maybe it was their proximity to what was then the Xerox property (now National Conference Center), which was known for an unusually heavy deer population.

SYMPTOMS
About two weeks after discovering her tick, Corbo developed a persistent stiff neck. She sought help from a chiropractor, but the cost and time commitment (three times weekly) of treatments became impossible to maintain while working full time and caring for her family.

About a month later she began to notice random episodes of dizziness and nausea. Her primary care doctor suspected an ear infection. This was followed by months of erratic bouts of fatigue and generally feeling not well.

About four months after being bitten, she developed tingling and numbness on her left side, including arm, hand, and leg. Her neck pain persisted and was joined by intense pressure on the right side of her head. This time the doctor blamed migraines. “At that point, I became impatient,” said Corbo. “I had never had migraines before, so why now?” She looked the doctor in the eye and told him it didn’t make sense. “Something’s wrong,” she declared, and he attributed it to stress.

The next three years were filled with countless doctor appointments and many tests – but no one was able to offer a diagnosis that satisfied Corbo. One day, in addition to all her previously mentioned symptoms, Corbo experienced chest pain that landed her in the hospital. Blood work revealed muscle damage, and a CT scan showed a small spot on her brain. A MRI suggested the spot was a cluster of blood vessels, so the doctor again wanted to treat for migraines. “I’m not having migraines; it must be something else,” she pleaded.

Four years after her tick bite, Corbo suffered her first seizure. The ER doctor referred her to a neurologist, who launched a series of tests, all with negative results.

Over the next year, she suffered with all the previous symptoms and continued to have a seizure about once every three weeks. She finally made an appointment with an infectious disease specialist and was outraged when he suggested she visit a psychologist.

One day in 2000, she noticed a hard bump and upon inspection realized it was a tick. She had no knowledge or understanding of Lyme disease, so she removed the tick and thought no more about it.

“I lost my mind on him,” she said, pointing out that she had successfully delivered three kids and held a demanding job. “I am well educated. I’m not stressed, fatigued, or crazy,” she shot back. “I am sick, and I am not leaving here until you have a plan.” His response was to give her a referral for a GI study.

Weary and in tears, she went home, but that afternoon a friend called with a suggestion that changed her life. “Maybe you have Lyme disease,” she said, and she pointed her to Sterling Family Practice and nurse practitioner, Jessica Scalzo.

RECOVERY
Corbo’s first office visit involved a list of 75 questions. “I answered all but two as yes,” she said. “By that time, I was having memory and rapid recall problems – simple things, like my address, telephone number, and home security code.” A battery of tests followed, both blood and urine, as well as another MRI and a cardiologist visit. The conclusion: Lyme disease. The treatment: a never-ending cocktail of natural supplements and antibiotics that gets adjusted regularly.

One of the doctors involved with her early treatment was shocked at the level of inflammation in Corbo’s body. Within two months of treatment, Corbo shed 15 pounds that she attributes to that inflammation.

Two years into treatment, Corbo asked to be put on disability. “So many years of treatments and out-of-pocket expenses wore me down,” she said. “I was so tired.” Her physician, Dr. Sarah Fletcher, urged her to not give up.

Corbo did not give up, and under the care of her medical team she has decided Lyme will never win this battle. “I have my life back,” she said. Although she still has occasional flare-ups of symptoms and seizures, Corbo says she’s feeling strong. “Life is short, and I’m going to push as hard as I can. Lyme is not going take me down,” said Corbo.

Words of advice to anyone who suspects Lyme disease? “Don’t wait, because early treatment is best,” said Corbo.

“Go with your gut and challenge your doctors if you think they are just guessing or off mark. Change doctors if necessary and get second opinions. Insist on being tested.”

Think You Might Have Lyme Disease?
If you have been bitten by a tick or develop symptoms characteristic of Lyme disease, don’t wait: make an appointment with a medical professional qualified to screen and test for Lyme disease (such as internists, general practitioners, pediatricians, neurologists, infectious disease specialists, dermatologists, rheumatologists, nurse practitioners, and physicians assistants). Medical centers devoted exclusively to Lyme diagnosis and treatment exist, but they may not work within insurance plans. Talk about payment options.

If costs are a concern, consult with your insurance company to make sure providers are in network and verify coverage of all tests in advance.

Great Local, State, and National Resources:

LOUDOUN COUNTY HEALTH AND HUMAN SERVICES, LYME DISEASE:
Lyme Information: loudoun.gov/1273/Lyme-Disease
Downloadable Brochure and Tick Identification Guide: loudoun.gov/DocumentCenter/View/55677/ Tick-and-Tick-Borne-Diseases-in-Loudoun- County?bidId=

LOUDOUN LYME ADVOCATES
Prevention and Support Group: meetup.com/Loudoun-LymeAdovcates

FAIRFAX COUNTY DIVISION OF ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH
Lyme Information: fairfaxcounty.gov/health/fightthebite/tickdiseases
Tick Identification Service: fairfaxcounty.gov/health/fightthebite/tickidentification

VIRGINIA DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH
Lyme Disease Fact Sheet: vdh.virginia.gov/epidemiology/epidemiology-factsheets/lyme-disease

NATIONAL CAPITAL LYME DISEASE ASSOCIATION
Education, advocacy, legislation: natcaplyme.org
CDC, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Comprehensive Lyme information and links:  cdc.gov/lyme