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News / Health / Clark County Health

Vancouver couple believe Lyme disease played role in son’s suicide

Onetime Columbia River basketball standout Zach Moritz died in 2015

By Wyatt Stayner, Columbian staff writer
Published: May 19, 2019, 6:05am
4 Photos
Beth and John Moritz sit with their son’s basketball sneakers. At 6-feet, 10-inches, Zach Moritz was always known for being tall, but shied away from the attention his height garnered.
Beth and John Moritz sit with their son’s basketball sneakers. At 6-feet, 10-inches, Zach Moritz was always known for being tall, but shied away from the attention his height garnered. Nathan Howard/The Columbian Photo Gallery

As Zach Moritz sat in the shade of the sequoia trees, he could envision the outlines of a new life.

It was July 2013, and the 25-year-old Vancouver native had just completed a vision quest with the School of Lost Borders in California’s Inyo Mountains. The vision quest, or rite of passage for young adults, meant three days of camping, fasting and self-exploration. In the previous year, Zach had begun to enjoy transcendental meditation, and saw this quest as a way to take his passion to the next level.

Afterward Zach’s father, John, and his mother, Beth, joined him for a reincorporation meeting, where quest participants shared their experiences, takeaways and thoughts about what they wanted in life.

Zach, who starred as a 6-foot-10 center for the Columbia River High School basketball team and played at Boise State University in Idaho, said he wanted to help athletes learn healthy coping skills to manage the pressure, anxieties and disappointments they’d encounter in their careers. He realized sports could be a harsh environment without much room for compassion and empathy. He wanted to improve that environment.

His parents, who come from Christian backgrounds, took time to warm up to Zach’s less mainstream spiritualism. But they saw how those things were developing Zach, and helping him to find purpose.

“In this place and within me, I sought peace. I feel I have found what I deserved,” he wrote in a letter after the quest.

But on the ride home from California, Zach’s knee and back hurt. The pain would never go away.

The aggravating aches in his body were followed by foggy word recall that impaired his communications; sound sensitivity that hampered his love of music; light sensitivity that mostly confined him to a quiet, dark bedroom for a year; and hallucinations and paranoia that made him think his parents were conspiring against him.

Over the course of a year-and-a-half, Zach would be hospitalized three times for mental health stabilization and shuffled through medications that didn’t improve his health.

“We were with somebody who had no history, no record of this, who all the sudden is vulnerable to themselves and potentially others. That’s scary,” his mom said.

In the fall of 2014, Beth came across an article in AARP magazine that outlined the symptoms of Lyme disease. Many matched Zach’s.

A subsequent test showed Zach’s blood tested positive for Lyme disease. His family had found a reason for his disturbing behavior, and thought they found hope.

But Peggy McCarthy, the executive director of NAMI Southwest Washington at the time, told them that from firsthand experiences with Lyme, she knew they were still headed down a challenging path. McCarthy’s prediction was prophetic. In August 2015 Zach Moritz died by suicide at age 27.

He felt Lyme prevented him from living life to the fullest — the life he conjured on his vision quest.

“Zach’s loss was that there was no moving forward at all,” his dad said. ” ‘I’m not getting better at all. Nothing is changing, and I can’t live this way.’ ”

Lyme’s psychiatric legacy

Lyme disease is caused by infected deer ticks that spread a bacterium, B orrelia burgdorferi, through bites. Symptoms include fevers, headaches, fatigue and an expanding red skin rash that sometimes looks similar to a bulls-eye. Its lesser-known and rarer symptoms include depression, anxiety, rapid mood swings, decline in cognition and memory recall, antisocial disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and on even rarer occasions, psychotic symptoms.

12 Photos
Beth and John Moritz of Vancouver hold their son´s Boise State University basketball jersey. Zach Moritz contracted Lyme disease in Denmark, which led to declines in his mental and physical health. Zach died by suicide in August 2015.
Gallery: Zach Moritz Photo Gallery

Dr. Brian Fallon, who wrote the book “Conquering Lyme,” is the director of the Lyme and Tick-Borne Diseases Research Center at Columbia University in New York, and has spent nearly three decades researching neuropsychiatric Lyme disease.

Fallon and his wife, Dr. Jenifer Nields, began their research in the early 1990s. To gauge the disease’s power over its sufferers, they compared Lyme patients to sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis, which is frequently painful, and lupus, an immune disorder that can cause psychiatric symptoms.

“The patients with Lyme had a four times higher rate of depression than the patients with lupus and the patients with rheumatoid arthritis,” Fallon said.

Fallon said research as far back as 1990 has shown Lyme patients have increased rates of depression. But public awareness is lacking.

6 Photos
Zach Moritz poses for a photo at a Super Bowl party a few months before he died.
Gallery: Zach Moritz family photos Photo Gallery

“It’s not well recognized and I would say, it’s not well accepted by some prominent neurologists in the U.S. that Lyme disease can cause psychiatric problems,” he said.

Fallon explained that Lyme is similar to syphilis. Both are caused by spirochetes, a flexible, spirally twisted bacterium, and both can cause psychiatric symptoms.

With Lyme disease, Fallon said, the spirochete is transmitted into the skin of an individual through the tick. That spirochete might stay localized in the skin, or it could invade blood vessels and be transmitted to different organs in the body including the heart, joints and connective tissue.

Some patients might develop encephalitis, where the spirochete lodges in the brain tissue. It can penetrate brain blood vessels and cause an inflammatory reaction, Fallon said, which can manifest in neuropsychiatric disorders, psychosis, mania, irritability and depression.

“Clinicians should be aware that suicidal risk is definitely here in patients who have significant medical illnesses including Lyme disease,” Fallon said. “That risk dramatically increases if there’s substantial depression.”

