After suffering for 30 years from what doctors repeatedly identified as a cardiac disease of unknown origin, Robert Phillips developed heart failure severe enough to bring him to the verge of a heart transplant. Fortunately, the procedure was not needed.
Phillips was diagnosed and treated for advanced Lyme disease—one of the fastest spreading epidemics in the world, and one of the most debilitating. Since his treatment a decade ago, Phillips has enjoyed the benefits of normal cardiac function.
If Lyme is detected and treated properly at the onset of infection, there are usually no long-term medical repercussions. Left untreated or under-treated, however, it becomes an insidious illness, often inducing a myriad of acute and chronic neurological, musculoskeletal, rheumatologic, cardiac, and neuropsychiatric symptoms. Lyme has been identified in medical journals as a probable cause of multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, fibromyalgia, Alzheimer’s, and Lou Gehrig’s disease, to name a few.
For saving his life (and making it worth living again), Phillips can thank Dr. Steven Phillips W’87—his son, who happens to be a leader in the fight against Lyme and other tick-borne diseases. After graduating from Wharton in 1987, the younger Phillips was preparing to enter the business world when a friend who had recently finished medical school dared him to pursue a career in medicine.
That dare would end up saving—and improving—a lot of lives. Phillips has focused his efforts on combating Lyme ever since he began his residency at the Yale University School of Medicine in 1993.
“I knew a lot of people with Lyme from home,” the New York state native says. “Lyme has its fingers in so many disease states of ‘unknown etiology.’ Even if [it] contributes to only a small percent, the implications are staggering.”
A significant percentage of the medical community still resists accepting Lyme and related tick-borne diseases as such severe threats. “Medical dogma changes slowly, over decades,” says Phillips, who remains confident that his work will ultimately enlighten his colleagues.
In 1996, he stepped away from his research on the microbiology and immunology of B. Burgdorferi (the Lyme bacteria) and established a private practice. Today, operating from his cozy clapboard base camp in Wilton, Connecticut, Phillips wears a casual button-down shirt and blue jeans. The perpetually ringing telephones and fax machines are manned by three women—one of them his mother, Gladys. Despite his laidback demeanor and arid sense of humor, Phillips has a reputation for caring intensely for each patient.
By the time they arrive at his door, most of his patients have already sought the aid of other doctors in every medical field. Phillips is not committed to commonplace Lyme protocol, and he does whatever it takes to alleviate his patients’ suffering and improve the quality of their lives. As a result, he’s in high demand.
“There’s a wait of a few months, two to six depending on the time of the year,” he says. His patients come from all 50 states and many Western European countries.
Lyme patients are not the only people seeking his expertise. Network television and syndicated radio programs have sought his commentary. The governments of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York—all in the epicenter of tick-borne diseases—have invited him to provide testimony. His presentations have prompted legislation to fight Lyme and increase education efforts.
In his critique of “Lyme Disease Testing” (Lancet Infectious Disease, March 2006), Phillips makes clear that Lyme disease is taking on epidemic proportions because of the nonexistent efforts to improve an atrocious testing and reporting system—and he implicates government agencies, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Having served as president of the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society (ILADS), Phillips is now a member of the professional advisory board for the Turn The Corner Foundation—a group more focused on funding research and treatments.
With the lay population still mostly ignorant about Lyme, Phillips wishes he could go on a speaking tour, in order to “educate so patients may have more access to medical care,” on a broader scale. In the meantime, he enjoys being a jock in his spare time. As a former instructor, the doctor has a particular soft spot for tennis, but there are other games he enjoys, too:
“Any sports that don’t involve tick exposure.”
—Eric Karlan C’09