When Alice Francis's diabetes suddenly got worse after a trip to India, doctors believed the problem was psychological. In fact, Alice was infected with parasites
You would think it was enough that a nine-year-old girl should be diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and have to learn to inject herself with insulin every day. But that was just the start of Alice Francis's story. When she was 17, her diabetes mysteriously worsened; eventually, she was injecting herself with 12 times her usual dose, and yet on several occasions she needed emergency care to save her life.
Her health problems were exacerbated by the attitude of the doctors who 'cared for her' during her two-year ordeal as her diabetes progressively worsened. Throughout, they were of the mind-set that insulin does-in fact, must-work and if it doesn't, the problem must lie with her.
Alice was clearly a 'non-compliant' diabetic in their eyes-a bad patient whose problems were more psychological than physical.
Today, Alice has her diabetes under control and the solution to her worsening diabetes may shed light on the treatment of the disease, if only the medical profession were prepared to listen.
But that's not the reason she wants her story told. She and her parents, Barbara and Russell, are angry. They are angry about the way she was treated, the way she was sneered at by one consultant because she arrived at the hospital in a wheelchair, too weak to walk, and also by the other doctors who never carried out tests or wondered whether her medical crisis might actually have a physical cause.
Surprisingly perhaps, she is not angry about the inadequacies of the standard medical care for diabetes, even though she knows that if she hadn't found a non-insulin solution, she would have eventually passed into a permanent coma.
When it started
Her nightmare began while on a backpacking school trip to India. She was 17, had just finished her A-level studies, and was about to start a BSc degree course at Leeds University where she was to study clinical physiology/cardiology.
Alice was looking forward to the trip, a last chance to spend time with her old school friends before they parted for university and new lives. She had been on plenty of holidays with her family, including camping trips, and always packed a good supply of insulin.
Her diabetes didn't restrict her life in any way; she was sporty, and enjoyed dancing and hiking. Her doctor at the time described her as a model patient.
But something happened on the trip, even though it was nothing obvious. "I suddenly felt unwell and just knew something was different," Alice recalled. "I thought the insulin injections weren't working because of the heat."
In fact, she was so unwell that she needed hospital care while in India.
She thought she would get well once she was back at the family home in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, but nothing changed. She still felt lethargic and tired-the exact same conditions she'd experienced before the diabetes was first diagnosed eight years earlier.
Increasing the insulin
The local hospital suggested she increase her insulin dose, which she did from six units to 30 units every day. She also started avoiding high-carbohydrate foods that required larger amounts of insulin to be broken down in the body. Just weeks before she started university, she was admitted to the acute medical unit (AMU) at her hospital, where she was put on an insulin drip to 'rebalance' her levels.
Alice recalls that shortly before being put on the drip, the consultant bellowed at her, suggesting that her problems were emotional. "My ill health had made me vulnerable, and the last thing I needed was for my consultant to shout at me," recalls Alice.
Barbara and Russell subsequently wrote a letter to the consultant about their fears and observations, which proved to be remarkably prescient. In it they asked: "Is there an underlying problem that we have not identified that could cause such irrational movements [in her blood-glucose levels]? Alice's stomach appears to be bloated, which is surprising given her low-carb diet. Her face also looks swollen. We don't know whether this is at all relevant."
The consultant thought not-but it proved to be the key to the cure.
Barbara and Russell hoped that her new life in Leeds would give Alice a fresh start and a different perspective. At least it would give them some respite and a chance to find another consultant who might be able to understand what was happening to their daughter.
In the event, it took four months to book an appointment with another consultant, during which time Alice had been rushed into Leeds General Infirmary after she suffered DKA (diabetic ketoacidosis), a critical and often life-threatening phase of diabetes where the body, starved of insulin, starts to burn fatty acids. It's an end-stage survival mechanism. By then the doctors were seeing damage to Alice's eyes and kidneys.
