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gla greenwich gala

GLA Greenwich Gala 2018: Highlights

Global Lyme Alliance honored Lyme disease patients and researchers at its annual Greenwich Gala on Saturday, May 12 at the Hyatt Regency Greenwich. The event supports GLA’s mission to conquer Lyme and other tick-borne diseases through research, education and awareness. The Gala was preceded by GLA’s Research Symposium.

Gretchen Carlson, TV journalist, female empowerment advocate and chair of The Miss America Organization, served as the emcee of the Gala. In her opening remarks, Carlson, a Lyme disease survivor, said the event would not only focus on “this amazing organization” dedicated to advancing research and education, but on the “power of women.” She noted that the three mothers serving as co-chairs were “successful and resilient moms, strong in spirit and conviction.” All three have been caregivers and supporters of daughters who have suffered and continue to battle Lyme disease.

Carlson was soon followed by Scott Santarella, GLA’s CEO, who introduced Nicole Baumgarth, D.V.M., Ph.D., Professor of Immunology at the Department of Pathology, Microbiology & Immunology and the Center for Comparative Medicine, University of California, Davis. A GLA grantee, Dr. Baumgarth received the Lauren F. Brooks Hope Award for being among the first to document immunologic failures on multiple levels in Lyme disease. In accepting the award, she said: “We are all here to no longer have to be here…to find a cure and, even better, to find a mechanism to prevent this disease so none of us have to think about how this horrible disease is affecting our loved ones.”

Gala supporters were treated to a live performance by singer/songwriter Jesse Ruben, whose mother, Janet Ruben, presented him with GLA’s Star Light Award for his ongoing Lyme disease outreach efforts. In one of the more emotional speeches of the night, she admitted that initially she had trouble believing her son’s Lyme diagnosis. “I didn’t listen when he told me he was suffering,” she said. “I let what I thought was going on to color the truth.” Happily, Janet learned more about Lyme and their family was able to provide Jesse with the support that contributed to his healing. But she appealed to those in the audience, saying “those of you with people in your lives who are suffering with Lyme…please…listen to them. Hear them. Support them any way that you can. They need you.”

Among the honored guests attending the Gala were U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal; stage, screen and television actor Victor Slezak; broadcast anchor and producer Mike Schneider; investigative journalist Mary Beth Pfeiffer; UFC lightweight fighter Jim Miller and singer/songwriter Marina Morgan. Gala Event Chairs were Westport’s Stephanie Ercegovic with daughters Adriana & Eloise, Greenwich’s Sonya Rolin with daughter Tatiana Donald, and Greenwich’s Astrid Womble with daughter Christina Womble.

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A Mother and Daughter’s 12-Year Quest for Answers: Astrid and Christina Womble

Introducing GLA Greenwich Gala Co-Chairs: Part 2 of Series

 

Not every Lyme patient is lucky enough to have a family that stands by their side when no one else will. That’s why Christina Womble (pictured), who remembers being bitten by a tick 12 years ago, is so quick to say: “I know I am so incredibly lucky. My mom has continuously fought for me for all these years.”

Christina’s mother, Astrid, has believed in—and fought for—her daughter Christina all her life. Astrid, a Greenwich, Connecticut mother of five, watched as the then 10-year old Christina first began to suffer recurring sinus infections, fevers, and inexplicable weariness. With time, Christina ’s symptoms intensified with a confusing array of alternately relapsing then remitting multi-systemic ailments.

Astrid and Christina Womble
Astrid and Christina Womble

Listening to what Christina, now 22, has gone through is positively heart-wrenching. Over the years she has suffered from a tsunami of symptoms including night sweats, memory problems, blackouts, partial paralysis, digestive issues, unremitting fatigue and severe insomnia. Many times she fell behind in her school work or had to leave school altogether, though she struggled from home to keep up. “I was constantly drowning in a sea of coursework extensions,” she said. Teachers and peers questioned whether she was really sick. She was diagnosed with mononucleosis four times. At one point her legs were so numb that she was unable to walk.

When she was In high school—Christina had been an avid tennis player who also enjoyed ice hockey and lacrosse—she began to suffer from recurring stress fractures in her legs (ultimately 37 of them). Sadly, she then had to give up the sports she so loved so much. “When her sports were taken away from her,” said Astrid, a Dartmouth graduate with a JD/MBA degree, “it was like taking her identity away.”

Christina was tested for Lyme disease a number of times but each time her test came back “negative.” As she struggled for answers, she occasionally questioned herself, wondering “Am I crazy? Am I lazy?” Yet Astrid, now the irreplaceable caregiver, believed something was seriously wrong with her daughter’s health and was determined to find its cause. They went from one doctor to another without resolution. A raft of medical professionals—from internists to naturopaths—suggested diagnoses ranging from adrenal fatigue and hormonal growing pains. Others repeatedly told Astrid  that Christina’s problems were all “mental.”

“I was crushed,” said Astrid, “by how many expensive, smart doctors looked us in the eye and said there was nothing was wrong with her. It made me question both myself and my daughter. At my lowest point, even Christina’s father thought I was making excuses for her.”

