Thomas Feeley Jr. would spend his days in the yard of his Southold home, gardening and watching a small creek that framed a portion of his backyard on Long Creek Drive.
He had scattered a few chairs on the property where he could sit and rest in the sun throughout the day with his small dog, Tobey.
Every evening, as the sun began to set, families of deer could be seen drinking from the creek, his daughter, Denise Feeley-Manarel, recalled as she packed up her father’s home Tuesday morning.
Mr. Feeley died Aug. 29 of complications from babesiosis – a tick-borne disease. It is one of six tick-borne illnesses present on Long Island, according to area health experts.
“We don’t know when he got bitten,” Ms. Feeley-Manarel said. “The scary thing is you can be bitten by a tick with babesiosis and not get the bull’s-eye. We think he was sick with this for a week or two before he went to the hospital.”
She said it took four days to get the lab results from her father’s blood work, which confirmed the tick-borne disease. Six weeks later, he was gone.
“The poor man lived 87 years and was done in by a little tick and the complications that resulted from it,” she said. “He was so sick with it that he just didn’t come back.”
According to state Department of Health statistics by county, Suffolk accounts for 49 percent of the state’s babesiosis cases.
Eastern Long Island Hospital, Peconic Bay Medical Center and Southampton Hospital officials have confirmed an uptick this season in patients diagnosed with the disease, according to a previous Suffolk Times report.
Babesiosis is a curable illness spread by the blacklegged tick, otherwise known as the deer tick, said Daniel Gilrein, entomologist at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, in a recent interview.
The tick’s bite transfers pathogens that can trigger a severe anemia in humans, killing red and white blood cells and platelets in the blood — especially in patients who are missing a spleen and have a weakened immune system, said Dr. Gary Rosenbaum, an infectious disease physician with Peconic Bay Medical Center.
But Ms. Feeley-Manarel said that while the disease might be curable if caught early, the North Fork’s elderly population is particularly at risk because of their weakened immune systems.
“We wrote it off,” she said. “He’s old, he’s got arthritis, we thought he just had a virus. The furthest thing from our minds was something as deadly as babesiosis.”
While Ms. Feeley-Manarel said she finds deer to be beautiful animals, she now understands the role they played in her father’s death.
“It’s obvious there is a problem,” she said. “I see deer here every single day. I don’t want everybody to get their guns out, but maybe we could have a longer bow period and start a food bank or something like that.”
Southold’s estimated deer population is roughly 3,500 — or 65 deer per square mile — according to the Department of Environmental Conservation. To control tick-borne diseases like babesiosis, the Centers for Disease Control recommends limiting the population to 10 deer per square mile.
In an effort to combat tick-borne illnesses, county Legislator Jay Schneiderman (I-Montauk) has introduced a new measure to step up pressure on Suffolk County Vector Control, which is in charge of controlling the spread of insect-borne diseases.
The proposed law would require Vector Control to submit an annual plan of steps being taken to reduce the incidence of tick-borne illnesses — including active measures being taken, work that needs to be done and an analysis to determine the effectiveness of the program, according to a recent press release. The bill was approved in committee and is likely to be voted at on at next week’s meeting.
County Legislator Al Krupski has signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill, saying, “Lyme disease is an epidemic on the East End of Long Island. Most of us have been impacted in some way by tick-borne disease. Suffolk County needs to play an active role to control this growing health problem.”
Tests conducted after her father’s death, Ms. Feeley-Manarel said, revealed that he suffered not only from babesiosis but also Lyme disease — a better known tick-borne illness.
“The medical community really has to be very proactive with the elderly community,” she said. “It could be Lyme or something more deadly than Lyme. Lyme you can live with, the rest of them you may not be able to.”