Massillon resident Tamara "Tami" Mackey hadn’t been swimming at Turkeyfoot Lake in New Franklin for many years — more than she cares to admit.
But four days in a row beginning late last week, Mackey made the 20-minute drive to the Portage Lakes State Park beach for some sun and a swim.
By Monday, though, she was regretting her decision.
Mackey is convinced she was sickened by exposure to what state officials have confirmed were unhealthy levels of dangerous bacteria in the lake — and possibly something else.
The state advisory has since been lifted.
Mackey said she began to experience a burning sensation while at the lake with a friend. Her friend was the first to notice the burn.
“She went under the water and was sitting in it for about two to three minutes,” Mackey said. “She said , ‘Tami,’ my lips are on fire.’ ”
Mackey said she and her friend continued to swim, but when they prepared to leave a little before 5 p.m., Mackey developed the same symptoms.
“We’re packing up our stuff and my stomach, my breasts, I’m on fire,” Mackey said. “About 10 minutes up the road, I’m sitting at a light and I feel like I have 500 bees stinging me. We get [farther up] the road and it’s like 1,000 bees stinging me.”
Mackey stopped to check herself and found several red marks about the size of a silver dollar on her stomach and at the top and bottom of her breasts. On Tuesday morning, the redness was worse and the spots had expanded.
Her friend called and she had become sick with flu-like symptoms.
“She said, “Tami, I am so sick. My body hurts. It’s almost like I have the flu,’ ” Mackey said. Mackey’s daughter, who joined her swimming once at the lake, had been sick with the same symptoms.
A few minutes later, her friend contacted her again. Someone had posted a photo on social media of advisory signs at Turkeyfoot Lake warning of high bacterial counts.
It had to be the lake, Mackey thought.
What’s worse, she said, the signs hadn’t been posted the days she went swimming.
Eric Heis, a spokesman for the Columbus office of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said the agency did report an abnormally high E.coli bacterial count in its July 17 Turkeyfoot Lake sample.
“As of July 20, there is a contamination warning for high bacterial counts,” Heis said.
The state considers 235 colony-forming units per 100 ml to be the maximum for safe human exposure. The count on the July 17 was 686 cfu/ml.
Heis said advisory signs are placed at a beach when high bacterial counts are found, but the beaches aren't closed.
“We post a warning as soon as we get those results back,” he said.
But Mackey is adamant that no signs were in place all four days she went swimming. That’s important to her, because she has a suppressed immune system and has had a knee replacement.
After visits to the doctor, Mackey was diagnosed with a bacterial-fungal infection that she’s sure she contracted while swimming at Turkeyfoot.
“Why was the beach not closed, and why was there no signs up from the 20th to the 30th?” Mackey asked.
She said if she had been aware of the danger, she would have stayed out of the water.
Signs did go up at some point — Mackey believes they were placed on Tuesday morning and then taken down again after the latest test for E.coli, which came in at 22 cfu/ml, well below the state maximum.
Tonia Burford, environmental health director with Summit County Public Health, said her agency conducts water testing for county sites, but not state waters. She said she hasn’t heard reports of illness from any swimming areas, but encouraged individuals to contact the agency if they have questions.
Mackey, though, is certain that swimming in Turkeyfoot Lake is the source of her infection and the illness of her daughter and friend. She took a water sample from the lake and plans to have it tested. She’s sure algae toxins are in the waters.
“You cannot tell me that they’re testing correctly,” she said. “There is no way.”
Alan Ashworth can be reached at 330-996-3859 or emailed at email@example.com.