But the new consultant wasn't offering advice that was much different from the previous one's. He too was so convinced of the efficacy of insulin that he believed Alice's problems must have an emotional base, or she was not injecting herself properly-although she had been able to do so since the age of nine-or she was not helping herself by eating the wrong foods. He advised that Alice be fitted with an insulin pump, which provides a continuous feed. By then Alice was using 100 units of insulin every day.
Despite the use of the pump, Alice suffered a second DKA. By this time she was being treated by a consultant as an outpatient. This was now 18 months after she had returned home from India and in that time had needed six treatments in hospital to stabilize her condition.
You're the problem
Alice arrived in a wheelchair for her first outpatient session as she was too weak to walk, only to be derided by the consultant. He didn't ask for any tests, he didn't read Alice's case notes and he referred her to the nursing staff, convinced she was 'non-compliant' or wasn't using the pump properly. Helpfully, he likened it to learning to ride a bike.
Alice was so frightened by this consultant that she ended up having nightmares about him. "She had no trust or faith in the consultant by that point. He had completely overwhelmed her and damaged her self-esteem with his appalling manner," said Barbara.
Finally, Barbara and Russell found a new consultant who accepted that Alice was not to blame, but suspected she needed to try a different type of insulin. Nonetheless, he didn't know what the underlying problem was and suggested she spend time in hospital, where consultants could monitor her condition more closely, especially after meals.
It was around that time when Barbara was casually reading The Daily Telegraph one day that she spotted an article by the former model Nikki Page, who seemed to have many of the health problems that Alice was experiencing. Although she wasn't a diabetic, Nikki described how she frequently had a bloated and upset stomach, and suffered from fatigue and lethargy that was sometimes so bad she had to lie down in bed after making her morning cup of tea.
The final piece of the jigsaw fell into place when Nikki wrote: "Then a young friend of mine who had recently come back from India was experiencing similar problems." And that problem didn't have its origins in the mind-it was in the gut. On the trip, her friend had contracted giardiasis, a form of gastroenteritis caused by the parasite Giardia lamblia, recognized by the World Health Organization as the most common parasite to affect humans.
People can be infected from polluted water or through contact with animals such as dogs. Once in the body, it starts to reproduce in the small intestine, and symptoms can begin just 24 hours later as the parasite starts to multiply and secrete waste products.
Within a week, Nikki's friend looked transformed. She had been to see herbalist Susan Koten at her Willow Herbal Centre in Harold Wood, Essex, where she'd been given some herbs to take to clear the parasite from her body.
All in the gut
Nikki didn't need to be told twice and booked her own appointment with Susan. At the consultation, Susan gave Nikki a herbal tincture to take three times a day for a week. The tincture included sweet wormwood (Artemisia annua).
Nikki started to feel better almost immediately and on her second visit a week later, Susan recommended a second course to ensure the parasite had gone.
"And that was it," Nikki wrote. "I am truly a changed person. I have more energy than ever. I am no longer permanently bloated or spend half my life in the bathroom. It is not an exaggeration to say that Susan transformed my life."
That was enough for Barbara, who immediately booked Alice to see Susan. Alice recalls that Susan didn't ask many questions other than to ask what her symptoms were. She ran through a list that Susan had heard many times before: fatigue, dizziness and headache, cramps and bloating.
Susan then carried out a series of tests and confirmed that Alice had a Giardia infection.
"I could see the pancreas was weak and needed support," Susan recalled. "The pancreas is responsible for the production of insulin, of course. The kidneys and small intestine were also weak."
Susan prescribed several treatments for Alice (see How Susan Treated Alice below), which she took three times a day.
Within just a few days Alice's insulin resistance began to diminish, and the amount she needed to take fell dramatically over the following weeks from a high of more than 100 units to just 12, which was less than she was taking when she was nine.
It wasn't a complete overnight success though. After six months, Barbara recalled, Alice was still far from being her normal self emotionally, but at least her diabetes had stabilized and she was beginning to resume a normal life. She was also able to reduce the herbal dosage during those months from three times to twice a day, and finally to just once a day.
