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Lupus affects your youth, but it won’t stop my dream of joining the Bar

 Christine Gitonga continues to brave it all despite being diagnosed with Lupus

Young and still full of life, the symptoms and complications that come with this immune disease have not drowned her resolve to live and make something of herself.

She has just completed her law degree and awaits to join the Kenya School of Law in January next year, and 22-year-old Christine Gitonga continues to brave it all despite being diagnosed with Lupus - a disease characterised by body cells turning against each other.

Her story is courageous. “When I was a First Year student, I went for a doctor’s consultation that revealed I had water in my chest. The search for a diagnosis became long and dreary. I did tens of tests, took tonnes of medication and lost a lot weight. I had unending fevers. The diagnosis was Tuberculosis,” says Christine.

The youth was placed on Tuberculosis drugs between November 2013 and January 2014, but the symptoms persisted. Joint pains set in, affecting her mobility. She developed a rash, disfiguring her hitherto youthful skin. Further abdominal tests showed that she had a kidney infection.

A detailed investigation with a specialist in February 2014 would lead to a diagnosis of Systemic Lupus Erythematosus, shortly referred to as Lupus. Dr Philip Simani, who specialises in treating joint tissues and other autoimmune diseases cites Lupus as a lifelong disorder of the immune system, where an individual’s cells attack its body’s own healthy tissues, leading to swelling and tissue damage.

Memory loss

According to Dr Simani, the rash, mostly on the cheeks that resembles the wings of a butterfly is one of the most unique pointers to a Lupus diagnosis. However this is further complicated by symptoms like joint pains, fever and others that mimic other diseases.

Dr Simani observes that Lupus is not easy to diagnose. He estimates that the disease affects one person in every 2,000 within a population, giving an average of about 22,500 persons in Kenya. “Lupus is quite common in women of child-bearing age, between 16 and 40 years. Often, it is initially mistaken for malaria or Tuberculosis, because its symptoms are similar to the two,” says Dr Simani, who doubles up as a consultant physician. “The treatment and management of Lupus, he points out, depends on what area the immune system chooses to attack,” he says.

Dr Simani also observes that Lupus is more common in females than males, and that the actual cause of the disease is largely unknown. Symptoms associated with the disease vary from one person to the other, though the most common ones include pain in joints, swelling of legs, paleness of fingers, fatigue, chest pain and red rashes that mostly occur on the face. Complications include a kidney infection known as nephritis, where spaces between onea kidneys tubules become swollen. Blood clotting and breathing difficulties that could lead to anaemia can also be experienced.

Besides the physical complications that come with Lupus, Christine notes that she has not been spared selective memory loss, which is another complication associated with Lupus.

“Lupus affects your youth; when I am down with fatigue I cannot remember certain aspects like peoples’ names or places,” says Christine, adding that this prompts her to study harder to keep up with her academic peers. Dr Simani further notes that selective memory loss is a side effect of the condition, but with a supportive network of family and friends, it can be overcome.

Immeasurable strength

According to Dr Simani, persons with Lupus should closely watch their diets to prevent accumulation of lipids and cholesterol that trigger flares. They should also wear sunscreen to protect their sensitive skin from adverse effects of ultra-violet light from the sun.

While staying active and alert is critical, Christine has to be careful with what she eats to prevent triggering Lupus. “I have eliminated wheat products, red meat and dairy products from my diet and instead opt for plenty of fruits, vegetables and calcium-rich foods”.

The youth acknowledges the endless support of her parents and three siblings. “My siblings brighten up my days. They tell me that I am stronger than them and I can conquer all,” she says. Her daily dose of medicine includes a cocktail of 15 tablets, and the drugs do not come cheap.

This becomes complicated because some insurance companies do not cover the disease on grounds that it is a pre-existing condition. “I am still in college and my parents have to pay about Sh25,000 per month, a prohibitive cost for most persons with Lupus,” she says. She also draws immeasurable strength from her friends and other Lupus warriors who have since formed a support group and meet monthly at the Nairobi Hospital. The spirited young woman believes that her Lupus was triggered by hormones, but she chooses to ride on the strengths the condition has given her, to be an ambassador if hope.

Dr Simani acknowledges that some global studies have discovered a genetic link to Lupus. “Lupus has also been found to cluster in families, thus suggesting links amongst those who are related,” says Dr Simani. Christine however says that no one in her family tree has ever been diagnosed with this condition, and this presents a unique challenge.

He points out that the key goal of Lupus treatment is to reduce the joint pains, therefore preventing further damage, preventing flares that immobilise the patient and also balancing the hormones.

He advises patients to take an active role in monitoring their general health, and consequently treat the symptoms as they arise, since waiting for the signs to develop into life-threatening complications makes the disease harder and costlier to treat. Christine encourages persons with Lupus to look beyond this relatively rare disease, daring them to follow their dreams. “I will beat Lupus to become the best lawyer this country has ever had,” she says.

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