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World martial arts champion from Wigan left bed-bound and blind from suspected Lyme disease

Stephen Bullough with his wife Angela and dog, Toby
Stephen Bullough with his wife Angela and dog, Toby

A three-times martial arts world champion from Wigan has been refused treatment for an infection which has left him blind and unable to walk.


Stephen Bullough, 51, is bed-bound after the infection, believed to be Lyme disease, ravaged his central nervous system, respiratory system and left him with no sight in either eye.

Stephen Bullough at height of martial arts success

Stephen Bullough at height of martial arts success

The kickboxing and karate ace is devastated at being refused treatment for the disease after private tests revealed high levels of the life-changing illness, which is carried by black-legged ticks found on deer and dogs.

Despite numerous pleas to NHS doctors, the dad-of-two is still being refused treatment because the NHS blood tests, which are widely-known not to be 100 per cent accurate, have not revealed the antibodies in his system.

His wife, Angela, who is now caring for Stephen at their Pemberton home, said that the couple’s life has been “ripped apart” and could have been solved months ago.

“He was as fit as a fiddle,” she said. “He used to run his own martial arts gym, has won countless championships, never smoked or drank in his life.

“This has completely ripped our lives apart. We went to the out of hours doctor who was completely stumped, he gave him a prescription for Valium and sent us on our way,

“Nothing was followed up really. I think now maybe we should have done but it went away - which was weird.”

For a few months following the first incident, Stephen appeared to be in good health but he collapsed a few days before his daughter’s wedding, leaving him needing the use of wheelchair.

More tests followed but there no firm diagnosis came until private treatment confirmed he had the disease.

Just two weeks ago Stephen suffered a seizure and lost his sight.

The couple are now fighting for the once fit and healthy man to regain some of his health so that they can travel to Dublin to see a world-renowned Lyme disease specialist who has agreed to treat him based on the private lab results.

The couple are now in contact with Lyme Disease UK, a charity which supports people suffering from the disease and creates contacts between patients and families across the country who can share their experiences.

A spokesperson for Lyme Disease UK said: “Doctors need to be educated on Lyme disease and to be given the freedom to use their clinical judgment to go ahead and treat if there is a high chance of someone having Lyme disease. Leaving the disease untreated can have devastating consequences.”

Wigan MP Lisa Nandy is backing the couple, confirming her support in a letter to Angela, in which she calls the current awareness of the disease in the NHS “dangerously low”.

Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh NHS Trust, who treated Stephen, and NHS England were unavailable for comment. Wigan CCG declined to comment.

“The doctors and nurses have all been nice but no one has any experience with this disease even though thousands of people have it in the UK.
“We are both fighters, especially Stephen, and we will continue to fight for him to get the treatment he needs.”

But just days before he was due to leave for his daughter’s wedding in Santorini, he collapsed, the shaking in his leg returned and he was struggling to breathe.

After another hospital visit, during which he was diagnosed with a water infection, Stephen, who had been working as a personal trainer just months before - attended his daughter’s wedding in a wheelchair.

On returning to the UK Stephen’s breathing continued to be laboured and the shaking in his leg continued, but tests were only carried out regarding each individual issue.

“I went to an asthma clinic,” he said. “I was still struggling with my breathing. My lungs are apparently now have the capacity of a 109-year-old.
“The problem is they didn’t look at the thing as a whole.”

The couple, who were growing increasingly frustrated at Stephen’s deterioration and the lack of diagnosis, visited specialists across the north west in a desperate attempt to get answers - but each time they were given a different diagnosis, from asthma to functional neurological disorder (FND) none of which truly matched his symptoms.

After several agonising months, Angela was told that a family friend had suffered from Lyme disease, which presented similar symptoms.

Following in-depth research Stephen and Angela were convinced that this was the cause of his mystery illness.

A few months before his symptoms began, Stephen had suffered from the characteristic red circular rash which appears shortly after infection - Angela had mentioned it at the time but the couple thought no more of it due to a lack of awareness of the disease.

The pair, who own two dogs and spend a lot of time outdoors climbing, hiking and abseiling exposed to the ticks, felt that their prayers had been answered as the possibility of Lyme disease fell into place.

But unfortunately a blood test conducted on Stephen shortly after came back negative for the illness, meaning that he was not eligible for the short course of antibiotic.

“The tests are only around 60 per cent accurate,” said Angela. “You trust the NHS so you follow whatever route they suggest.

“But if I had a penny for everytime someone said it’s Lyme disease I would be rich by now.”

Desperate, the couple paid for private tests to be done by Arminlabs - specialists in tick-borne diseases.

The test came back positive for Lyme borreliosis, the bacteria which causes the disease.

Just two weeks ago Stephen suffered a seizure and lost his sight.

The couple are now fighting for the once fit and healthy man to regain some of his health so that they can travel to Dublin to see a world-renowned Lyme disease specialist who has agreed to treat him based on the private lab results.

“We just feel really let down,” said Angela. “This has turned our life upside down and we feel like there’s nowhere here we can turn for help.

“The doctors and nurses have all been nice but no one has any experience with this disease even though thousands of people have it in the UK.

“We are both fighters, especially Stephen, and we will continue to fight for him to get the treatment he needs.”

The couple are now in contact with Lyme Disease UK, a charity which supports people suffering from the disease and creates contacts between patients and families across the country who can share their experiences.

A spokesperson for Lyme Disease UK said: “Sadly Stephen’s story is not uncommon in our community. Time and time again we hear about doctors denying the possibility of Lyme disease even when someone is presenting with all the clinical signs and symptoms.

“We do not have a perfect test or one which can tell us when the disease has been eradicated. Doctors need to be educated on Lyme disease and to be given the freedom to use their clinical judgement to go ahead and treat if there is a high chance of someone having Lyme disease.

“Leaving the disease untreated can have devastating consequences.”

Wigan MP Lisa Nandy is also getting behind the couple, confirming her support in a letter to Angela, in which she calls the current awareness of the disease in the NHS “dangerously low”.

Ms Nandy has contacted the Secretary of State for Health, the chief executive of NHS England, the chief executive of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) - which create the guidelines regarding treatment in the UK, and the chair of Wigan Borough Clinical Commissioning Group, Dr Tim Dalton.

After hearing Stephen’s story the MP is calling for an “increased focus” in improving public and medical awareness of Lyme disease as well as improvements in testing and diagnosis of Lyme diseaase.

Figures suggest that there are 3,000 Brits infected with the disease each year and that the instances of Lyme disease in the UK has risen by 14 per cent since last year.
Wrightington, Wigan and Leigh NHS Trust, who treated Stephen, were unavailable for comment.

NHS England were also unavailable for comment.

Wigan CCG declined to comment.