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I once had a dream in which I was walking very fast trying to catch up with a person racing ahead of me. As I got closer, I realised that I was chasing my own self. When I woke up from this bizarre dream with a start, I felt a familiar metallic taste in my mouth; it was the undeniable taste of blood, and I knew at once that an old enemy had returned.
It was November 2009, and I had relapsed into Idiopathic Thrombocytopurpura (ITP) for the second time. ITP is an autoimmune condition where the immune system mistakes platelets for foreign bodies and rapidly destroys them. There is no guaranteed cure for the condition; all you can accomplish is extended periods of remission.
A difficult time
A year and a half ago, I had my first brush with ITP. I knew something was wrong when a pimple I popped didn t stop bleeding for almost an hour. Next day, I was wheeled into the doctor s office with red spots all over my limbs, blood blisters in my mouth, bleeding nose and heavy menses. My test reports showed that my platelet count had plummeted to 1k. (A normal count ranges from 150k to 450k per microlitre of blood).
After a bone marrow biopsy and a couple of other blood tests, the cause for my abnormally low platelet count was detected it was idiopathic. The irony of the situation was not lost on anyone; idiopathic is a term given to any disease or condition for which the cause is not known. Although we were tensed initially, my family and I believed that I was in good hands since the doctor attending me was a highly sought after haematologist of international repute.
I was immediately put on corticosteroids and other immunosuppressants, and within a month and a half, my platelet count returned to a normal range. We all heaved a collective sigh of relief. My doctor good-naturedly asked me to forget about this phase of life and that it wouldn t happen again. But here I was, a year and a half later, exhibiting the same symptoms. Unlike before, despite the doctor s best efforts, my platelet count did not go beyond 35k and soon it plummeted to 5k. The doctor went so far as to suggest splenectomy as a treatment option.
When life came to a standstill
For me, life as I knew it was over; the thought of facing people was daunting. Continuous steroid usage had done a lot of damage to my appearance; I put on a lot of weight on my upper body, and there were excessive hair growth and acne on my face, apart from the 'moon facies.' And the worst feeling was watching how others went on with their normal lives while I stayed at home for fear of injuring myself. It was the lowest point in my life. I couldn t enjoy a song, a book or looking at my old pictures anymore. Sleep became scarce but my appetite, thanks to all the steroids, was ravenous.
A glimmer of hope
I also started researching online about my condition and if there were alternate treatment options other than corticosteroids and other immunosuppressant medication. It was then that I found some testimonies of people having been cured of the condition with naturopathic treatment and diet control. I finally saw a ray of hope after being despondent for so long. After consulting my parents (who took a while to come round), we zeroed in on Kottakal Arya Vaidya Shala in Malappuram, Kerala, which is famous for its quality Ayurvedic treatment. I also consulted my haematologist about my decision. He, in turn, gave his blessings and tapered the dose of the steroids, but insisted that I stay at a place that has a hospital or medical services within its 5-kilometre radius.
As I boarded the flight to Kerala, I had just a little over 5k platelets. Despite my cool demeanour, inside I worried if would start spontaneously bleeding from my eyes and nose due to cabin pressure. That very day, we got an appointment with Dr Vasudevan, an Ayurvedic practitioner with years of experience. As he went through my case paper, he turned to me and said, I think you should just slow down and relax. That was a moment of epiphany for me; the dream I had months ago suddenly made sense to me. It was a cryptic message from my subconscious mind which warned me that I was going too fast for my own good. So far, my family had spent around lakhs of rupees for various tests and medicines. When the cashier at Kottakal handed us the bill, we could barely believe our eyes; It only ran up to a few hundred rupees.
Road to recovery
The doctor put me on a course of concoctions, medicated ghee, metal bhasma and herbal powders. He strictly forbade me from consuming any food item bought from stores or sold in packets. Despite my occasional worry of bleeding spontaneously, for the first time in months, I felt a genuine sense of peace and well-being. Being in my ancestral home in Kerala, among friends and family also added to my happiness.
Two weeks later, under the instructions of Dr Vasudevan, I went for a blood test. I d be lying if I said I was confident and ready for blood works. If this doesn t work, I thought to myself, it will be the end of the road for me. There won t be another treatment option, and I ll have to get my spleen removed.
As the nurse withdrew the needle from my arm, I couldn t help looking at the tiny pinprick through which some drops of blood seeped out. Two months ago, the same pinprick would have caused a big bruise on my skin. I was beside myself with anxiety when it came to collecting the report. I told my father, If there is no improvement, please don t show it to me. Moments later, when he returned with the report in his hand, his face was expressionless. I was already preparing for the worst news of my life. He placed the envelope bearing the report in front of me and asked me whether I would like to look it. After five minutes I finally mustered the courage to open it. My eyes welled up with tears when I saw my platelet count had shot up to 35k, seven times more than what it was when I started.
An unforgettable journey
In the next three months, my count rose and plummeted, but eventually, it stabilised. One day when I checked, I had over 150k platelet count; I was finally on the safer side. I was awash with a sense of happiness and gratitude for everyone who had supported me in this difficult journey towards recovery. To this day, I wonder what would have happened had I not found the courage to take a big risk.
After my harrowing experience, I counselled many people who had ITP or other forms of autoimmunity and urged them to consider holistic medicines along with their regular treatment. I also made peace with the fact that there is no real cure for autoimmunity and that it could return anytime. But instead of fearing it, I think of it as a benevolent foe who ( albeit in a hard way) makes me understand the importance of slowing down when I am stressed.
This is not to demonise western medicine or to praise Ayurveda and holistic healthcare. I strongly recommend that people suffering from autoimmunity should keep their options open and try out alternative methods of healing. But always consult your doctor before you do so. More importantly, stress plays a significant role in worsening your health and causing a relapse. Whether it is a job or a relationship, don t be afraid to forgo anything that makes forget about your own well-being.
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