By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

A little more than three years ago, Carrie Mason was your normal 16-year-old, looking forward to having a driver’s license and enjoying the outdoors with her parents, Art and Dianne Mason.

Everything changed when Carrie unknowingly encountered a small, insect-like creature common to the outdoors – the deer tick. She became ill, and doctors couldn’t make a firm diagnosis. She kept getting worse and worse.

“About two months after my 16th birthday, I started getting sick,” said Carrie, who was among the 15 hunters at the Buckmasters Life Hunt recently at Sedgefield

Plantation near Safford. “It took over a year to finally get diagnosed with Lyme disease.”

Carrie said she has no idea when she was bitten by the tick. She doesn’t remember any bite with the telltale rash in the shape of a bull’s-eye.

“I’ve grown up outside,” she said. “My dad works at YMCA Camp Chandler (near Wetumpka), so I’ve had ticks on me all the time. So we don’t know when I actually got the disease or which tick gave it to me. At first it was like the flu. Then I stopped eating, totally. I was in the hospital for a little while. They told me it was all in my head. Then they said I had MS (multiple sclerosis), mono (mononucleosis), Crohn’s disease, all sorts of stuff. I’ve been tested for everything, and then we finally found out it was Lyme disease.”

Despite her illness, Carrie tried to keep up with her schoolwork until the disease made it impossible.

“My muscles started getting weak, so I can barely walk now,” she said. “I had to start using a walker to get around the house. I have severe stomach pain. I have neurological problems. I have problems with cognitive thinking. When I was in school, my grades started dropping because I couldn’t remember what I had studied.”

Because Alabama doesn’t have a facility with the specific treatments needed for an advanced case of Lyme disease, the Masons have had to travel to Washington, D.C., for treatment, much of which is not covered by insurance. She is currently off antibiotics to try to rebuild her immune system.

“On January 28, I’m going in to have a PICC (peripherally inserted central catheter) line put in,” she said. “Then we’ll do IV antibiotics for about nine months.”

Carrie later got her high school diploma, but she’s delaying college for a while.

“I’m going to wait until we get started with the treatment and see what happens from there,” she said.

Carrie’s mom, Dianne, said it has been a struggle, both emotionally and financially, since her once-vibrant daughter became ill. Dianne said Carrie was sick for a year-and-a-half before they found out it could be Lyme disease. She and Art then researched the disease and found a doctor who would treat Carrie.

Dianne is not surprised that Carrie encountered any number of insects and creatures that live in the Alabama outdoors.

“Art is a hunter, and he’s carried Carrie with him since she was little,” Dianne said. “She loves the outdoors. We’ve camped since she was little. We’ve been outdoors all our lives.”

Carrie was the guest of the Alabama Conservation Enforcement Officers Association at the Life Hunt, which is tailored to those with special needs because of sickness or disabilities. The Hinton family makes Sedgefield available for the hunt, and a group of volunteers builds shooting houses and other facilities to make them handicap-accessible.

 It didn’t take long for Carrie to take her first deer. It happened on the first morning hunt.

“We weren’t even in the stand when four does crossed the field in front of us. Shortly after that, the buck came out to the left of us and slowly walked across the field. I shot him just before he went into the woods on the right. Right when I shot him, he went nose down. But he got up and walked a little ways. It took an hour to find him.”

Carrie admitted she got a little dose of buck fever.

“I got really nervous and excited at the same time,” she said. “My dad helped me set up the gun. Then I got him in the scope and followed him until I got a good shot. I go hunting, but this is my first deer.”

Carrie said she never felt the recoil of her .243 Winchester rifle.

“I’ve been shooting my whole life, so I’m used to it,” she said.

Jackie Bushman, CEO and founder of Buckmasters, said those who love the outdoors have to be aware of the threat of Lyme disease.

“I’ve got friends who’ve had Lyme disease,” Bushman said. “I thought I had Lyme disease one time. I had a lot of the symptoms, but fortunately, I didn’t. I think

when you’re hunting, especially turkey hunting, that you’ve got to be extra careful. When I get in, I hang my hunting clothes outside just to see if I see anything crawling.”

Bushman said when he found out Carrie was a big Alabama Crimson Tide fan, he made a point to autograph an Auburn hat and present it to her.

“I’ve been teasing her, but to see her with her first buck is something you don’t forget,” Bushman said. “A lot of hunters take that for granted, but I remember that feeling back when I was 15 years old in Myrtlewood, Ala., and I shot a 6-inch spike. I see the same smile on her face that was on mine. That’s what this Life Hunt is all about.”

But Carrie wasn’t finished with her deer harvest. She went out that afternoon and bagged a doe.

“Two hundred yards. Perfect shot,” said her proud father.

“This has been so exciting,’ Carrie said. “I’m so thankful for Mr. Bushman, the Hinton family and the Alabama Conservation Enforcement Officers Association. It’s been a great experience.”

Several celebrities showed up to hang out with the hunters, including former New England Patriots offensive lineman Matt Light and Atlanta Braves All-Star pitcher Craig Kimbrel.

Light has his own foundation to work with disadvantaged kids. He has a 600-acre camp in his native Ohio where the kids go to hike, hunt and work out.

“We’ve got a turf field out there, probably the only turf field in the middle of the woods,” said Light, who said much of the foundation’s work is to help the kids be REAL. “That’s the life and soul of what the Life Foundation represents. It stands for responsible, ethical, accountable, and at the end of the day, leaders.”

Light came to the Buckmasters event at the invitation of Wildgame Innovation’s Bill Busbice, who made an appearance on the final day of the Life Hunt along with “Swamp People” buddies Troy, Jacob and Chase Landry.

“Any time you spend time with a kid in the outdoors is obviously awesome, but this is even more special,” said Light. “This is my first year. I went out with a little guy named Noah (Walters). He’s got the heart of a lion, and he got the first buck of the event. It was an awesome experience.

“This just represents such a unique opportunity for kids to participate in hunting. And what Jackie does, and Jimmy Hinton does – there aren’t many places like this in the country. For volunteers to come in and work their tails off to get it ready for the hunt, it’s a special deal.”

PHOTOS: (David Rainer) Carrie Mason shows off the buck she bagged during the Buckmasters Life Hunt recently at Sedgefield Plantation near Safford. Guides Craig Nelson, left, and Randall Higgins helped track and recover Mason’s deer after the hunt. Noah Walters of Mississippi is all smiles after he took the first buck of the Buckmasters hunt with the help of guide Jake Goodin, right, and Matt Light, the former All-Pro lineman with the New England Patriots.

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