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Jefferson Award Winner Leads Battle Against Lyme Disease

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Jefferson Award winner Phyllis Mervine hunts for ticks carrying Lyme disease. (CBS)

Jefferson Award winner Phyllis Mervine hunts for ticks carrying Lyme disease. (CBS)

MENDOCINO COUNTY (CBS 5) – A bite from a tick carrying Lyme disease can have life-altering consequences. For this week’s Jefferson Award winner, it pushed her to help others with the infection.

Phyllis Mervine has spent decades educating and supporting both doctors and patients about the dangers of tick-borne illnesses.

Mervine and her family moved to an 80-acre ranch in rural Mendocino County in the 1970s. It wasn’t long before she started feeling sick.

“I just started feeling run down and extremely tired and achy,” Mervine, a lover of the outdoors, said.

For ten years Mervine lived with debilitating symptoms before she took the advice of a neighbor to get tested for the newly discovered bacterial infection carried by ticks called Lyme disease.

“She saw me draggin’ in week after week and said ‘Phyllis, you ought to get tested.’” Mervine said.

Mervine tested positive and she quickly realized she was not alone.

“I called all the neighbors and said, ‘I’ve just been diagnosed with Lyme disease. Do you know anything about it?’” Mervine recalled. “’Do you have Lyme disease’ or ‘do you have any of these symptoms.’ Quite a few had Lyme up here.”

That was the start of a twenty year journey that made Mervine one of the pioneers in fighting Lyme disease in California. Her ranch soon became ground zero for a community study, collecting ticks and helping identify the diseases they carry.

Lyme-infected ticks have been documented in 42 California counties – and with numbers like those, Mervine saw a need. In 1989 she founded CALDA, the California Lyme Disease Association.

“It was desperately needed because it’s a chronic disease and nobody was treating it, except a couple of doctors,” Mervine said.

Thanks to Mervine, CALDA created support groups plus a website with information and resources. The group provides grants to doctors researching tick-borne illnesses, which can be crippling if not diagnosed early.

“This is not just somebody with a swollen knee or somebody who has a headache, this is draining our country,” author and friend Suzanne Fratus said.

Fratus is writing a book about Lyme disease and credited Mervine for improving patient care.

“She’s educated doctors. She’s gone to Congress, to the NIH. She put out the newsletter. She started patient support groups. She’s been involved in everything,” said Fratus.

And while Mervine’s own battle with the disease was helped by antibiotics, she said she’s not cured, and much work remains to be done to protect future generations.

(© 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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