In cases of Lyme disease that are treated quickly, “the vast majority of people do not have residual symptoms or problems,” Fallon said. But Lyme cases that aren’t treated quickly can be harder to treat in the long term, and the medical complications can become more severe, he said.

That’s what happened to Zach Moritz.

A downward spiral

The Moritzes think their son contracted Lyme disease in January 2013, when Zach was playing professional basketball in Copenhagen. Zach missed a weekly Skype call and a basketball game.

Zach checked in a few days later. He said he’d been sick with the flu, and had self-treated a bump that appeared inside a rose petal tattoo on his left arm.

He finished his basketball season and returned to the U.S. That summer, he partook in the vision quest, then returned to Denmark for another season.

But his knee still ached. His contract was voided two months into the season.

Zach came home, determined to keep playing. Arthroscopy didn’t illuminate any structural problems in the knee. He tried rehabilitation, but his condition didn’t improve. With his physical health deteriorating, Zach enrolled himself in the Maharishi School of Management in Iowa to further study transcendental meditation.

As soon as Zach arrived in Iowa, he experienced a loss in cognition. He suffered from paranoia. He called his parents to let them know he needed their help. Light and sound made his head hurt, he said, and he couldn’t leave his room to go to the cafeteria, or get on a plane to come home.

His mother picked him up. Zach had lost 40 pounds in six weeks. When Zach returned to Vancouver, he isolated himself. He didn’t want to live at home again, and yet there he was. An MRI scan of his brain didn’t yield anything. He saw a therapist and acupuncturist, and only found minor relief.

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“Every time we were going anywhere, no one was detecting anything,” Beth said. “So then you begin to go, ‘Is something real? Or is it not? We don’t know.’ ”

Zach became verbally aggressive in May 2014. He would accuse his parents of making loud noises to antagonize him. If they went on a walk he would say they were conspiring against him.

Zach complained of pain in his joints. He was hospitalized in June 2014. Zach’s parents found him on the kitchen floor, stabbing a tissue box with a knife, and then a night later Zach accused his parents of conspiring with an avatar he was seeing called “The Father.”

“The hospitalizations, they’re really the saddest part of it all,” his mother said. “It’s a painful thing as parents to involuntarily hospitalize your child.”

None of the antipsychotic drugs cured Zach. In April 2015, Zach started receiving antibiotics to treat Lyme disease, but as his mother said, “There was relief, but nothing ever went away.” Zach joined a men’s depression group in May 2015.

Some mental health professionals Zach saw didn’t believe Lyme disease could cause psychiatric or psychotic symptoms.

“We are bitter about the fact that no one along the journey recognized the many symptoms of Lyme,” his mother said.

A changed man

Growing up, Zach was empathetic, curious and happy-go-lucky, his parents said. He loved books and movies. One time his dad bought him a shelf from a local Blockbuster store that was closing, and Zach filled it with DVDs and CDs. Zach and his family loved introducing each other to new music. Like his parents, the big man loved nature.

“He really loved being outdoors, because there’s no scale outdoors,” John said. “The trees are bigger, the rocks are bigger, the lakes are bigger. He just felt at home outside.”

In June 2015, Zach made an effort to re-engage with the world. He tried Pilates and yoga with mom. He ate Saturday breakfasts with dad.

He would play Go Fish or Boggle with his parents to work on word recall. Zach had been a journalism major at Boise State, and wanted to write movie scripts, but worried that he couldn’t remember easy words. Zach liked to listen to others, but felt like Lyme disease had robbed him of that energy, his parents said.

“He lacked any sense of a personality, and he’d tell you that,” his dad said.

What is lyme disease?

Lyme disease is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi and is transmitted to humans through the bite of infected ticks. Typical symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue, and a characteristic skin rash. If left untreated, infection can spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system.

— Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Lyme disease stats

According to the latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

42,743 confirmed or probable cases of Lyme disease were reported in 2017.

17 percent more cases were reported that year than in 2016. The CDC reports that the number of reported Lyme disease cases in the U.S. has tripled since the late 1990s.

26 cases of Lyme disease were confirmed in Washington in 2017, and 13 in Oregon. The majority of the patients contracted the disease on trips outside the region.

Did you know?

May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month.

Climate change is expanding the geographic range for Lyme disease, which is most common in the Northeast, and other tick-borne diseases.

Prevent Lyme disease by avoiding areas infested with ticks, wearing light-colored clothing so ticks are easier to spot, doing tick checks after being outdoors and applying insect repellent before going outside.

To get help

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is always available at 1-800-273-8255.

A couple weeks before Zach died, he went on a bachelor party camping trip. Zach wanted to be social, but felt like he didn’t fit in.

“When he came home, it was a reality check. It was so sad. We were heartbroken,” his mother said. “He was like, ‘It was everything I feared. I wasn’t who they all know me to be. I tried. I couldn’t even enjoy a beer.’ ”

Zach had three peaceful days before he died. He and Beth visited the Columbia River Gorge. He and John fixed a barbecue dinner one night, and the whole family enjoyed a dinner and movie night. He readied a tuxedo for an upcoming wedding. A day before he died he bought his mom two sunflower plants, and told her they’d remind her of him.

There were sunflowers at his memorial service, where his parents featured brochures on Lyme and spoke of the disease, which his parents consider the beginning of their Lyme awareness advocacy. His mother is now writing a book about Zach and Lyme disease.

She never planted the sunflowers Zach left behind, but did save about 15 different sunflower seeds. She planted them last year on Zach’s birthday, June 6, and planted more seeds on Mother’s Day this month. Last year the plants sprouted in her front yard and grew tall, just like Zach.

“It was wonderful in a strange kind of way,” his mother said.

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Columbian staff writer