When Brandy Willmot, her husband, their four kids and two dogs headed on a road trip to Central America, she didn't anticipate it would be easy. But she never thought the journey would lead to a fight against a controversial disease.
In 2010, the Squamish family decided to escape the Vancouver Winter Olympic frenzy and head south for some surf, sand and sunshine. They made their way through the United States, Mexico and into Guatemala. The trip took a turn for the worse when the Willmots entered the border town of San Ignacio, Belize.
"Mark [Brandy's husband] took our youngest daughter and dogs out on a walk. When he came back, he noticed a couple of ticks on the dogs," Willmot said.
At the end of the week, they'd pulled five ticks off their daughter Brooklyn and were finding up to 30 ticks a day on their two dogs. Two weeks later, Brooklyn was getting headaches and sharp pains in her legs.
"I was a little unsettled," Willmot said, noting she took Brooklyn to a doctor in Mexico to no avail. "By the time we got to Las Vegas, I started feeling really unwell."
Willmot ended up in an emergency room with stroke-like symptoms. But after several inconclusive tests, she was sent on her way. By the time they drove up the driveway to their Squamish house, both the family's dogs had died. Willmot suspected Lyme disease was the culprit.
"There was no doubt in my mind that those dogs died of Lyme disease," she said.
Back in Canada, the real battle began. Doctor after doctor told Willmot Lyme disease doesn't run as far south as Belize. Finally, a medical practitioner agreed to test Brooklyn for the disease, she said. It came back positive.
"We then found our motorhome was infested with ticks, so we all got tested," Willmot said, noting after being refused by the Canadian health care system, the entire family was tested for Lyme disease at a private American clinic. All the results came back positive.
Today, the family lives with the daily routine of downing various vitamins, medicine and homeopathic treatments several times a day. Having knocked on many doors, they've turned to Dr. Eric Chan, a doctor in Richmond who specializes in naturopathic and antibiotic treatments for Lyme disease.
It's been a difficult journey, Willmot said.
"So far we've spent in the last eight months close to $20,000 on doctors," she said.
On Saturday, March 8, Willmot has organized a Lyme Disease: Public Health Concern forum at Quest University at 7 p.m. Dr. Ernie Murakami, the founder of his own centre for Lyme research, education and assistance, is a special speaker at the event. He will be joined on stage by Lyme disease advocate Gwen Barlee, who is also the policy director for Vancouver's Wilderness Committee.
Willmot hopes the event will raise awareness about the disease and prevent other families from facing the same challenges her family faced.
"We need to educate everybody," she said.