She ran several 5k and 10k races, and her finish times steadily improved. Ashley aimed at running on the school's varsity cross country team in her junior year.
But finishing a 5k competition at Michigan State University this past fall left her nauseated and dizzy, and her legs and arms tingled with numbness. She collapsed at the finish line, crying in pain and humility.
It was the last race the Grand Haven 11th-grader has run.
Ashley, now 17, has since tried to recall seeing the distinctive “bull’s-eye” inflamed red area of a Lyme-disease-carrying tick bite, but cannot.
Some may never notice the bite. What's more, the Michigan Lyme Disease Association says the rash may not necessarily be at the bite site, and it can take months or years before the flu-like symptoms even occur.
Ashley said the bite could have happened at any time, and dwelling on it won’t help her overcome its effects, which included difficulties walking and brain function problems.
"I'm now proud instead of disappointed in myself for overcoming the many hurdles that were placed in front of me during the process of discovering this disease," the Grand Haven Township girl said. "It’s given me the drive to work harder than ever now to be the healthiest I can be."
In retrospect, Ashley's mother wishes that the medical field would be more alert and suspicious of Lyme disease, especially since Ottawa County is becoming a hot spot for it.
"The bacteria cannot invade as many areas of your body if you are treated early on," Kim Rice said.
Since its discovery in the early 1980s, Lyme disease has become the most-reported vector-borne disease in the United States. Its name dates back to 1975 when two mothers from Lyme, Conn., reported a cluster of children initially thought to have juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.
Lyme disease is now prevalent in the Northeast and North Central U.S. — including Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Populations of infected black-legged ticks have also been found in several southwest Michigan counties — Ottawa, Berrien, Cass, Van Buren and Allegan — according to state health officials.
So far this year, the emergency room nurses at North Ottawa Community Hospital say they've seen few tick bites. But the season is still young.
Five years with Lyme
Matt Ardell thinks he knows when and where he was bitten by a tick that gave him Lyme disease, though it was more than five years ago.
"I still have it," the Grand Haven Township father of three said. "I'm not sure you ever get rid of it."
Ardell, 45, is a hunter and outdoorsman, and said he's been bitten plenty of times while tramping through Upper Peninsula woods. He's fairly certain that's where he was bit with a disease-carrying bug.
Sometime later, Ardell was jogging and his heart began to race. He thought he was having a heart attack, but a stress test later showed nothing was wrong with his heart.
Suspecting Lyme disease, his doctor sent a sample of Ardell's blood to a California laboratory, but it came back negative for the disease. A second sample was returned with a Lyme-positive result.
The Lyme symptoms were increasing in intensity, and Ardell's doctor put him on a regimen of heavy doses of antibiotics and antiparasitic drugs.
"About eight months ago, I said, 'Enough is enough,' and took myself off all my meds," he said. "There was just no feeling good from it.
Since Ashley Rice’s diagnosis her family has reached out to others who suffer from Lyme disease to further educate themselves.
"We have met many people with Lyme disease during this (past) year and realize how lucky we were to have a diagnosis within the first year of Lyme, since many have had to suffer for years before getting the right diagnosis," Kim Rice said. "We have met families that the parents and their children all had Lyme disease."
The Rice family steered Ardell to their homeopathic doctor in Grand Rapids for a treatment designed to rebuild his immune system.
"It's working, absolutely," he said of the alternative treatment. "I probably feel better than when I was first diagnosed."
Although his health insurance doesn't cover homeopathic physicians, Ardell still seeks her treatments about once a week.
"I've been told some people have been cured of Lyme, but there's a lot more that are on maintenance programs, remissions," he said. "But it comes back and you have to start all over again. ... They call it a 'smart' bacteria."
The length of time it takes to diagnose Lyme disease, the greater the financial burden. Dr. Irwin Vanderhoof, a professor at the New York University Stern School of Business, conducted a study for the health insurance industry on the cost of Lyme disease to society. He found it cost $1 billion in 1993, and estimated in 2009 that it jumped to more than $2 billion.
Lyme disease has the ability to mimic other illnesses —such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple sclerosis and Lou Gehrig's disease. It causes havoc with the endocrine system and sometimes, at least in Ashley’s case, unexplained extreme weight gain.
In 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recorded more than 30,000 cases across the country. And yet the disease is grossly under-reported by at least ten-fold, according to the Michigan Lyme Disease Association.
In Michigan, physicians reported 105 cases in 2011 and 98 last year.
It has been less than a year since Ashley began Lyme disease treatments, and she is seeing a lot of improvement and starting to exercise. She hopes to run again for her school's cross country team in her senior year.
"We have been so proud of Ashley during this difficult time, due to her positive attitude and determination to go to school even when she felt sick, so she would keep her grades up in the crucial junior year," said her father, Jerry Rice. "We hope through education that people will be able to avoid getting Lyme disease and not go through this nightmare."
Avoid the bite
To avoid tick bites, follow these tips:
*Eliminate standing water around your home
*Cut back brush and tall grasses
*Remove fallen leaves where ticks breed
*Wear light-colored, long-sleeved shirts, long pants and socks
*Use bug repellant on skin and clothing
*Check everyone for ticks after spending time outside and shower
*Check your pets for ticks; and use a tick collar or other repellant products on your pets
*When hiking, stay in the middle of trails and away from brush or fallen trees
Source: Ottawa County Public Health Department and Michigan Lyme Disease Association