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Rocky mountain spotted fever: Tick bite lands 2-year-old boy in ICU

After a tick bite caused Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Jackson Oblisk struggled. He's recovering and his mom wants to prevent it from happening to others.
/ Source: TODAY

After her 2-year-old son, Jackson, became ill because of Rocky Mountain spotted fever following a tick bite, Kayla Ann Oblisk is sharing their story to raise awareness of tick-borne illnesses.

“The only thing I had ever heard of was Lyme disease,” the 24-old from Louisville, Kentucky, told TODAY. “This was the scariest experience of my life. I would never wish this on anyone else.”

When Kayla Ann Oblisk's son, Jackson, first had a slight fever she thought it was an ear infection. But when he became lethargic and developed a rash, she realized Jackson was much sicker than she realized. Courtesy of Kayla Ann Oblisk

On Thursday, May 16, Jackson and his father, Brandon, 32, visited a local park to play. When they returned home, Brandon noticed a tick on Jackson and pulled it out, making sure to remove the head. For most of the weekend, Jackson acted like his normal, rambunctious self.

But on Sunday, Oblisk noticed he had a low fever. He often had ear infections with mild fevers and Oblisk believed he was developing another one. While his fever increased slightly, the family didn’t worry about the toddler until a rash appeared.

“When we woke up the next day he had this light pink rash all over his body,” she said. “It looked like an innocent rash.”

Still, she took Jackson to the pediatrician on Tuesday and the doctor diagnosed him with a viral rash and sent them home with some medication. But instead of getting better, Jackson got worse with his fever rising and his rash spreading. They returned to the doctor on Friday who again said it was a viral rash and prescribed a steroid to help.

“I wasn’t really appeased. I didn’t really feel that was the answer,” she said.

When the pediatrician tried to assure Kayla Ann Oblisk that Jackson had a viral rash, she felt it was something more. Her instincts were right: Jackson had the rare, sometimes fatal Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Courtesy of Kayla Ann Oblisk

Oblisk figured she’d give Jackson the weekend with the medication before getting another opinion. Sadly, her instinct was right: Jackson did not get better. In fact, his health declined rapidly.

“Monday he had a fever of 105. The rash looked like bruises the size of pinheads. His face, his neck, his hands, the bottom of his feet were covered in these dark red dots,” she explained.

He also slept for 22 hours and refused to eat, which further convinced her Jackson was seriously ill. Oblisk took him to the emergency room and explained he had been bit by a tick more than a week ago and his health steadily declined. Immediately, the doctors believed he had a mild version of rickettsiosis or the more serious Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which is considered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be one of the most deadly tick-borne illness.

As doctors waited for the results, they treated him with IV antibiotics, which effectively treat both diseases.

But Jackson did not immediately improve.

“He swelled up like a little balloon,” she said. “You couldn’t touch him or move him or lay with him because you would push on his hands, feet face … he’d wake up periodically to cry.”

Doctors put him in the intensive care unit (ICU) and for a few few nights Jackson’s oxygen dropped as if he was struggling to breathe.

“It is awful to watch your baby go through this,” Oblisk said.

Jackson spent a scary couple of days in the ICU receiving IV antibiotics to treat the tick-borne Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Courtesy of Kayla Ann Oblisk

While he spent most days asleep more than awake, he truly started improving last week. By his birthday, May 31, he was awake and alert and able to leave the ICU.

“The doctors are fairly confident that he’s going to make a full recovery,” Oblisk said. “He might lag behind in school for the first couple of years.”

He can also develop arthritis and food allergies especially to dairy, gluten or milk. So far he’s not had any adverse reactions to food. He’s at a rehab facility re-learning how to walk.

“Over the past three or four days he has significantly improved,” Oblisk said.

The family has been struggling with the medical bills from Jackson's treatment so they are fundraising to help.

While Oblisk shared their story to raise awareness of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, she also hopes that parents understand the importance of trusting their instincts.

While recovery has been challenging and Jackson needs to re-learn how to walk, mom Kayla Ann Oblisk said he's talking, eating and acting like himself lately. Courtesy of Kayla Ann Oblisk

“If you are not getting the answers keep pushing,” she said. “We are our child’s voice. If we are not going to speak up for them no one else will.”