AUGUSTA, Maine — For Bill Whitten, “alternative treatment” for Lyme disease means something different than it does for most people.
He’s spent hours practicing various forms of martial arts, focusing intently on channelling negative energy out of his body.
He’s been stung hundreds of times by bees. On purpose.
He’s stood for hours in the ocean, hoping the sea would cleanse his body of disease.
He’s been to Native American sweat lodges and — to this day — a peace pipe given to him by a Lakota medicine man serves as a healing talisman. Yes, Whitten smokes it regularly.
He also has sought relief from traditional Western medicine, including a lengthy regimen of antibiotics that he believes finally made the difference. He’s been mostly symptom-free for two years.
“Even my wife would say ‘come on, get out of bed, you can do it. Do your work,’” Whitten said Monday at the State House, describing his struggles with Lyme disease. “I just couldn’t do it. It’s so hard for people to believe you and understand. Even for myself to remember back, I think, ‘Was that real?’ It’s almost like this dream or something that happened because it was so bad, so painful and so debilitating. It’s just awful.”
Whitten, 66, of North Yarmouth is a lobbyist for county commissioners and assistant Cumberland County manager, but his support for a bill being heard Wednesday is personal.
“It’s about letting people and their doctors have options,” he said. “Different people respond to different treatments.”
LD 422, sponsored by Rep. Deb Sanderson, R-Chelsea, would give doctors clearance to dispense long-term antibiotic therapy to patients who have acute, persistent or chronic Lyme disease. Specifically, it would prohibit the Board of Licensure in Medicine from disciplining a physician for doing so.
Maine is the only state in New England that doesn’t allow for such treatment, according to Sanderson.
“We’re in the hot zone for Lyme nationally,” said Sanderson. “It’s a raging epidemic when you think about it, and there is so much that is still unknown about it.”
Whitten said that if a medical specialist hadn’t broken the rules, he’d probably still be incapacitated by Lyme disease, if not worse.
Sanderson said she realized last year while debating another Lyme disease bill how entrenched some in the medical community are against administering long-term antibiotics, as well as how many Mainers are leaving the state in desperate quests to receive treatment.
“Are there risks to antibiotics? Sure there are,” she said. “But these people can’t walk, they’re in constant pain, and they’re constantly sick. You really have to weigh your options at that point.”
Whitten is far from the only person who has suffered from Lyme disease and taken his plight public. BDN outdoors columnist George Smith detailed the struggles of his friend Harry Vanderweide last week.
Smith used another post to document some of the reasons why Lyme is becoming an increasingly serious problem in Maine, including deep snow this winter that insulated ticks from the extreme cold, and a new strain of the virus that has shown up in other states.
There were more than 1,300 confirmed new cases of Lyme disease in Maine in both 2013 and 2014.
“We should just let people have options because there are other answers out there for people,” said Whitten. “Don’t force the doctors to do it, but if they want to, let them. People are living in hell. You can’t understand it if you haven’t had it, but once you get to a certain point, you’ll try anything.”