Growing up illness was always a part of my life. Every time I was bottle-fed, I would cry. My mother thought it was colic but when my cries grew louder and stronger, she took me to the doctor. He fed me whole milk and my entire body became covered in giant, red hives. I was allergic to cow’s milk so I was switched to a soy-based infant formula. When I was 2 years old, I contracted a virus that put me in the hospital for weeks, hooked up to IVs in my arms and legs. Many of my childhood days were spent in bed under a sheet-made tent filled with vaporizer steam to help the croup I got repeatedly. My cough was so bad, my father said I sounded like “a dog barking.” Doctors made house calls back then and it felt like mine was always there with his black bag of medicines and syringes, visiting more often than friends or relatives did.
It feels like I grew up in doctors’ offices and hospitals. My mother began working in a hospital when I was 3 years old and I often spent time after school there, doing my homework in the radiology waiting room. She suffered from allergies, asthma and skin conditions that took her from one doctor’s appointment to another. My father and grandfather were admitted numerous times for various illnesses and I was the one to sit at their bedsides. Between the ages of eight and ten, I was hospitalized four times for serious kidney and urinary tract infections and was put on a salt-free diet for a while. Stomach pains led to a diagnosis of colitis. I grew up in a dysfunctional, abusive home so I also suffered from stress and headaches. Between these ailments and my recurrent respiratory infections, I missed more school than I attended. In 8th grade, I actually missed 86 days of school! There were always bottles of cough medicines and antibiotics mingling with my flavored, chewable vitamins.
There was also always food to comfort me like my mother’s delicious chicken soup with matzo balls. I was a meat lover – steak, burgers, lamb and chicken. My only vegetables were potatoes, peas and salad. I was also an “animal lover” but the connection between the animals I petted and the ones on my plate was lost on me. Luckily, I have never had a sweet tooth so cakes, cookies and ice cream were not temptations for me but when we went out to a restaurant for sundaes, I ordered the fried chicken dinner instead. I craved salty and fatty foods like potato chips and anything fried. My weight was steadily increasing and my parents took me to Weight Watchers at age 13 after my freshman homeroom teacher suggested I lose weight. I lost 40 pounds that summer and returned to high school a happier, more outgoing sophomore. However, I continued to have chronic bronchitis, asthma and stomach problems.
My college years were my happiest because a busy schedule kept me away from home more often. I had two majors, biology and psychology, I was pre-med, and had two part-time jobs. My stomach pains worsened and a gastroenterologist diagnosed me with Irritable Bowel Syndrome and advised me to relax as I was on the verge of developing an ulcer. He gave me an anti-anxiety medication but I didn’t take it. I didn’t like the idea of taking medication; little did I know what my future held for me. In my second year of college, during an appointment for bronchitis, my doctor discovered a lump in my neck. I had two rounds of biopsies that both returned “inconclusive.” The endocrinologist started me on thyroid medicine but the mass continued to grow rapidly. Suspecting it was malignant, they removed half the gland. It turned out benign but I would need to take a thyroid supplement for the rest of my life.
In 1999, I became very ill with autoimmune disorders that presented with a horrible array of symptoms, made worse by their visibility on my body. I was covered with huge hives and welts that no medicine could calm. My eyes, lips and joint tissues swelled to the point that I was actually sent home from work because I was too deformed to look at. My hair was falling out. I was so fatigued I couldn’t walk my dog around the block. Doctors did test and after test and prescribed one medication after another but nothing helped and they had no answers. I was put on mega-doses of hydroxyzine which only succeeded in knocking me out. Feeling alone and helpless, I turned to the Internet and found a support group for people with similar symptoms. They suggested taking Lysine in high doses and avoiding foods with MSG, artificial colors and preservatives and that helped more than any medication had. Tests finally showed I had a gamma-globulin deficiency (inherited from my mother) which made me more susceptible to illnesses and would increase my healing time. I had to change jobs because I could no longer handle the commute to work. Massive doses of steroids finally helped the hives and most of the swelling.
Then I began having horrible headaches I assumed were migraines. They turned out to be from my blood pressure which was soaring at about 220/120. My doctor put me on medication, then another medication, then a few more. Feeling old and scared, I once again turned to Weight Watchers. I went to a meeting near my new job in Tribeca. The leader was wonderful. She was fun, used psychology (a big plus with me) and made us sing happy songs at the end of the meetings (“…when you’re smiling, the whole world smiles with you.”) I made zero-point vegetable soup and had a loss every single week! My routine was comforting and exciting. I would teach class, then walk to my WW meeting on Liberty St., and pick up another ribbon or star for my success. Then I would head to the Au Bon Pain stand in the World Trade Center and eat my vegetable soup outside in the Plaza in front of the Twin Towers. I lost 50 pounds in 3 and ½ months. On 9/11, the building where my meetings were held was destroyed and I quit again. I tried another meeting in another place but it wasn’t the same. Nothing was the same after that tragic day. Gradually, I put the weight back on.
The years went by with me proclaiming my love of animals while I continued to eat them and gain weight. Fast forward and I am 268 pounds with a host of medical problems and a dozen prescription and OTC medications in my drawer – Nexium, Prevecid, Singulair, Micardis, Asmacort, Mucinex, Immodium, Correctol and more. “I wish I could be a vegetarian but I love chicken too much. I could never give up chicken.” That was my mantra but my world was about to hit rock bottom….