Living with Lyme: a struggle and a success

Steve Rigopoulos didn’t let an undiagnosed disease stop him from achieving 30 years in business

Steve Rigopoulos of Steve's Lettering works in his 2,000 square foot workshop. Rigopoulos is back to his regular working day after a long bout with Lyme disease dating back to 2011.

Steve Rigopoulos of Steve's Lettering works in his 2,000 square foot workshop. Rigopoulos is back to his regular working day after a long bout with Lyme disease dating back to 2011. Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »

JAFFREY — Not many people would be happy about the opportunity to get back to 10-hour days at work. But for Steve Rigopoulos, owner of Steve’s Lettering in Jaffrey, who spent several years struggling with crippling fatigue and pain brought about by an undiagnosed case of Lyme Disease, finally getting back to business was a joy.

“It wasn’t my choice,” said Rigopoulos about the time when he had to cut back on his sign business to accommodate a slower pace. “It wasn’t out of laziness. I missed it when I couldn’t do it. It was real tough. Fortunately, we didn’t lose anything,” he said, referring to trying to support himself and his business through his illness. “My friends and family were a great support, and my customers stuck by me and were patient while I was getting the work out. I really want to thank them.”

Now, three years after being diagnosed and treated, Rigopoulos said he is back on his feet, back working long hours, celebrating 30 years in business, and thankful for it.

Rigopoulos started learning his craft at an early age, avidly watching the painters who did the lettering and fine detail work on the trucks for his family’s construction business, and thought, “I want to do that someday.” And someday came sooner rather than later, as Rigopoulos acquired his own brushes and started practicing, often on the construction trucks. He eventually learned the craft the old-school way, including dying aspects of the trade like hand-painted pinstriping. Then in 1984, he was finally able to go into business for himself.

“For a long time, I had an easel in my bedroom and did all my painting there. I’d call a buddy over and we’d get the signs in through my window, and when they were done I had to call him to get it back out the window,” Rigopoulos recalled with a grin. After a year and a half of that, Rigopoulos managed to move into various locations around Peterborough until he was able to build his own shop at his residence in Jaffrey 11 years ago. Now, Rigopoulos works in a sprawling 2,000-square-foot space.

If you’re taking a drive around Peterborough or Jaffrey, you’ll probably see some of Rigopoulos’ work about town. Many of the signs for small shops in Depot Square in Peterborough, the Monadnock Plaza, Belletetes in Jaffrey, the Monadnock Center for History and Culture, the signs at the town line welcoming drivers to Jaffrey and more were all made by Rigopoulos. It’s a clientele list that keeps him running, he said in an interview at his shop on Thursday. And he’s back to keeping up that running pace now, after facing a bout of Lyme disease that went undiagnosed for almost two years and left him barely able to motivate himself to walk down from his home to his workshop, located right next to his house.

Rigopoulos said there was a time when some days, he wasn’t sure how he could make it through. Rigopoulos operates mainly as a one-man business, though he does rely on subcontractors for some aspects of the work.

In 2010, he began experiencing unexplained pain and discomfort, which started to slow him down. Rigopoulos found himself with such pain in his joints and legs that he would take all day to get through a sign job that once would have taken him two hours to complete.

Rigopoulos didn’t know what was wrong at first, merely that something clearly was. He was put through multiple tests in 2010 and into 2011, to try to determine the cause and in the meantime, he said, he deteriorated.

“Things got pretty bad,” said Rigopoulos. “There were days I couldn’t walk, couldn’t get up off the couch without help. Walking up the driveway at the end of the day was a nightmare. Even something like taking a shower was draining. It used to be, I could shower and shave, and get ready in 15 minutes. At my worst, it was an hour project just to get out of the house.”

Rigopoulos lost 30 pounds, lost strength and was incredibly fatigued, he said. Finally, he was able to discover what was wrong with him, when he visited a doctor that suspected Lyme disease.

Lyme disease

Beth Daly, chief of the Infectious Disease Surveillance Bureau at the N.H. Department of Health and Human Services, said in a telephone interview Wednesday that New Hampshire has the highest per capita cases of Lyme disease in the country.

New Hampshire as a whole has a very high percentage of deer ticks that are identified as having the three species of bacteria belonging to the genus Borrelia that cause Lyme Disease. The number is as high as 60 percent — when 20 percent is considered high. Southern New Hampshire sees the largest amount of cases, said Daly, although it is the Southeastern region that has the highest percentage.

Last year, the state saw 1,689 cases of Lyme — 500 of them in Hillsborough County and 72 in Cheshire County. The number of cases of Lyme underwent a sharp increase from 2006 to ’08, said Daly, but has leveled out since then, although last year still saw the highest number of Lyme diagnoses ever recorded in New Hampshire.

Lyme Disease is carried by black-legged ticks, also known as deer ticks. It is transmitted when the tick has been attached, usually for a period of longer than 24 hours. The treatment to both treat and prevent Lyme Disease is an antibiotic called Doxycycline. If a patient finds a deer tick they believe has been attached for longer than a day, they can report to a doctor within 72 hours, and the doctor may prescribe a course of antibiotics to prevent the disease from manifesting.

If the person does not notice the tick, or lets the disease progress, it can be more difficult to diagnose, said Daly, because most of the symptoms are very common — fatigue, muscle pain, joint pain, headache or slight fever. “There are a hundred things that have those symptoms,” said Daly. One distinctive mark of Lyme is a bullseye rash around the bite site, with a red, expanding rim and a white center. Not having that rash does not mean that Lyme disease isn’t present, though. Like Rigopoulos, 20 to 40 percent of Lyme sufferers don’t present a rash, which means it can go undiagnosed and lead to more serious issues, such as developing meningitis, Bell’s Palsy, nerve damage and heart blocks. In later stages, Lyme can be treated with antibiotics, but it may be a longer course or done via IV.

Rigopoulos began treatment in July 2011, though the diagnosis was not confirmed through blood tests until that December. Even after his diagnosis, he said, his condition had gotten so bad that it wasn’t until last December that Rigopoulos was back to his usual self. “You can’t lose faith, and you can’t lose will,” said Rigopoulos. “Probably with any illness, when you give up the fight, you’re on your way to being defeated.”

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