At the age of 19 my entire life changed when was selected along with 5 of my peers to study abroad in Oaxaca, MX in Summer 2013. The plan was to go through immersive language courses while working in Mexican Clinics. I didn’t expect to become the patient.
The initial infection resulted from lettuce that was washed in unclean water, typical for American students in Mexico. However, after two weeks in and out of the clinics in which I was supposed to be working and on copious foreign antibiotics which didn’t seem to work, I was 30lbs lighter than when I had arrived and placed on bedrest. It was five more days before I was sent back to the United States.
The first year of my illness narrative, I struggled to keep down solid food. I lost weight until I was under 100lbs and placed on various diets ranging from liquid only to solely vegetable juice. My blood pressure would drop so low that I would faint if I remained standing upright for more than a few minutes and I experienced lethargy while my doctors experimented with various cardiac medications. I was hospitalized almost every month for complications that didn’t seem to relate to one another. That summer, my allergist suggested the FODMAP diet, a highly restrictive meal plan that I initially resented. However, after meeting with a nutritionist, I began to develop an interest, and ultimately a passion, with how food can be used as a healthcare tactic. The diet helped me get back to a healthy weight, although complications still prevented me from participating in clinical the following year. I was told that I was going to need to take a year off in hopes that I would get better, but that it would set back my graduation.
It took me another year before I finally got a diagnosis. Over the course of which my hair fell out and I began to exhibit seizure-like tremors. I would faint if I stood more than a few minutes and after being sent home from my nursing clinical rotations (twice) in a wheelchair, I faced the reality of dropping the only profession I had ever identified with. Persistent, I took a hiatus and started working on two minors: Medical Anthropology and Gender and Health which ultimately became my areas of study.
During my time at school, the constrictive diet helped me, but I was still experiencing life impacting symptoms. Therefore, the summer of 2015 I was admitted to the Mayo Clinic. Those two weeks challenged me; as I was experimented on, poked and prodded and living out of a suitcase. It was finally determined that without the proper care at the initial stages of the infection, I had developed chronic heart, gastrointestinal and neurological issues due to denervation of the vagus nerve. I was diagnosed with dysautonomia of the Vagus nerve, a nervous system disorder which affects the tenth cranial nerve’s ability to send impulses to my heart and digestive tract. This meant that the impulses that should be automatic, such as digestive motility and pumping blood, were severely compromised. This resulted in gastroparesis, a scientific term meaning partial paralyzation of the stomach and POTS, a heart condition which caused tachycardia when standing. I was prescribed prescription pain medication, various heart medication and laxatives 2-3 times per week. I couldn’t hold down solid food anymore. It was the suggestion of a feeding tube and a colectomy bag that prompted my dad (bless him) to seek out alternative options and found an holistic, nutritional option.
I healed myself and began to manage my condition through diet and exercise. By becoming grain, dairy, soy and sugar-free, I taught myself how to get creative in the kitchen, making comfort food healthier. I also started doing strength training and carb cycling which gave me both self-confidence and relief from my symptoms. I was able to get myself off of all prescription and over-the-counter medication and learned to live my life in a way that prompted recovery and health naturally. It was through these personal experience that I recognized the relationship between our environment and health outcomes! This blog is about becoming the healthiest version of yourself in a culture that pushes back with everything it has. It’s oftentimes terribly difficult to 1) become motivated to change your lifestyle or 2) stay with it. For most it is easiest to play into the normalized versions of health. As Newton’s first law of physics states, “an object at rest will remain at rest unless acted upon by an unbalanced force,” meaning, it is easier to pretend that these things are normal, and to continue our lives as such. These normalizations take on many forms from describing bloating after meals as “food babies” to the increase in cases of cancer and Alzheimers in our society.
The most important aspect of wellness is the resiliency to remind yourself that this is not normal. Our immune systems and bodies are designed specifically to react and heal us, is is the environmental overload of toxins from our food, water and lifestyles that contribute to our society getting sicker and sicker.