Libby Murphy figured the constant extreme exhaustion she experienced was part of being a new mom.
Spring training was underway, about seven months after the birth of her son, Beau, who shares a July birthday with his dad and Murphy’s fiance, Chicago Cubs left-hander Justin Steele. Usually active, Murphy felt especially fatigued and even nauseous after workouts. Something seemed off.
That was merely the beginning of her ordeal.
Seven months later, Murphy and Steele continue to navigate the daily challenges stemming from Murphy’s chronic Lyme disease and the journey to a diagnosis that often produced more questions than answers.
On a breezy late August day at a coffee shop near the Chicago home where she and Steele live during the season, a reflective Murphy explained why they felt it was important to share their story publicly.
“It’s a debilitating disease and it leaves you alone — and luckily I have the support I do and the resources I do — but for many people, it’s not like that,” Murphy said. “I would love to raise awareness and bring light on chronic illness.
“With chronic illness and especially Lyme, people often think, ‘Oh, she looks fine,’ but it’s so far from the truth.”
Murphy’s and Steele’s lives have been engulfed by first trying to figure out what was causing her debilitating symptoms and now by the early stages of a nine-month treatment program for the disease and multiple coinfections.
Chronic Lyme disease is difficult to eradicate. While it can go into a dormant state, there is no cure. Some days are better than others. Living with a chronic illness can be a lonely, isolating experience.
Murphy, 30, says she is often in a state of dizziness, brain fog and forgetfulness. She has lost 40 pounds and is limited to walks to Wrigley Field with Beau on the days Steele starts.
Through the toughest stretch of their lives, Steele has produced the best season of his career with the Cubs on the brink of the postseason. A contender for the National League Cy Young Award, Steele owns a 16-3 record with a 2.49 ERA and a major-league-best 180 ERA+ through 27 starts.
When he is home with Murphy and Beau, his job takes a back seat.
“It’s been an adjustment, but this is what all this is about: We’re a family. We’re a unit. Whatever it takes,” Steele told the Tribune. “When she’s down, I pick her up; when I’m down, she picks me up. That’s what it’s all about. We’re best friends. We love each other.
“It’s tough leaving every day knowing she’s not feeling the way she wants to feel. She has to take care of Beau, so it’s tough leaving. It’s a grind, but we’re resilient and getting to the bottom of it. We’re going to get her in a better spot.”
Murphy’s introduction to the disease dates to her childhood, when she used to go to sleepaway camp in Lyme, Conn., the eponym of the illness.
She loved spending two weeks each summer at Camp Claire with her brothers. Ticks were everywhere in the wooded space, not uncommon in Connecticut, where Lyme disease first was diagnosed in 1975.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention receives reports from state health departments of about 30,000 cases annually nationwide. However, the CDC estimates through other methods that about 476,000 people may get Lyme disease each year.
“Growing up in Connecticut, you’d see ticks, but you would take them off you and you knew if you had a bull’s-eye rash,” Murphy said. “But that’s not always the case anymore. Sometimes people don’t have those bull’s-eye rashes or ticks can be so minuscule you can get bitten and not know.”
Lyme disease, the most common vector-borne disease in the country according to the CDC, spreads through bites from infected blacklegged ticks. (Murphy is unsure when she might’ve been infected.) Typical initial symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue and the characteristic skin rash.
It’s also notoriously difficult to properly diagnose. For some people it takes years. And the longer Lyme disease goes undetected, the symptoms become more serious and the bacterial infection spreads to the nervous system, joints and heart.
In early March, Murphy was feeling OK and the mysterious energy zaps seemed to dissipate. On March 10, she decided to get a massage while Steele was at the Cubs spring training complex in Mesa, Ariz.
Murphy loves deep tissue massages and has had enough of them that she knew something wasn’t quite right during the session. As soon as she left, her head and neck felt heavy. She didn’t know at the time those symptoms were the beginning of a life-changing ordeal.
The next day while running errands with Beau, Murphy was struck by what seemed like vertigo as she was driving. Everything felt like it was spinning around her. She thought she was about to pass out. In a panic, Murphy called their nanny to pick them up and they went to urgent care.
She was told she just needed some fluids. A follow-up appointment with a neurologist led to a vertigo diagnosis, and Murphy was told it would go away in a couple of weeks. She no longer felt safe driving.
Except it didn’t go away. The symptoms worsened. Severe dizziness every day, brain fog, exhaustion, nausea.
“I felt like I was on a different planet,” Murphy said.
Steele started telling his coaches and teammates about Murphy’s illness during spring training, initially confiding in manager David Ross, pitching coach Tommy Hottovy and catcher Yan Gomes, then looping in others as the days passed. Steele knew his demeanor had changed and he was acting differently.
