Although the occurrence of tick-borne disease is concentrated in the northeastern United States, two River Forest residents have proof in their own homes that tick-borne disease exists in the village. And each has become outspoken in the village’s ongoing debate over controlling the local deer population as a method of reducing tick-borne illness.

John Roehger’s daughter suffered for years before she was diagnosed as having Lyme disease.

“We think she got it when she was four or five years old,” he said.

Roehger said Lyme disease compromised his daughter’s immune system. Although she exhibited symptoms while in fourth grade, she was not diagnosed until she was in seventh grade. 

Following treatment, including ozone therapy, he said she is doing “much better” but noted she missed 50 percent of schooling on and off for eight years. Now a senior in high school, she still has anxiety, he said, but other symptoms have subsided.

Gigi Hoke’s stepson, then 20, started exhibiting symptoms during his junior year at college. He suspended his studies and came home to undergo a series of tests, none of which led to a diagnosis. He returned to school for a semester, then was still suffering when he came home for the summer. 

She said Roehger encouraged her to have her stepson tested for Lyme disease but the doctors said there was no reason for it.

Hoke said they went ahead with testing anyway and the results showed her stepson, then 21, had Lyme disease.

“We were stunned,” she said. “We felt terrible that we did not have him tested sooner.”

Hoke said when every member of the family, including the dog, were subsequently tested for Lyme disease, her son, then 7, was diagnosed as having the disease.

Following treatment, which also included ozone therapy, her stepson, now 23, is “feeling a lot better,” Hoke said, adding this is something he will have to monitor “for the rest of his life.”

Doctors removed the tonsils and adenoids of Hoke’s son and prescribed antibiotics. He is now 9.

“That seemed to have worked,” she said. “We’re hoping we caught his exposure early enough.

“Without a doubt, our seven-year-old picked up Lyme disease either in our backyard or while playing soccer in Thatcher Woods.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Lyme disease is the most common form of vector-borne disease in the United States. It is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected blacklegged ticks. Typical symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and a characteristic skin rash called erythema migrans. If left untreated, infection can spread to joints, the heart and the nervous system. 

Lyme disease is spread through the bite of an infected tick, according to the Center for Food Security and Public Health. Wild mammals, especially small rodents and deer, can carry the bacteria in nature. Ticks get the bacteria when they feed on infected wildlife. The tick can now spread the bacteria to other animals such as pets or humans when it bites.

In 2017, state and local health departments reported a record number of cases of tickborne diseases to the CDC. The reported numbers of cases of Lyme disease, anaplasmosis/ehrlichiosis, spotted fever rickettsiosis, babesiosis, tularemia, and Powassan virus disease all increased—from a total of 48,610 reported cases in 2016 to a total of 59,349 reported cases in 2017. Reported cases capture only a fraction of the overall number of people with tickborne illnesses. Even so, the number of reported cases of Lyme disease in the United States has tripled since the late 1990s.

Roehger said he is aware of seven individuals from four families, five children and two adults, from River Forest who have been diagnosed with Lyme disease, including his daughter.

He said all live within two blocks from a forest preserve.

“If I had to guess, I would say there are 25 others who are undiagnosed,” he said.

Hoke said she also thinks Lyme disease cases are underreported.

“I believe it exists in the population in much greater numbers,” she said.

Roehger and Hoke said their goal is to educate the community and are hopeful that village officials will support their effort.

“My mission is to spread awareness,” Roehger said. “Lyme disease is increasing nationwide, especially in the Midwest. It’s a very big health concern due to climate change.”

“I want to let people know about Lyme disease and I’m excited that the village is interested in increasing awareness,” Hoke said, encouraging parents to check their children for ticks every night.

“There’s clearly an epidemic in River Forest,” Roehger said. “It’s not going to change unless we do something with the deer.

“Ticks need a host. Deer are the largest host by far. It makes sense that decreasing the population of the most common host will reduce the likelihood of ticks.”

“Clearly we have an issue,” Hoke said. “With prevention, hopefully others can avoid what our family has gone through.”

Roehger and Hoke spoke at the Nov. 25 and Jan. 13 village board meetings about their family members who have been diagnosed as having Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses during discussions of a proposal to cull deer in forest preserves adjacent to River Forest.

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