Monday, April 22, 2013

Glimpsing Gemma - Conversations with Gemma Blackwell.

Around three years ago, I had the pleasure of working with a young woman who expressed a love for writing and we chatted a number of times about our mutual love for the craft. 

Gemma Blackwell describes herself as a nurse first - having cut her teeth in Paediatrics, with a particular focus on cardiology, but she also describes herself as a writer. And she is a talented one at that, having produced a number of shorter pieces over the years that show a lyrical flair, that are personal in many ways, reflective. But they are also very charming and are guaranteed to bring a smile. 

Gemma ultimately returned to her home state of Queensland but, despite this, we've kept in touch and I've followed her continuing adventures since. 

Not long ago, Gemma revealed to me, a personal struggle that I was not previously aware of and it has been only recently that she has begun to reveal more about it via her blog. In my mind, it opens up a whole other side to this woman that is quite courageous and, with her blessing, I want to share a little of this remarkable young woman.

"For all intents and purposes, I enjoyed a fairly normal upbringing. I enjoyed an active childhood that was filled with gymnastics, softball, hockey, swimming cricket, rowing, piano, violin, percussion, drama lessons and singing at school. My family and I have always fished, camped, done shooting, hiked, canoed. However, in my late teens, I developed an intolerance to a number of foodstuffs and it seemed that, whenever I had anything to eat or drink from certain food groups, I would become violently ill. I became increasingly sick, lethargic and anxious and before too long, I knew something was seriously amiss. Despite countless doctor visits and dizzying array of tests, I was repeatedly told by my doctor that nothing was wrong with me.

"The symptoms, however, were worsening every day and I felt like I was going crazy but, after a period of time, there was a break through when I was finally diagnosed with something called fructose malabsorption".

Fructose malabsorption is a digestive disorder in which absorption of fructose is impaired by deficient fructose carriers in the small intestine. This results in an increased concentration of fructose in the entire intestine.

The condition is common in patients identified to be suffering symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, although occurrence in these patients is not higher than occurrence in the normal population. Conversely, patients with fructose malabsorption often fit the profile of those with irritable bowel syndrome. A small proportion of patients with both fructose malabsorption and lactose intolerance also suffer from celiac disease.

For Gemma, the diagnosis was bad enough. However, as it turned out, this was only the beginning for her. 

"It was certainly overwhelming, but following further testing, more and more foodstuffs were being added to the list of severe food intolerances I was experiencing (wheat, dairy, egg, and grains to name the main ones!). In order to isolate the foods that I could consume safely, my diet became very strict - to be almost non-existent!, and I underwent months of gruelling elimination diets to test my tolerance levels."

During the course of this gruelling experience, Gemma suffered significant health effects, partly because of the early mis-diagnosis but also because of the many hits and misses that accumulated in the effort to weed out the bad from the good in terms of what she could actually eat. It was inevitable that other problems would emerge.

Last year I was diagnosed with an autoimmune condition called Hashimoto's Thyroiditis, and alongside that chronic fatigue syndrome. These combined significantly affect my energy levels and I routinely experience severe fatigue, lack of stamina, anxiety, and poor concentration (brain fog). I also suffer from major light headedness and dizziness due to chronic orthostatic hypo-tension. All of this currently means driving and working is a distant memory." 

Hashimoto's Thyroiditis is an autoimmune disease in which the thyroid gland is attacked by a variety of cell and antibody mediated immune processes. It was the first disease to be recognized as an autoimmune disease. It was first described by the Japanese specialist Hakaru Hashimoto in Germany in 1912. Aside from the symptoms that Gemma recounts, the addition of orthostatic hypo-tension presents particular challenges for Gemma in that it can bring on fainting and dizzy spells which can render her unconscious. 

For Gemma, the definitive diagnosis was a relief however being restricted from driving and working was hugely difficult for someone who previously had thrived on activity. In the absence of these, Gemma instead turned her attention back to her blog.

A couple of years ago, I began a blog; a chronicle of glimpses into my life that I created with the intention to briefly explain a photograph that summed up my day. This blog developed into sharing my experiences and struggles on the journey that my health has taken me.

I also love food and cooking, so I am determined to not let my restricted diet keep me from delicious tastes and fun in the kitchen. I enjoy creating new food ideas, and so also plan to develop a database of recipes on my blog, so that other people with food intolerances, allergies and clean eating lifestyles can see that living life with a strict diet does not have to mean tasteless, boring food.

This sea-change in attitude is an inspiring one given that, one could easily be thwarted by the huge challenges faced by the diagnoses Gemma has been handed. As such, she has emerged with quite a unique story to tell and the potential to offer a great gift. Her blog, as it grows, is becoming a fantastic repository of experiences and dietary tips and philosophies that Gemma has accumulated in her quest to understand her diagnosis and to live with it.

I have learnt so much and I now blog to share some insights and, hopefully, help other people on their path. I have always enjoyed writing and reading, and my blog also enables me to get my thoughts and experiences out on (electronic) paper, while also improving my writing chops. I do feel lucky though, to finally have been diagnosed, and am turning my life around and slowly beginning to feel a little better.

I want to show others that when life gets rocky, there is always something that we can do, that we can all find something to keep fighting for, and that we can all help each other through hard times.

“Nothing is impossible; the word itself says,  I'm possible.”  - Audrey Hepburn.

Connect with Gemma via "Glimpsing Gembles" here.

Tweet with Gemma here

Visit Thyroid Australia here.


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