With sporadic successes, sometimes stretching for extended periods before symptoms returned, Christina tried supplements, homeopathy, IV treatments, and other alternative protocols. She attended the University of Texas at Austin for two years, but had to drop out because she was so sick. It wasn’t until the fall of 2017, after her seventh Lyme test, that she finally got her answer. Christina received a positive result for Lyme as well as five tick-borne co-infections—including babesia, bartonella, and mycoplasma—each of which has its own treatment protocol.

“The day I got a diagnosis I was so happy,” Christina said. However, her Lyme struggles are far from over. After a year of IV antibiotics through a port, Christina is beginning to restore her life. “She still has her ups and downs,” said Astrid. “But the doctor says she’ll need about two more years of treatment before she feels really good.”

Today, Christina, an amazingly positive and determined individual, is focused on living in the moment, rather than dwelling on the past. “I don’t need to feel bad for myself,” she said. “Having a large family, my siblings have been my support system and I have a mom who is the most incredible, most empathetic person I know.”

Christina now attends Georgetown University in Washington D.C., where she is taking a modified schedule of three classes. She is preparing to deliver a talk on May 31 at the Nantucket Project in Greenwich about her journey with Lyme and the tick-borne co-infections. She hopes to eventually deliver a TED Talk.

Christina and Ella Womble

In the meantime, it’s her turn to help support Astrid, who was herself diagnosed with Lyme this past November and is undergoing oral antibiotic treatment expected to last at least a year. “I was never so shocked in my life as when I learned I had Lyme,” Astrid said. “I was feeling incredibly exhausted, but I thought it was just life.” Also suffering from Lyme is Christina’s 12-year old sister, Ella, who was diagnosed in March and has been suffering from exhaustion, body-wide eczema, severe muscle and joint pain, blackouts and concentration problems. Ella is now on medical leave from school due to her inability to make it through the day. “It’s a lot of stress for her,” says Astrid. “She feels very socially isolated as a result of this disease. She cries all the time.”

Both Astrid and Christina are angry—so angry at a disease that has taken so much from the life of their family.  “Lyme patients have been abandoned by the medical profession,” said Christina. “So many people are suffering because doctors are set in their ways, don’t keep up with new research and don’t look at how everything in the body is interconnected. They are unwilling to recognize that they may be wrong. Instead, a lot of Lyme sufferers are brushed off by doctors like I was.”

Astrid and Christina Womble, 2017 GLA Greenwich Gala

The mother and daughter are co-chairs at Global Lyme Alliance’s May 12th Greenwich Gala. Both women feel their participation in the Gala is their way it’s a way of turning their troubling encounters with Lyme into a positive for themselves and others. “It’s shocking how long it took us to get a diagnosis for Christina,” said Astrid. “Now more than ever, we need to raise awareness and funds for research for a better diagnostic test and ultimately a cure.”

“So many people are suffering,” she added. “Five people call me every week asking for the names of doctors. I tell them that if you suspect you might have Lyme, go to a Lyme specialist right away. Our current model of specialized medicine is wonderful at treating specific issues, yet lacks the ability to look at a person holistically and consider why this  person has so many issues.”

For her part, Christina says she wants people who don’t have Lyme to know what it can do to an individual and to a family. “We need to erase the stigma of Lyme,” she said. “I want to make people angry that such a sorry situation exists. I also want Lyme patients to learn that they are not alone. There are so many of us. We are all like one big team and we can make a difference.”

The Greenwich Gala is a major fundraising event for GLA. It will be held Saturday, May 12, 2018 from 6:30 p.m. until midnight and features a cocktail reception, dinner, dancing and both a live and silent auction. To purchase tables or tickets, please visit GLA.org/2018CTGALA or call 917-242-1817.

stephanie ercegovic

A Mother, A Supporter, A Lyme Warrior: Stephanie Ercegovic

Introducing GLA Greenwich Gala Co-Chairs: Part 1 of Series

 

Three years ago, Stephanie Ercegovic (pictured with husband, Brian Foster) began a medical journey that took her from one doctor’s office to the next as she sought treatments for the mysterious illness affecting her 13-year old daughter.

Her daughter had suddenly gone from being healthy, “super-athletic and full of energy” to suffering from an alarming number of problems that included a painfully inflamed shoulder, unremitting sleep difficulties, severe anxiety, and digestive issues. Ercegovic and her husband consulted doctors in Connecticut and New York but none were able to determine what was wrong.

It goes without saying that when a child is chronically ill, the whole family feels the pain. “It’s been a nightmare for my daughter,” said Ercegovic, a Westport, Connecticut resident, “a nightmare for everyone.”

Living in Connecticut where Lyme disease is endemic, you might wonder why doctors did not immediately suspect that the teen’s problems were caused by the tick-borne illness. As it turned out, Ercegovic’s daughter was tested twice for Lyme, but after both tests were negative—even though such tests are only 50% accurate—doctors ruled it out. As a result, she was shuffled off to numerous specialists, while the Lyme infection became more disseminated throughout her body and more difficult to treat.