"I had to take Susan's herbs for a year, but I started to feel better almost immediately," says Alice.
During those months when her diabetes was worsening, Alice had been forced to give up on her clinical-physiology degree as she just didn't have the energy to continue with the studies.
Today at the age of 22, Alice is in her second year at Leeds University, this time studying sports science. She is keeping up well with her studies and still checks in with Susan every time she is on holiday from university.
She is under no illusions about what would have happened to her had she not started Susan's treatment. Her DKA attacks would have become more frequent until she passed into a permanent coma, kept alive only by a life-support machine.
None of the doctors ever wondered why she had become suddenly insulin-resistant, although Susan has a slightly different take on that and says the parasites were feeding off the insulin, so it was never reaching the bloodstream.
"The way I was treated by the doctors was wrong," says Alice, almost as an understatement. "They didn't explore the options, but instead just thought I wasn't compliant, although I was doing everything I could to be well again. But even if they thought my problem was psychological, I'm not sure what they would have done to offer me support."
Susan isn't surprised by medicine's lack of interest in Alice's condition. "I don't really blame the doctors," she says. "After all, if you went to a Ford dealer and asked him about a Mercedes, he isn't going to have much of an idea."
Or putting it another way, if you ask a diabetes consultant about any therapy other than insulin . . .
What is diabetes?
Some 2.9 million people in the UK are diagnosed with diabetes, and it's reckoned another 850,000 people have the condition but don't know it. Of these, around 80 per cent have type 2 diabetes, often described as 'the lifestyle disease'.
Diabetes is a condition in which there is too much glucose (sugar) in the blood because the body isn't processing it properly. This happens when the pancreas fails to produce enough-or any-insulin, a hormone that allows glucose to be taken up by the body's cells and used as fuel, so enabling us to lead a normal, active life.
Glucose comes from carbohydrate foods and drinks such as bread, potatoes, fruit, orange juice, some dairy products, sugar and sweet foods.
Type 1 diabetes is when the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas have been damaged or destroyed. This autoimmune response may be triggered by a virus or some other infection, but nobody knows for sure. It can affect anyone at any age, but it usually becomes apparent before the age of 40 and in childhood, as happened with Alice.
Type 2 diabetes is a less serious form in that the body is usually able to produce some insulin initially. It tends to affect older people, and is often the long-term result of a poor diet of highly processed carbohydrate foods.
How Susan treated Alice
For the Giardia infestation:
200 mL of qinghao (sweet wormwood, Artemisia annua).
To support the pancreas, 100 mL
of pancreas mix made up of:
Artemisia annua (20 mL)
To support the kidneys, a herbal
To treat dizziness and headaches, a sinus herbal tincture including:
To contact Susan:
Willow Herbal Centre
2 The Drive
Essex RM3 0DU
Telephone: 01708 381478
Do you have a parasite infection?
A parasite infection-and especially Giardia-can be the unsuspected cause of a range of symptoms, and can even mimic other conditions that doctors are more likely to understand and diagnose.
Here are some of the typical symptoms:
- Bloated and upset stomach
- Multiple sensitivities and allergies to a wide range of foods (and not just the typical intolerances such as to dairy and gluten)
- Fatigue and lethargy
- Acid reflux
- Pain in the muscles and joints
- Headache and dizziness
- Disturbed sleep
Symptoms of diabetes
- Urinating more often, especially at night
- Feeling thirsty all the time
- Feeling very tired and lethargic
- Sudden and unexplained weight loss
- Thrush, or genital itching
- Wounds and cuts that are slow to heal
- Blurred vision
Having just one of these symptoms doesn't necessarily indicate diabetes. If you have type 1, the symptoms may be obvious and develop quickly, often within a couple of weeks. In type 2, the symptoms may not be so obvious and can take years to become apparent.