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'It’s kind of a quiet epidemic' | Local woman undiagnosed with Lyme disease for over a decade left with permanent damage

Elena Zajac is now using her story to educate others about the disease and ways to prevent tick bites.

CROMWELL, Conn. — For Elena Zajac and her family, a small tick bite changed their lives forever.

The Cromwell mother of two remembers that in the 80s she had a small rash on her chest when she was a child – but really didn’t know what it was.

"I went undiagnosed for the next 11 years but I became a sickly child I had chronic infections; my immune system was slowly getting affected by it," she said.

Zajac was tested for multiple diseases, including Lyme disease, but it was until 2013 that she had a full diagnosis. It was Lyme disease.

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At that point, she had been living with the disease untreated for over a decade.

"I had tremors, I was shaking like I had Parkinson’s, I had numbness all down the right side of my body and my face was droopy," said Zajac.

Lyme disease is the most common tick-related illness in the nation with more than 10,000 people contracting it per week. In Connecticut – where it was first detected in the 1970s – the number could be four times higher because many cases go undetected.

"It’s been growing over the past decade, there’s been more and more ticks with more and more disease and that’s part of the issue," said Chris Fuentes, founder and CEO of Ranger Ready Repellents.

Fuentes said it's somewhat common to not have initial symptoms of Lyme Disease, some people get a big bullseye rash, but a majority of people have no markings and many tests can produce false negatives.

"Twenty percent or one and five people have long-term symptoms. It’s a very debilitating disease and it’s unrecognized by many doctors," said Fuentes.

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Dr. Patrick Cahill with Hartford Hospital said while uncommon, Lyme disease can cause neurological disorders and nerve paralysis if it's untreated.

"Lyme disease, if it goes untreated for some time, can cause auto-immune diseases and can cause longer-term manifestations," he said.

For Zajac, the process of finally getting diagnosed almost cost her life.

"It was a brain infection that’s what it ended up being I had brain inflammation that was not being controlled," said Zajac.

She even passed the disease along with several co-infections to her children through her pregnancies, which are other infections ticks carry in addition to Lyme disease.

"We call it tick soup, everyone had different versions of it and everyone had different symptoms," said Zajac.

She and her two kids are in remission, but the journey to get there left her with permanent damage.

"It’s affected every single system in my body. I can’t drive at night because I can’t see well, it’s affected my circulatory system. I have problems with memory and reading, it’s affected my endocrine system and keeping weight on," said Zajac.

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Now, Zajac, who calls it a “quiet epidemic,” is using her story to urge people to know the signs before it’s too late. Through her efforts, lawmakers in Connecticut passed Lyme Disease Awareness Month and now she is pushing for legislation that would require insurance companies to pay for treatment passed 30 days.

Zajac said her insurance bill for treatment has cost her $30,000 for the last nine years.

"We paid it out of pocket. We are so far in debt it’s not even funny because this literally destroyed everything, it took my career, it took my livelihood, it took our budget, it’s taken everything but I refuse to let it get me I’m not going to let it win," said Zajac.

And she hasn't.

Every day she's getting closer to change that could help save others from overcoming what she had to, all from just one tick bite.

Lindsey Kane is a reporter at FOX61 News. She can be reached at Lkane@fox61.com. Follow her on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

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