Christina Ricucci on Her Life with Lyme Disease

September 16, 2015

Two years ago, Christina Ricucci, then 15, was living every dancer’s dream. She was training intensively at Dmitri Kulev Classical Ballet Academy, Westside Dance Project and Murrieta Dance Project in Southern California. She earned top awards at competitions, including Teen Best Dancer at The Dance Awards Nationals in 2013. (She even landed on a cover of
Dance Spirit as the 2014 Cover Model Search winner.)

As Teen Best Dancer, Christina spent a year traveling to conventions every weekend. But her grueling schedule started taking its toll—or at least that’s what she assumed when she started feeling out of sorts after a few months. As it turns out, Christina wasn’t just tired or rundown: While on a family trip to Mexico in the fall of 2013, she’d unknowingly contracted Lyme disease. Here’s the scary—and ultimately triumphant—story of Christina’s battle with the illness. (As told to Alison Feller)

Touring with JUMP and NUVO was amazing. But by the end of October 2013, I realized I wasn’t feeling like myself. I was growing increasingly tired, and I’d go from being really happy to feeling depressed and angry, and then back to happy. My mind also felt blurry—I couldn’t read, concentrate or even look at my phone.

I’ve always had issues with my thyroid and endocrine system: When I was 8, I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease and hypothyroidism, which basically means my metabolism runs super slowly. It’s always been manageable—I took one pill a day to keep my thyroid regulated. So when I started feeling sick, I figured it was my Hashimoto’s acting up, or maybe just something puberty-related.

But when my symptoms didn’t go away, I went to a naturopath—someone who specializes in holistic medicine. She ran some tests that indicated imbalances with my thyroid. She prescribed herbal remedies to help regulate it. On top of the thyroid medication (which a doctor had prescribed), I was taking about 20 pills every day.

For the next few months, I continued to take the pills, under the impression I was suffering because of my out-of-control thyroid. Soon, however, I got worse. My whole body ached and I had sharp pain in my knees and hips. I couldn’t even do a battement. I knew this wasn’t a side effect of Hashimoto’s—it felt different from anything I’d ever experienced.

By summer 2014, I was seeing multiple doctors and undergoing many tests every week. My family and I did everything we could think of—I took vitamins, I followed a strict healthy diet—but nothing helped.

Finally, my doctor brought up Lyme disease. It’s not always easy to diagnose; Lyme hides in your body and tricks it into thinking you have something else. But my doctor noticed infection markers in my blood. She ran two specific blood tests for Lyme, which came back positive, and a few days after my 16th birthday—almost a full year after I first started feeling sick—I was diagnosed with Lyme disease.

During this process, I continued to dance. I refused to let my sickness take dance away from me. But I was completely overworking myself, going to conventions every weekend, competing with my studio and taking regular classes and privates during the week. When I got the diagnosis, I was pretty scared about what it meant for my dancing. I didn’t want my life to change.

Lyme affects everyone differently. For me, it infected my brain—that’s why I was experiencing personality shifts and had excruciating headaches—as well as my joints and muscles. By January 2015, I’d finally hit my breaking point. I could barely walk. So I stopped dancing. It was time for me to take care of my body.

In the hospital (courtesy Ricucci)

My treatment was aggressive and went beyond taking pills. After trying many different procedures—including six months of ineffective oral antibiotics—I got an antibiotic PICC line, a tube that went into my arm and transmitted the medicine directly through my veins up to my heart. For the first week, I couldn’t move my arm because it was so sore. I was also exhausted. I drove roughly four hours twice a week to Las Vegas to see my doctor and get blood tests, and that was on top of daily doses of strong antibiotics through my PICC line, plus 90-minute hyperbaric treatments multiple times every week to help kill bacteria in my brain and bloodstream.

The side effects weren’t fun, but the good news was that it was working. After about a month, the pain in my hips and joints started to go away, and blood tests showed that my body was beginning to heal. I got my PICC line out three months later—and I felt ready to dance again! I took my first ballet class on April 30. I was excited to be back, even though I was so sore!

My personality also began returning to normal. It was like I woke up one morning and things were back in perspective. I saw what I went through and realized I could help other people by raising awareness about the disease.

When I announced on Instagram that I was being treated for Lyme, I received so much support. I felt really loved, and I’m so thankful. At first I was terrified to tell people; I didn’t know if they’d make fun of me, and I didn’t want anyone to think I was asking for sympathy.

Getting diagnosed with Lyme disease changed my life and my outlook. Initially I was mad about the whole situation. If I’d been diagnosed correctly and treated sooner, my recovery might have been smoother. But I’ve accepted that all I can do is keep getting better and stronger. I’m dancing as much as I can. I’m focused on getting my technique back to where it was. I’m not going to waste time being sad.

Lyme Disease 101

How do you get Lyme disease?

It’s transmitted by a tick bite, usually during the warmer months. In most cases, the infected tick must be attached to your body for more than a day and a half in order for Lyme to occur.

What are the symptoms?

The earliest sign is usually a rash

that looks like a bull’s-eye at the site of the bite. Then, the symptoms vary by person. You may feel fatigued, or have a headache, lack of appetite, muscle and joint aches and a fever. While not everyone develops a rash, the conventional thought is that if you don’t have a rash after being bitten, it’s unlikely you have Lyme disease.

How is it treated?

Because it’s caused by a bacterium, Lyme disease is typically treated with a course of antibiotics, especially if it’s detected early. Most cases aren’t life threatening, and it’s not contagious. Treating the symptoms with painkillers or muscle relaxants can help as well.

How can you prevent it?

While there’s no vaccine, the best way to avoid contracting Lyme disease is

to avoid being bitten by a tick. Wear long-sleeved clothing and a hat with

a rim whenever you’re in a tick-heavy area, and when you go inside, carefully examine your entire body for ticks. Promptly remove any you see. If you’ve been bitten, or if a rash develops, see a doctor—and bring the tick with you if possible.

Consultant: Dr. Ole Vielemeyer, MD, is an assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College in NYC.