Woman, now 29, needs 16 joint replacements after contracting Lyme disease

A woman suffering from ‘Lyme arthritis’ had such severe pain in her knees when walking that she needed a wheelchair and hands that had to be surgically straightened from a permanent fist – and still can’t bend properly.

Meghan Bradshaw, 29, of Charlotte, North Carolina, has already had 16 joint replacements — including on both shoulders, knees, hips and ankles. She also needs 24-hour care for tasks such as brushing her teeth or getting dressed.

It took doctors four years to diagnose her with arthritis caused by tick-borne Lyme disease. About one in four patients suffers from this form of the disease, experts say, which develops when bacteria from the infection invade joint tissue. It can lead to permanent damage if not treated promptly.

Bradshaw’s case was described by her doctors as “the worst” form of Lyme arthritis they had ever seen. She now says that through all the substitutions she is the “bionic” woman and that she has been “reconstructed” from the waist down.

Meghan Bradshaw, now 29 and from Charlotte, North Carolina, suffered from what doctors said was the “worst” case of Lyme disease-induced arthritis they’d seen. She was only diagnosed in 2019, more than four years after symptoms appeared

She also needed at least eight joint replacements before her 30th birthday.  Pictured above after her right ankle was replaced, as well as scars from replacing both knees and her left ankle

She also needed at least eight joint replacements before her 30th birthday. Pictured above after her right ankle was replaced, as well as scars from replacing both knees and her left ankle

The disease — which can cause arthritis when it gets in the joints — caused her hands to curl up into a fist permanently (pictured).  They needed surgery to reopen

The disease — which can cause arthritis when it gets in the joints — caused her hands to curl up into a fist permanently (pictured). They needed surgery to reopen

Bradshaw needed round-the-clock care due to the illness and needed help with daily tasks, such as brushing his teeth and dressing.  She also needed a wheelchair

Bradshaw needed round-the-clock care due to the illness and needed help with daily tasks, such as brushing his teeth and dressing. She also needed a wheelchair

Lyme disease – spread by bites from infected ticks – causes a characteristic “bulls-eye” rash around the bite site in its early stages, as well as fatigue, headaches and chills.

But the disease can also lead to ‘Lyme arthritis’ when the bacteria behind it get into joints, leading to inflammation and swelling and making patients have trouble moving joints because of the pain.

Treatment must be started quickly to prevent permanent damage, with patients generally being offered a four-week course of antibiotics. This is then repeated if the disease has not gone away.

Lyme Arthritis: When the Tick-Borne Disease Invades the Joints

Below are details about Lyme arthritis, the medical name for inflammation of the joints caused by tick-borne Lyme disease.

What is Lyme Arthritis?

This is when Lyme disease gets into the connective tissue in the joints, leading to symptoms similar to arthritis.

It must be treated quickly to avoid permanent damage to the joints and the need for joint replacements.

What are the symptoms?

Patients with this disease have swollen joints that feel warm to the touch. They can also be painful and cause difficulty moving.

It normally affects only one joint, the knee, but it can also be present in the ankles, elbow, jaw, wrist, and hips, among others.

These symptoms develop within days to months after being bitten by a Lyme disease tick.

How is it treated?

Patients are given a four-week course of antibiotics. This is repeated until the symptoms disappear.

Traditional methods of treating arthritis can also help relieve symptoms.

How Common Is Lyme Arthritis?

About one in 10 patients who contract Lyme disease develop the arthritis, estimates suggest.

This is the case even when detected at an early stage.

Does it cause permanent damage?

Those not treated promptly are at greater risk of permanent damage to their joints.

This can lead to them needing surgery to replace them.

Source: Center for Disease Control and Prevention

For Bradshaw, Lyme disease symptoms first appeared while she was in college — leaving her fatigued and faint, she told TODAY.

Later during her studies, she developed severe joint pain, which made it difficult for her to walk and perform daily tasks, such as brushing her teeth or getting dressed.

It got so bad that by the time she graduated in 2015, she had to give up her new job in Seattle, Washington and move home where her parents took care of her around the clock.

Doctors were amazed at her condition and were unable to diagnose. Their focus was mainly on autoimmune diseases – conditions in which the immune system attacks the body.

In the end, they suggested she might have rheumatoid arthritis — in which the immune system attacks joints. But Bradshaw missed the “rheumatoid factor” — a protein made by the immune system that can attack healthy joints — the key to the disease.

She started a course of immunosuppressants and steroids, and Bradshaw also changed her diet and cut out alcohol to help reduce inflammation.

Initially, the symptoms subsided and she started to get some exercise again.

But then the pain increased and she had to have a joint replacement every three to four months. In 2017, her knees had to be replaced, followed a few months later by her hips and ankles.

Her hands also curled into permanent fists and their bones began to fuse together, prompting doctors to offer even more surgeries.

It was at this point in 2019 that doctors at the Cleveland Clinic tested her for several diseases, with results positive for Lyme disease.

Bradshaw described the moment, saying: “It was a huge relief because it was like, ‘ok, great, now we know what’s causing this'”.

‘[But] at the same time, of course, it was very frustrating because the misdiagnoses I had been given and the delayed diagnosis I had experienced caused further complications.”

By this time, it felt like she was “in the body of an 85-year-old woman” despite being in her twenties.

“My lower limbs are essentially reconstructed at this point,” she said. “My fingers are fused because the arthritis was so bad.”

Doctors started her on a course of antibiotics – used to clear Lyme disease – given through an IV to her chest. She was told this would be necessary in the long run.

But by this time, her joints had suffered such damage that she had to have both shoulders replaced.

Surgery was also performed to unfold her fingers, which allowed her to regain about 70 percent of the movement. They are held in place by some metal.

dr. Glenn Gaston, a hand specialist at OrthoCarolina where she was treated, said Bradshaw’s case was one of the “worst” he’s seen.

“She’s the worst case of Lyme disease,” he told TODAY. “There’s never been a patient in any textbook or article I’ve seen that comes close to hers.”

Bradshaw is shown above.  Doctors have admitted the initial misdiagnosis led to a worsening of the progression of her disease

Bradshaw is shown above. Doctors have admitted the initial misdiagnosis led to a worsening of the progression of her disease

“The chance of a Lyme patient getting on stage with Meghan in it is incredibly rare.”

In a press release, OrthoCarolina said, “The misdiagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis worsened the progression of her Lyme disease because treatment was continually delayed.”

Bradshaw doesn’t know when or where she was bitten by a tick that may have led to Lyme disease.

The disease is rarely reported in North Carolina, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say, but it’s more common in its northern neighbor Viringia. Experts warn that climate change is causing disease-causing ticks to travel south.

But she is now determined to use her experience to inspire others and raise awareness about the risks of Lyme disease.

Bradshaw has donated five of her amputated joints for research that she hopes will help scientists understand why Lyme disease has caused so much damage.

She also now studies public health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, hoping to use her experience to educate others about the risks of Lyme disease.

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