Tick bite proves fatal for Minnesota man

There's yet another reason to protect yourself from tick bites this summer. Health officials are warning people about a disease that can stop your heart.

Steve Stolz noticed something was wrong with his heart while he was walking up a hill. "It should be fine and something doesn't feel right," he remembered thinking.

His heart was beating at a much slower rate than normal.  "That was enough of a warning to say we need to go to the emergency room," Stolz added. 

Something was messing with the electrical system of his heart and it was something he came across out in the woods. 

Fatal tick bite 

The same organism attacked the heart of another Minnesota man last year.

"Nothing quite added up and so while they were trying to work out what was going on with him, unfortunately he ended up passing away," said Elizabeth Schiffman from the MN Department of Health.

That was Minnesota's first documented case of sudden cardiac death linked to the bite of a Lyme-infected tick.

The middle aged man from the Twin Cities had developed a rare condition known as "Lyme carditis".

It's caused by the same bacteria which triggers lyme disease.

"Sixty -five percent of patients with Lyme carditis are men and typically younger, age 15 to 40," said Dr. Alex Campbell from the Minneapolis Heart Institute. "Nobody understands why, but that's what we see."

In these cases, the bacteria, which are shaped like tiny corkscrews, burrowed their way into the heart muscle.

"Your body creates an inflammatory reaction against these to fight them off and the heart muscle or the conduction system gets caught in the cross fire," added Campbell.

As a result, the electrical signals which keep your heart beating short circuit. In extremely rare cases, a person's heart can slow to a stop or develop a dangerously fast rhythm that can also be fatal.

"The heart will stop pumping blood and you pass out and that's a sudden death," said Campbell.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), it happened to a Massachusetts resident while driving.  The 2012 death was linked to Lyme carditis. The patient lived alone with a dog that was reported to have ticks frequently.

There were two more cases in 2013, including  a New York state resident who collapsed at home. The patient had no known tick contact but was reported to be a hiker.

Lyme carditis can be treated 

The CDC reports only about one percent of the people who get Lyme disease, will develop Lyme carditis. There are about 15 known cases a year in Minnesota. The good news is it can be treated with anti-biotics and sometimes a temporary pace maker is needed too.

Once you give the antibiotics the bacteria die, the inflammation goes away and it does not come back. So there's no permanent effects of this on the heart," said Campbell.

Steve Stolz's heart is back to normal. He never suspected he'd been exposed to the Lyme bacteria.

"No tick found. No symptoms whatsoever. Nothing," he said.

Look for ticks on body 

Not everyone gets severe body aches or a bulls eye shaped rash that are telltale signs of the disease.
"The faster you get the tick off the better it is for Lyme prevention," advised Schiffman.

Because right now is prime time for ticks, health officials stress the need  to protect yourself by wearing tick repellant when around brushy areas. You have about 24 hours from when a tick attaches itself before it can infect you. So  a hot soapy shower after a hike in the woods can help wash away any ticks you can't see.