“I mean, my mind was going to the worst place possible,” he said. “So I tried to let people know I had some stuff going on.”
When the Cubs broke camp and returned to Chicago to start the season in late March, Murphy saw neurologists who told her it wasn’t vertigo because the issue didn’t stem from the vestibular system and her inner ear. She kept searching for answers.
“Everyone kept saying, ‘You’re crazy, maybe it’s just postpartum depression,’” Murphy said. “That’s what they kept blaming it on. ‘It’s postpartum depression, it’s fine.’ No, something is wrong with me.
“I have a son to take care of, I can’t go anywhere, so I was willing to do whatever it took even if people thought, ‘Stop doctor shopping, you’re looking for a problem.’ No, I’m looking for a solution and whatever the diagnosis may be, let’s tackle it, let’s figure it out.”
The severity of her symptoms again increased. Murphy started to lose her balance and struggled to walk. She exhibited signs of neuropathy. It felt like ants were crawling underneath her skin.
“I was sobbing and in pain every day,” she said. “I’m begging for help and I wasn’t going to stop until I found an answer. I knew it wasn’t postpartum depression. I knew this was causing anxiety and depression, but that wasn’t the root cause of all this. I know my body.”
Murphy was in and out of the hospital and required multiple emergency room visits. One time she was in the passenger seat of her mom’s car when she began to lose consciousness. Her mom rushed her to an ER, where Murphy again was told everything looked fine after an examination. Looking back, she believes she had an undiagnosed seizure.
Meanwhile, with his fiancee living through months of unexplainable pain and escalating symptoms, Steele was in the best stretch of his career. A dichotomy existed between his on-field success and watching what Murphy endured every day.
“It just sucks watching your best friend not feel the way she wants to feel, you know?” Steele said. “I go back to when we first met, that’s who she wants to be. It sucks seeing someone you care about and love so much go through pain.”
Murphy eventually was recommended in April to see Dr. Casey Kelley, a family and integrative medicine doctor in Chicago. She cried walking into the room that day, pleading for her help. Kelley told Murphy they would get to the bottom of it and promised to find an answer. Murphy called it “the one glimpse of hope out of the last few months of my life.”
Murphy underwent extensive blood work that yielded very high white blood cell counts, indicating her body was fighting something. Lupus and autoimmune diseases were ruled out. Definitive answers remained elusive as they awaited results of the last test: IGeneX, a $2,000 test specifically for Lyme disease that insurance didn’t cover and that takes six weeks to get results.
In the meantime, Murphy’s crippling symptoms required additional help. She battled dizzy spells and fainting, neck pain and brain zaps. She and Beau spent six weeks from May into June, while the Cubs were on the road most of that time, between her family’s home in Connecticut and staying with Steele’s mother, Nicki Clark, and family in Mississippi.
After the Cubs’ series finale against the Phillies on May 21, Steele drove from Philadelphia to Murphy’s family’s house to squeeze in time together thanks to a day off the next day.
“That was a tough time being away from them,” Steele said, “not seeing them nearly as much as I wanted to and missing them. FaceTime can only do so much.”
Murphy was with her family in Connecticut when she received Kelley’s email on June 1 that she tested positive for Lyme disease and multiple coinfections.
“Finally, it felt like in that moment that I wasn’t crazy,” Murphy said. “I finally felt like I was heard and I was seen.”
Said Steele: “Once we started doing research, we realized this could be a little bit of a longer road than we anticipated to get back to full health. But it was definitely good to figure out exactly what it was and know how to attack it.”
Steele’s path to becoming the Cubs ace traces back to the offseason, when he and Murphy and Beau moved to Arizona so Steele could work out and prepare for the season at the Cubs complex.
With 2 1/2 weeks left, he’s still going strong, unfazed by the increased workload. He already has thrown 40 more innings than in 2022 with three regular-season starts remaining, including Friday’s against the Arizona Diamondbacks in Phoenix.
Steele’s ability to not only handle the increase in innings, but also consistently pitch deeper into games and seemingly get better as the season progresses is a testament to the work he put in during the weeks and months leading up to spring training.
The Cubs are on the verge of returning to the postseason for the first time in three years in large part because of how Steele has taken the next step on the mound.
“You could tell the focus of what his priorities are,” Ross told the Tribune. “He set his priorities and his career has taken off to follow in the maturity he has, in the way he carries himself. You would never know when he stepped foot in this locker room something’s going on with Libby. He’s had to put on those two hats.
“This is the second family you come into and you have your routine. There’s a safe haven in throwing yourself into work sometimes mentally that can give you a breather from what’s going on outside of this.”
