After getting bit by ticks and developing a myriad of strange symptoms that resulted in him losing his livelihood, Sean Gurnsey was diagnosed with Lyme disease. Despite how difficult it was to get that diagnosis, Gurnsey eventually received treatment and found a new path for his life as a voice actor.
It all started after he returned home in 2012 from a paintballing trip to Oklahoma where Gurnsey had unknowingly contracted some ticks.
“I picked them off and really didn’t think too much of it,” he says.
However, over the next two weeks, he started developing symptoms, starting with a bumpy rash.
“It looked like bug bites really, which I assumed it was, and they were there for probably two weeks and then disappeared. I didn’t think anything of it, and then a few months later, I started getting really fatigued.”
Gurnsey’s symptoms got worse with time – developing headaches and fatigue, which progressed to the point where doctors were investigating whether he had a stroke or brain tumour.
However, the symptoms suddenly stopped on their own. Gurnsey continued life as normal, until a year later when they returned.
Dr. Rebecca Risk, a doctor of Chinese medicine who also has Lyme disease, says this isn’t uncommon for someone in Gurnsey’s position.
“It could turn into a relapse down the road, it could be caused by stress, or just be coming out on its own and for some people that doesn’t happen and some people it does,” says Risk, who is also a registered acupuncturist and supplement consultant who has clients with Lyme disease.
When Gurnsey relapsed, his symptoms were much more intense.
“My face, my eyebrows, and my lips were kind of like sagging and drooping on my left side like a palsy,” he says. This progressed to the point that he needed to walk with a cane, and on bad days would end up in a wheelchair or not able to move at all.
“On some days it would be like I was fairly normal, and then halfway through the day I would fall apart.”
Jesse Adam, one of Gurnsey’s friends, witnessed these changes.
“There came points when we’d have to physically carry him to the car and then actually drive him home, and then carry him from his car to his room so he could lie down and try to just wait out the cramps and just wait out the locking of muscles,” Adam says.
Gurnsey’s symptoms also affected his brain. He developed brain fog, which made it difficult to remember things like names, places, and, at times, he would forget where he was.
“It really diminished how I was able to do any of the work that was put in front of me physically, and then the mental work was really being diminished too because my brain capacity wasn’t there anymore,” Gurnsey says.
Ultimately, the symptoms impacted more than just his body. Despite previously being happy as a program director at Joe’s Place, a youth centre in Moosejaw, he was forced to give up his job in January 2017.
“I watched my resume get stripped line by line. I looked at everything that I thought I could do, and really none of it was applicable anymore.”
Adam was by his side during his changes, and adds, “To see him go from being this active guy who just connected with the youth at the youth center to days where he couldn’t walk, he couldn’t move, he couldn’t hardly think, your heart goes out to him, and it just hurts to watch him.”
“I was wondering if I was going to even survive 2017,” says Gurnsey.
Despite his multitude of bizarre symptoms, Gurnsey refused to give up hope and was determined to find out what was wrong with him
“I went and got checked out again, and they didn’t really know what it was; they were looking all over the place,” he says, after receiving various tests such as MRIs and CT scans.
After realizing the tick bites could be the culprit for why he was having symptoms, Gurnsey conducted his own research on Lyme and was finally given a diagnosis after getting in touch with a doctor through the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation. However, it didn’t come without challenges.
“It was hard to find treatment because so few doctors knew anything about Lyme. My own doctor had said they ‘skimmed over it’ in med school,” says Gurnsey.
“My GP was willing to refer me, but the infectious disease doctors didn’t want to accept the Lyme diagnosis.”
According to Risk, this is something she’s experienced during her own battle with Lyme disease.
“Doctors don’t look at this as a possibility for the weird symptoms you’re having. And in my case, and in a lot of other cases, you actually get labelled as having anxiety or as crazy,” Risk adds.
Risk puts part of the blame for the situation on the public healthcare system not actively sharing updated information on Lyme with doctors.
For example, in June 2020, Alberta Precision Laboratories informed health professionals that a small number of ticks infected with Lyme causing bacteria were collected off dogs through an on-going passive surveillance program across Alberta. However, the Government of Canada did not update their website to reflect this.
“It’s really hard for somebody who’s sick to be treated that way, and I think we need to start educating not only the doctors but higher up.”
In addition, in a province such as Alberta, where most ticks don’t have Lyme disease, Risks says finding treatment centres and doctors educated about the infection can be difficult.
However, Gurnsey was able to look outside of the province and finally receive help. After getting in touch with Dr. Ernie Murakami, a big name in the Lyme world, he was able to track down a doctor for treatment in Calgary.
“Interprovincial care was a bit of a gong show process,” he says. “I ended up doing a variety of antibiotic treatments, as well as weekly IV injections through a naturopath.”
Becoming a voice actor
Gurnsey’s inability to work resulting from this process meant he and his family were struggling financially.
This is when Adam, who was a voice actor, suggested the idea of voice acting.
“He said, ‘You need to try and do this, even if you’re in a wheelchair and having a rough day, if you can read, then you can audition. And who knows, maybe this will turn into something for you,’” says Gurnsey.
Gurnsey took that advice and built a studio in his basement to work from.
“I got onto voices.com, it was probably only a month in, and I had already landed my first job. It was an amazing turnaround, and it all came out of not being able to do anything.”
Within a month, he was able to land his first jobs, with one of them being a voice for Nintendo. This job made up for his lack of income in the last year.
From there, his profile expanded to working with clients like Budweiser, Marvel, video game companies, children’s toy characters, and more.
“These are all these bucket list items that I never knew I had,” says Gurnsey. “Oh my goodness, I have been exceptionally lucky to have been able to work with some of the companies that I worked with.”
Julianna Lantz is also a voice actor on voices.com and commends his ability to make the most out of a difficult situation.
“He did a great job embodying all the things you need to do to be a freelancer and also as a voiceover artist,” she says. “What makes his story so unique is his ability to triumph over something that he could have let take his life.”
Overcoming his battle
As Gursey’s voice acting career took off, his health improved alongside it, and now he is able to do the things he once wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to.
“I’ve been able to get back out hunting, and hiking, hanging out with youth as [a] youth pastor, and even been able to work on building our family a house! Hard to believe only a few years ago it was a huge victory to walk with the aid of a cane to the bridge by our house and back,” he says.
Gurnsey has not had any relapses since his initial battle and hopes things stay that way.
“With every day that I am able to do something, there is also a gratitude that comes with it,” he says.
This story appears in our May/June print issue. You can find the Calgary Journal at newsstands across the city or you can check out the digital version here.