By SULLIVAN CRADY, Islander Corespondent
GRAND ISLE - If you asked Julie Prior to describe herself, she would probably answer you with “… a wild child” who never felt the need to hide her personality from the world. The walls of her home are nearly covered in photographs of white-water rafting, cliff jumping, weight lifting, soccer and a plethora of other sports and activities which she fell in love with so many years ago. However, the physical and mental impact which Lyme Disease has had on her during the past few years has made engaging in her favorite pastimes next to for weeks at a time.
When she was first bitten by a tick at the base of her skull while climbing a mountain on November 1st, 2008, Julie’s primary care physician felt confident that despite developing cold and flu symptoms, she did not have Lyme Disease. It eventually took months of pleading with her physician and other doctors around the state before she was finally diagnosed with the condition. The medical community at the time felt the presence of Lyme in a patient could accurately determined by the appearance of a large, circular welt on the bite, commonly known as a “Bulls-Eye” rash; Julie never developed this rash, so her doctor sent her home, assuring her that she was simply feeling the effects of cold and flu season (according to a 2014 survey, 50-70% of Lyme patients in Vermont never developed any rashes).
Unfortunately, by the time Julie, with the help of her mother who has become her “… number one health advocate, always fighting for me and making sure the doctors believed…” were able to get the antibiotics necessary to treat the disease, the damage had already been done: “… my body didn’t respond as well as it would’ve been liked to those treatments because of the stage it was in, it was too far.” Over the course of the following decade, Julie Prior would undergo repeated surgeries to help treat neuroborreliosis, a late stage condition in Lyme Disease sufferers which can affect a patient’s brain, nervous system and joints. Just the enormous stack of medical records sitting in Julie’s house speaks volumes about how extensive her treatment has been during this process.
Despite the severe impact of the disease, Julie refused to let it be an excuse for her to give up on her life, crediting her passion with remaining active as a huge factor in retaining her stamina this late into her fight with Lyme: “The doctors have said that if I had stopped going out and pushing myself, I would be permanently bed-ridden or in a wheelchair right now.” She was driven to do something to help give her life purpose, stating, “… that no matter how bad things get, you can always still do something to make someone else smile.”
The opportunity came after several years after she contracted Lyme, when Julie met Carl Penske, her current partner and someone she credits as “… one of the people who has kept me going.” While helping Carl in his business, Julie would do anything she could to make him and his employees smile, striking mockingly risqué poses while clad in a Carhartt jacket and blue jeans, playing up the part of the “… sexy Vermonter, which is ironic because I couldn’t be sexy if I tried,” Julie commented.
Eventually someone suggested combining Julie’s goofy nature with Carl’s amateur photography to create a “Vermont pin-up girl” calendar, scrapping the bustiers and high heels for denim jackets and steel-toe boots. The photos contain settings from Julie lounging in a dinghy out on the lake to showing off her inner cowgirl on a 2500 lb. keel winched up from the lake bed.
Due to health complications the project was pushed back repeatedly, but Julie is glad that, thanks to the support of her family, friends and local businesses, the calendars will be available for release in 2020.
The calendars will also include information on the prevention, symptoms and treatment of Lyme Disease, all sourced from VTLyme.org, a non-profit which Julie has become involved with during her illness.
When asked where the profits for these calendars will be going, Julie, positively beaming with pride, said “100% of the money we make from the calendars will be donated to VTLyme.org as a thank you to their support for me and to help them fight Lyme Disease in the future.”
When all is said and done, Julie expects to be able to donate roughly $20,000 from the 2,500 calendars she plans to sell.
Calendars are available at local Island businesses for $10 or if mailed for $12. You can email vtpinupgirl@gmail. com for more information.
While upbeat, Julie knows there will continue to be worse days in the future, but she is thankful for the good days. Making a calendar was not in fact Julie’s first idea for raising money and telling her story; she initially thought of writing a novel about the experience, but it just didn’t fit her style, “… and eventually I thought, ‘Well, this book is going to be really depressing and boring, and there won’t be a happy ending, so who’s going to want to read that?’ It depressed me just to write it!” Showing people that, despite the bad days, weeks or even months, the good moments don’t have to stop has become her mission with this project.
One of Julie’s greatest worries about putting her story out in public was unintentionally causing fear of the outdoors and a reluctance to being adventurous, which is why she finds so much of the literature on Lyme Disease somewhat depressing. When asked whether she would have stayed off that mountain in 2008 if it meant that she wouldn’t have gotten Lyme, she said, “Definitely not, because it’s not in my nature… I will never not do something because ‘Oh, it’s dangerous’ or ‘Oh, I might get hurt’; it’s just not who I am… And, if I never had Lyme, I wouldn’t have met Carl. Would I go through all of this again, to have what I’ve had with him? Yeah.”
At the conclusion of the interview, Julie mentioned that after being bed-ridden through the winter, she was headed to her daughter’s house that evening to celebrate a belated Christmas with her children, presents and tree included. In honor of a woman who wants everyone’s day to end on a high note, you just can’t beat an ending like that.
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