'I thought I was going to die.' An Arkansas woman's year-long ordeal with tick-borne illness
When Krysti Zulpo, a 50-year-old real estate agent, went hiking in the Pinnacle Mountain Area in April 2019, she never imagined it would lead to a harrowing health crisis.
While hiking, Zulpo tripped over a log and fell in the leaves.
"I laid there for quite a while because I was laughing because I felt kind of stupid."
She believes this is when she was bit by a lone star tick.
"About a day or two later, I started itching on my cheek in the back," Zulpo said.
A friend helped Zulpo pull off a tick with a small white spot on its back. "I Googled it and I knew it was a lone star tick but I didn't think anything about it," she said.
Leaves and wooded areas are prime habitats for ticks according to Kelly Loftin, an extension entomologist, and professor at the University of Arkansas, adding that they tend to hang out on brush and leaf litter looking for a host.
"We call this questing," he said. "They're sitting in a waiting posture for a host to walk by or climb onto a host" He points out that ticks do not fly or jump.
Ticks do bite, but Loftin says there's more going on.
"They release anticoagulants to allow the blood to flow, and they release a chemical that allows them to cement themselves to the host."
A few days after the fall, Zulpo began to feel bad, and the symptoms continued for months. They included fatigue, headaches, and her blood sugar and triglycerides were out of control.
"I don't know why they were so high. I wasn't eating anything to make them be high," she said.
She had flu-like symptoms and almost daily, migraine-like headaches.
Dr. Laura Rothfeldt, the state public health veterinarian for the Arkansas Department of Health says that flu-like symptoms are common with tick-bourne illnesses, and likens it to the summer flu.
A year with no answers
In late 2019, Zulpo moved to Kansas for work. Throughout the transition, her symptoms worsened. She began seeing doctors that January where she was tested for several different illnesses — including cancer — but could find no explanation for her symptoms.
In February, she developed a rash in the same area as the tick bite.
"It got so bad I couldn't wear underpants, panties, at all," she said.
By March 2020, Zulpo was so sick she could not get off the couch.
"I lost movement in my left leg. I couldn't walk. The pain was so excruciating, it made me want to scream."
At the end of March, she moved back to Arkansas when downsizing due to COVID-19 caused the company she was working for to let her go.
In April, she saw a new doctor. "I went to him crying telling him what happened, how I was feeling. I felt like I was dying on the inside."
This new doctor decided to test her for tick-borne illnesses.
More than a year after the bite, Zulpo finally received a diagnosis of Rocky Mountain spotted fever.
She immediately started a course of doxycycline and steroids. That's when things took a really bad turn.
"I thought I was going to die"
After her first round of treatment, Zulpo started running a high fever. "My eyes were burning with fever."
She had been in bed for 10 straight days and was now running a 102-degree temperature so she was given another round of medication.
After 20 days of antibiotics, she still could not get out of bed, she had lost more than 30 pounds.
A third test revealed the bacteria was still in her body, and she was prescribed a third round of medication.
By the last round of treatment in June of 2020 she was in a wheelchair.
"My mom looked at me and said 'you look like your father did when he died,' and I thought you're right. I thought I was going to die."
Finally, her fever broke, and after more than a year of illness, pain, and months of treatment, Zulpo started improving, but she was still having trouble eating.
Another tick-related diagnosis
"I told my mom, I just don't need to eat. Eating makes me sick."
Her mother, Linda Zulpo, suggested that she may have inherited a food allergy from the tick bite.
Sure enough, a doctor in Bentonville diagnosed Krysti with Alpha Gals Syndrome.
According to the Mayo Clinic, Alpha Gals is an "allergy to red meat and other products made from mammals."
In the United States, the condition most often begins when "a lone star tick bites someone." The tick transmits a sugar molecule called alpha-gal into the body which can trigger an immune system response that can produce allergic reactions to red meat and other mammal products.
"It changed my entire life, down to my shampoo, everything has to be animal-free," Krysti Zulpo said.
The lasting effects
Zulpo says that even though she's better now, she continues to deal with the effects of her ordeal.
Aside from the Alpha Gals diagnosis, she still experiences fatigue.
"I'm not 100 percent. I can't go a full five days anymore," she said. "I usually can do two, but then I have to rest."
Rothfeldt says that most cases of tick-borne illness do not have lasting effects. "The spotted fever, sometimes there are people who experience the symptoms for a while that include fatigue and just running out of stamina, but those are not very common."
Zulpo encourages others to educate themselves on tick-borne illnesses and to take precautions when outside, including using insect repellent and checking for ticks after you come inside.
"I would never have imagined that something as small as a tick bite would completely change my life. It doesn't care who you are. If you're bitten by one, you're bitten by one, and it can kill you or change your life if you don't know what you're dealing with."