The family has confirmed a 20-year-old McMinnville woman who died last month had contracted Rocky Mountain spotted fever from a tick bite.
Katie Underhill passed away May 20 after a debilitating, five-week battle with the disease.
According to the Tennessee Department of Health, there were 581 confirmed cases of Rocky Mountain spotted fever in Tennessee in 2016. The fatality rate is low as the state reports 16 people died from the disease between 2004 and 2014, the most recent data available.
A family member described Katie’s death as heartbreaking and said the family remains in disbelief a tiny tick could kill such a healthy and beautiful young woman.
Katie was first taken to a medical office April 12 after she complained of a severe headache and aches all over her body. She was diagnosed with the flu, which shares many of the same symptoms as RMSF.
On April 16, Katie broke out in a bad rash. This is one symptom which separates RMSF from the flu. The rash, however, was determined to be an allergic reaction to her medication.
One day later, Katie was feeling so bad she was admitted to the hospital. On April 20, while still hospitalized, she suffered a series of strokes. An MRI revealed she had experienced three medium strokes and 10 small strokes. The result was catastrophic brain damage.
Katie was taken off life support May 1 and she died May 20.
While no definitive tick bite was ever discovered on her body, ticks are the only way the disease is transmitted to humans. The family said Katie could have easily picked up a tick from her beloved German shepherd which slept with her at night.
Her sorrowful story has Smartt Station resident Linda Sullivan counting her blessings. Sullivan was officially diagnosed with Rocky Mountain spotted fever on Tuesday after suffering a tick bite one week earlier.
“I’m lucky they caught it in time,” said Sullivan. “I noticed a bite on my arm, but I never saw the tick. I was do-ing yard work and I thought I might have just scratched myself with a stick. That night I got weak and got a terrible headache. My heart started racing and I felt like my whole body was jarring every time it beat.”
Sullivan, who also developed a rash, went to a medical office and was given an antibiotic for Rocky Mountain spotted fever just to be on the safe side since it takes days for blood work to confirm the disease. Erring on the side of caution paid off for Sullivan as her blood work came back positive for RMSF five days later.
“You never think something like this could happen to you, but it happened to me,” said Sullivan. “It makes me kind of scared to get back out there in the yard. You really have to be on guard.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, RMSF is transmitted to humans by ticks in North and South America. Although RMSF cases have been reported throughout most of the contiguous United States, five states account for over 60 percent of all RMSF cases. Those five states are Tennessee, North Carolina, Oklaho-ma, Arkansas and Missouri.
Typical symptoms include fever, headache, abdominal pain, vomiting, and muscle pain. A rash may also devel-op, but is often absent the first few days, and in some patients never develops, the CDC says.
Although cases of RMSF can occur during any month, the majority of cases peak in June and July.
Tennessee Department of Health spokesman Woody McMillen encourages residents to check themselves for ticks, especially if they have been in high grass or wooded areas.
“Wear long, loose-fitting and light-colored clothing,” said McMillen. “For some reason, ticks seem to prefer dark clothing over light clothing. If you know you’re going to be in high grass, pull your socks over the bottom of your pants to deny access to the skin. If you do find a tick attached, use tweezers and pull it off as close to the head as possible.”