Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008

County appeals Lyme case

Workers' compensation group rules parks employee due back salary, treatment

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Two years into her Lyme disease diagnosis, a Germantown woman won a workers' compensation claim against Montgomery County.

The state Workmen's Compensation Commission ruled last month that the county must pay for Michele Hamilton's medical treatment and continue to pay her $65,000 annual salary.

The county is appealing the decision.

Hamilton is employed by the county Parks Department. A commissioner ruled in December that she contracted Lyme disease and babeosis, a condition caused by a parasite ticks carry, as a direct result as her work for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, where the doctoral engineer said she sometimes walked miles a day, machete in hand, through county parkland.

The commissioner ruled Hamilton's Lyme disease dated to Aug. 3, 2006, when two "bull's-eye" rash-like rings first appeared on her neck. He said that Hamilton, who claimed severely limited use of both her legs and right arm, suffered "temporary total disability" and was entitled to have her medical bills and salary paid until she was able to return to work.

The victory came after a long delay that for several months left Michele Hamilton without intravenous antibiotics and a medical brain scan prescribed by her doctor. Her lawyer ended up requesting an emergency hearing, which was held July 2.

During the course of the legal battle, the county withheld six weeks' pay from Hamilton and hired a private investigator to follow her.

"I've never been in a workmen's comp case before," Hamilton said last month as she anxiously awaited judgment from the emergency hearing. "The thought is that you're going to get well — they're going to help you get well. And that's not the reality."

County lawyers appealed Hamilton's favorable compensation ruling last week. She returns to work on Monday to do administrative duties after having been unable to work for about three months, she said.

Associate County Attorney John T. Beamer II, who has handled Hamilton's case, did not return calls for comment. At Hamilton's emergency hearing in July, Beamer argued that Hamilton had a history of migraine headaches and demonstrated symptoms of lupus, an autoimmune disease that can affect various parts of the body and causes symptoms similar to Lyme disease.

Beamer presented a video taken by a private investigator showing Hamilton holding a bag of trash outside her yard and having lunch at a café with her daughter. The commissioner said the video did not carry much weight.

From 1998 to 2006, 19 park and planning workers from both Montgomery and Prince George's counties reported tick bites; five were confirmed to have contracted Lyme disease, said Kelli Holsendolph, a spokeswoman for the Montgomery parks department.

"The workers' compensation on those five was accepted and the necessary treatment provided," Holsendolph said.

Park maintenance workers, arborists, surveyors and park police generally report the most tick bites among parks department workers, Holsendolph said.

Hamilton is hopeful she will prevail in the appeal. She is now helping the National Capital Lyme Disease Association to found a support group for victims of Lyme Disease at St. Rose of Lima Church in Gaithersburg. She plans to testify before Congress about her afflictions, she said.