“We went from place to place, searching for answers,” said Ercegovic, president of Discovery Capital Management, a South Norwalk-based hedge fund. “She had MRIs and nine months of rehab for her shoulder with two different orthopedists. The second doctor finally concluded that they couldn’t find anything wrong with her and it must be inflamed since her shoulder was ‘hot to touch’ and she should not carry anything more than five pounds. We visited ear, nose and throat specialists; pediatricians; and allergists as her body was developing new and significant food allergies every two to three months with no known cause.”

Fortunately, an answer came after Ercegovic watched a close family friend—Robyn Carpenter, who last year served as a co-chair of Global Lyme Alliance’s (GLA) Greenwich Gala—go from being “healthy and active to having her knee swell up massively and being unable to walk.”

At one point Carpenter was being treated for rheumatoid arthritis and she was told she even needed surgery, only to finally consult with a Lyme-literate doctor. He helped her navigate the path from illness to wellness by correctly diagnosing her with Lyme. As they saw Carpenter steadily improve after four months of care, Ercegovic’s husband wondered if his daughter might actually have the tick-borne illness. They met with Carpenter’s doctor and soon learned their child not only had Lyme, but was also suffering from a tick-borne co-infection, Bartonella, which can cause troubling neurological symptoms.

greenwich gala 2018
GLA CEO Scott Santarella with Greenwich Gala Co-Chairs Sonya Rolin and Stephanie Ercegovic (Co-Chair Astrid Womble not pictured)

Today, after being treated for a year, her 16 1/2 year old daughter is much better, but she can no longer tolerate antibiotics and her symptoms linger. Ercegovic, a Lyme Warrior if there ever was one, still searches for treatments that will help her child.“I’m a huge advocate for doing whatever I can,” she says. Taking a moment to reflect, Ercegovic says childhood should be a time of joy and exploration, but that “this disease has literally destroyed my child’s childhood.” The biggest issue that remains for her daughter, she says, is ongoing sleep problems that leave the teen exhausted, fatigue draining every ounce of energy from her body and making if difficult for her to stay focused, study, or get organized.

To make matters worse for Ercegovic, as she learned more about Lyme’s effects, her husband realized that he had Lyme, which was previously diagnosed as “arthritis in his hands and hips” and he too is undergoing treatment. Then last summer, she relived the nightmare of her older daughter’s Lyme when her younger child went for her annual pediatric physical and the pediatrician found a “red oval” rash on her back. “I found myself saying ‘Oh my god, oh my god. It’s a tick bite!,” Ercegovic recalls. “I was freaking out!” Recognizing that chances were good it was Lyme, she was taken aback when the pediatrician questioned whether it really was the tick-borne disease since it wasn’t the exact shape of a bulls-eye, the tell-tale sign of the disease which only manifests in some cases. “We left that office, got in to see the Lyme doctor the next morning and started treatment the same day, ” Ercegovic says.

Over three years, Ercegovic has had a crash course in what so many Lyme sufferers endure. She has seen how difficult it is to get an accurate diagnosis and find effective treatments. She has watched her teenage daughter suffer from an illness and its co-infections that traumatize the mind and spirit. Like others, her daughter must struggle against the invisible enemy inside of her. “My experience has been eye-opening,” she says. “I used to think that if you were diagnosed with Lyme, all you needed to do was take antibiotics and you would be fine. I didn’t know that spirochetes can hide in cells and even have a neurological component. It was all new to me.”

Her new-found awareness has made her determined to speak out and help others. Not only is she one of the Co-Chairs of GLA’s 2018 Greenwich Gala being held next month, but she says she plans to remain actively involved in GLA. “I’ve learned more from the mothers in this organization—what they’re doing and not doing to help their children—that it’s been amazing.”

Ercegovic says she is particularly eager to help alarmed mothers who search for answers when their children develop symptoms that doctors can’t explain. The first thing she tells a parent with a child who isn’t acting normally is to look for Lyme. “I tell them this is a real disease and they have no idea the damage it can cause,” she says.  I also tell them to find a doctor who knows Lyme. Think of it this way: If you have breast cancer, you aren’t going to go to a GP. You’re going to go to an oncologist, a doctor who specializes in cancer.  The same thing goes for Lyme disease. If you suspect Lyme, you need to see a doctor who deals exclusively with Lyme and tick-borne diseases.” For help in finding a Lyme-literate health provider, go GLA.org.

Ercegovic is looking forward to next month’s Gala and says she hopes it raises significant funds for researchers to continue their work of developing a highly accurate diagnostic test and better treatments. “Research is the key,” she said. “I’m hoping that research focused on detection and treatment will make a difference for other people and show them there is real hope.”

The Greenwich Gala is a major fundraising event for GLA. It will be held Saturday, May 12, 2018 from 6:30 p.m. until midnight and features a cocktail reception, dinner, dancing and both a live and silent auction. To purchase tables or tickets, please visit GLA.org/2018CTGALA or call 917-242-1817.