Markie Palermo burst onto the Vermont high school cross country and track and field scenes in a blink of an eye.
The South Hero resident, who tore up the trails and the track for Essex High School, winning multiple state titles in each sport, stopped competing and attending classes earlier this calendar year.
In May, Palermo was diagnosed with Lyme disease, an infection caused by a type of bacterium found in ticks.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, data showed nearly 25,0000 reported cases of Americans with Lyme disease in 2010. Palermo believes she was infected that summer.
Ever since, Palermo’s been mystified by her symptoms — the flu, joint pain and extreme fatigue — and frustrated over a lack of answers from doctors. From a straight-A student in the classroom and a champion runner with promising college prospects, Palermo’s mind and body were ravaged by this illness, her life halted.
“This Lyme disease has just taken away everything really. My running, my school, my internship over the summer. … It feels so surreal, almost like a dream,” Palermo said. “It just feels like that chunk of time has been taken out of my life.”
Palermo is on the mend through daily treatment and medication for chronic Lyme disease with a specialist, Dr. Maureen McShane, who has a practice in Plattsburgh, N.Y.
“We have high hopes that she is going to regain her health, but there’s a lot of up and downs. It takes a while for people to turn the corner with this thing,” said McShane, who also was infected with Lyme disease about 10 years ago. “People sometimes take five steps forward then four steps back.
“That’s what Lyme does.”
During an eight-mile training run in August of 2010, Palermo felt a sharp pain in her ribcage. At first she thought it was runner’s cramp, but it was too painful. Palermo believes this was the first sign or symptom she had been infected with the disease.
And she still carried on, unsure of a pain that came and went.
Palermo wrapped up her breakout sophomore cross country season by winning the Division I race at states and placing seventh at New Englands two weeks later.
In the indoor and outdoor track and field seasons, where Palermo added four more individual titles, the side pain grew worse. She sought physical therapy for relief, which got her through the spring season.
“Was this something I should be worried about?” Palermo said.
That question was only compounded in the fall of 2011, when Palermo felt a new symptom: Stiffness in her legs. With the pain in her side increasing plus the leg stiffness, Palermo’s races were affected. Still, she repeated as the Division I champion at states and improved her New England finish to sixth overall while recovering from the flu.
“I couldn’t give up and didn’t want to give up. I fought through the pain and really had no idea that something bigger was going on,” Palermo said. “I just figured I would get around it.”
After deciding to skip the indoor season, Palermo fell ill again, a second bout with the flu that put her body into full shutdown mode.
On Feb. 10, Palermo stopped going to school. She was sleeping 21 hours out of the day, unable to process simple things or interact with friends or family.
“When I was awake, I could not think. I was confused about everything, it was just weird,” Palermo said. “I could hardly get out of bed and that lasted for a full two months.”
Palermo’s mother, Marion, was worried.
“I thought she was going to die. It was just so frightening,” the mother said. “She couldn’t think of words to respond with. I’d ask her a question and she have no idea what I said.”
A breakthrough came in May when Palermo was finally diagnosed with Lyme. McShane, who didn’t diagnose Palermo, said tests for Lyme aren’t reliable and delay treatment.
“It takes a long time to diagnosis. With the testing for Lyme disease, there are many false-negatives,” McShane said. “The ELISA test is missing 50 to 60 percent of the time.”
Palermo is taking 20 medications a day, part of her treatment with McShane. She feels things are progressing in the right direction.
“At this point, I feel like I’m getting my life back, because the past six months I didn’t have a life,” Palermo said. “I wasn’t doing anything. I missed the outdoor track season, which was a total heartbreaker, and I couldn’t go to school or hang out with friends.”
Palermo is on the Essex cross country roster and took part in the team picture, but competing this fall is unlikely. Palermo has a realistic goal of returning to school full-time in the second semester and resuming her athletic career with the outdoor track team.
“It really depends on how I improve. It’s hard to come up with an estimation at this point,” Palermo said. “I have to accept what’s happened to me and do my best by taking the medication and try to get better before I can really start thinking about the future. I have to live in the present and go day by day.”
Katie White, Essex’s cross country coach, has confidence Palermo will bounce back.
“A big thing is everyone faces adversity and it’s how you respond to it and deal with it and move forward from there,” White said. “She hasn’t counted herself out on anything and that’s really good to hear.”
That line of thinking has served Palermo well in the past. In middle school, shortly after she moved from California to Vermont, Palermo suffered a bad skiing injury. The accident forced her to stop playing soccer, per doctor’s orders. It was then that Palermo turned to running and became arguably the top girls distance runner in Vermont alongside Elle Purrier of Richford.
“It’s not the end of the world, I’m still really young,” said Palermo, who turns 18 this month. “I guess everything happens for a reason and maybe recovering from Lyme disease will open a whole new venture of opportunities for me.”