"Under Our Skin" explores the great Lyme debate

Saturday, February 26th, 2011 at 4:22 PM
Under Our Skin explores the great Lyme debate by Ben Speggen

Growing up in rural western Pennsylvania, I spent a large part of my childhood climbing trees, jumping in creeks, and running through the fields and woods where the grass stood just as tall as I did. This also meant I had a childhood full of encounters with snakes, crawdads, poison ivy, and bugs. And in our woods, especially ticks.

The rules were simple: wear long sleeves and check yourself as soon as you got inside. If you found a tick, you burnt it. According to my folks, they carried some nasty things that could kill you if you weren’t careful. So, you had to kill them to stop them from spreading.

So it’s no wonder the latest film presented by The Guelcher Film Series at the Mary D’Angelo Performing Arts Center had me crawling in fear back to my childhood curiosity of the dangers of ticks.

“Under Our Skin,” released June 19, 2009 in the U.S., still packs a relevant punch as we find ourselves in the thick of things, waiting for the snow to thaw and the trails to clear at Presque Isle and Asbury Woods, even the trails marked: Tick Area.

But we’ll douse ourselves with bug repellant, don long-sleeved shirts and pants, and squirt the contents of the small, plastic packs between our dogs’ shoulder blades, and we’ll do this all in an effort to keep the bugs off.

But in our prevention, we might be ignoring a larger issue.

Andy Abrahams Wilson’s 104-minute documentary chronicles lives of three people suffering from Lyme disease, a disease mainly thought to be spread by ticks. Wilson, who takes a backseat in the film, sprinkles in the stories of other cases to add depth and flavor to the three people at the focal point of the film and essentially allows his subjects to tell the story.

The film, written by Open Eye Pictures, centers on a waging war in healthcare that questions: how do we treat Lyme patients and is there such a thing as chronic Lyme disease?

“Under Our Skin” calls attention to the difficulty doctors having diagnosing Lyme patients given the wide gamut of symptoms that manifest and Wilson manages to do this in two distinct ways.

By overlapping discussions with doctors who disagree with information with doctors currently conducting research with firsthand accounts from suffering people, Wilson attacks the issue at its surface. But by featuring at the core of the film three people who display markedly different symptoms, Wilson furthers the notion that Lyme isn’t a one-and-done diagnosis without flooding us with too much information to handle.

So we follow Mandy Hughes as she begins and completes aggressive antibiotic treatments. At times, Hughes jerking motions and inability to control her limbs pack such a gut-twisting punch that viewers want to look away, as if to say, this isn’t happening, so just as we think we can’t take any more, the camera cuts to Jordan Fisher Smith.

Fisher, a former park ranger, speaks lucidly and sensibly about his experiences. We can’t help but trust him and think he’s recovered nicely from his illness. Which makes the scene where we’re in the car with him on the way to a doctor’s appointment all the more disheartening,  as he stops and admits he’s lost and can’t seem to remember how he got turned around.

And then there’s Dana Walsh, who works for U2 concerts and tours with the band across the country-- a dream job, as she puts it. Put she’s quick to point out that while everything seems normal on the outside, she feels that she’s falling apart on the inside. But the most saddening storyline in Walsh’s journey is her refusal to acknowledge the limitations the disease imposes on her—even if we can’t see them.

All three cases give viewers a wide enough range to understand the complexity of Lyme disease, but Dr. Alan MacDonald’s basement discoveries are what move the film and give it momentum.

While the film seems at first to be nothing more than a barrage of sadness coupled with medical ineptitude, it settles in once it focuses its targets on the problems with the Infectious Diseases Society of America, which declares that Lyme disease essentially does not exist.

At the same time, the film focuses on renegade doctors, like MacDonald, who work on their own time and dime to find evidence to support the notion that Lyme disease is a real and crippling epidemic. This pits these doctors against those on the IDSA board, who the film notes, are backed by insurance companies.

“Under Our Skin” clearly advocates the patients’ rights and the doctors fighting against insurance companies for the right to treat them. And it nearly delights (if one can delight in the face of an epidemic) in its self-recognized notion of conspiracy theory: insurance companies want to make money and treating Lyme patients can be costly, so find doctors willing to deny the disease and squeeze out the doctors fighting to treat Lyme patients.

Regardless of where viewers find themselves at the end of the film, they recognize they’re not even out of the middle of the battle.

With some doctors positing connections between Lyme disease and A.L.S., Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and multiple sclerosis, viewers can still feel lost in the woods of the argument.

But the film comes through by calling attention to the clearing in the trees: there is hope in research and an even stronger hope if we’re willing to recognize the complexities of this issue before they grow too large and too wrapped up in bureaucratic tape. And that might just be enough to keep us fighting for answers, since after all, hope seems to be the most infectious thing of all.

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