When Steele, 28, was named to his first All-Star team, Murphy prayed she would feel well enough to make the trip to Seattle. Everything worked out. She and Beau were in the stands at T-Mobile Park on July 11 to see Steele toss a scoreless inning and strike out a batter in the National League’s first win since 2012.
“These are not easy achievements and he’s persevered,” Murphy said. “It’s hard when your soon-to-be wife and the mother of your child is sick and not the person you fell in love with. It’s definitely a test for our relationship, and he’s passed it with flying colors.”
The Cubs’ organizational support has been a pillar of strength as Steele and Murphy navigated the uncertainty of her illness. The team’s training staff helped her get doctor appointments. Family relations coordinator Terri Osters and many of the players’ wives and girlfriends — including Patrick Wisdom’s wife, Caroline; Nick Madrigal’s girlfriend, Alisa Sandgren; and Ian Happ’s fiancee, Julie Mazur — have checked in, sometimes daily, to see how she’s feeling.
Hottovy’s wife, Andrea, has been a valuable resource to Murphy through her own experience living with Lyme disease.
“Knowing that you have a group of people around you that are willing to talk about anything, not just about baseball, goes a long way and allows guys to be more free when they are at the field,” Hottovy told the Tribune. “They know that, hey, they understand what I’m going through, they’re going to be supportive of what we need. It’s important people understand that these guys have real issues like everybody else.
“To be able to go through and do what he’s done is a testament to who he is and how he works and how he’s able to separate those things, but also the support system that he and Libby and their whole family have around them.”
Through it all, Steele is thriving on the mound. In addition to leading the majors in ERA+, he’s in the top three in wins (second), ERA (second), fielding-independent pitching (2.91, second) and fWAR (4.7, tied for third).
“From everything that was going on in spring training to now, I feel like he’s taken a lot of control of what he can control — his career, his emotions,” Gomes told the Tribune. “Whenever anything’s going on, he can lean on us as much as we can lean on him.”
Murphy started her three-phase, nine-month treatment plan July 25 with Lyme Laser Centers in Andover, Mass.
The laser therapy breaks down biofilm and regenerates cells affected by the disease. Different parts of Murphy’s body are targeted depending on her symptoms and where the Lyme bacteria hide to trigger them. When addressing, for example, her severe dizziness, the laser therapy targets the cerebellum in the back of her brain.
Murphy takes 40 supplements a day to help her immune system and get rid of toxic heavy metals and the bacteria that cause Lyme disease and the coinfections, which her body is struggling the most to fight. As part of her treatment, she does a detox foot bath and uses an oxygen tank three times a week. She’s on a strict diet too — no carbs, no sugar, no starches.
Six weeks into phase one, Murphy is starting to see a little bit of a difference. She anticipates it will take until at least the second three-month phase to feel closer to her old self.
She doesn’t take the small improvements for granted. It’s hard, though, not to miss the things a chronic disease can rob someone of. Murphy used to love working out, but her symptoms and the need to conserve energy to kill the bacteria in her body make that difficult.
“I have to prepare myself and talk myself up to do things that were so casual before,” she said. “You take for granted being able to feel healthy and enjoy life — that has been so eye-opening.
“You really don’t know what you have until it’s gone, and chronic illness has definitely taught me that. I used to have so much energy and be so adventurous and fun and outgoing and laugh.”
Murphy teared up thinking of Beau and how she has been sick for most of his first year.
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“It’s not fair, but I don’t think God would give me something I couldn’t handle,” she said. “I know there’s going to be an end to this and I’m going to come back better on the other side.”
Murphy and Steele know they are fortunate to have the resources to get her the best help. Once she gets better, Murphy wants to be an advocate for families to get access to the necessary health care so the financial side to fighting a chronic disease is not a barrier to treatment. Global Lyme Alliance is a leading nonprofit on that front.
“When people think about baseball players and think of a luxurious life, it’s all sunshine and rainbows, but we’re just like any other human being,” Steele said. “We have personal problems, kids, families, and it’s not always sunshine and rainbows. There’s always stuff going on behind the scenes.
“I always think back to the golden rule of treat everybody how you would like to be treated because you never know what somebody’s gone through.”
Steele and Murphy thought they would have to postpone their Jan. 6 wedding, but they recently locked it in when Murphy bought her wedding dress.
“I’m excited, but it’s definitely been hard,” she said. “But you know what? I don’t want to let this disease take over any more of my life. I don’t want to take that away from us.
“Be kind and listen and understand. Appreciate life, don’t sweat the small stuff. Before this I would be upset or annoyed or frustrated by little things that don’t matter. Because at the end of the day, this life is so beautiful and so precious.”