By Paul Lonardo
In 2007, Kathleen DiChiara was a married mother of two working for a Fortune 500 company in Boston. She and her husband Stephen were very active and physically fit, with Kathleen training and competing in triathlons, so when she suddenly developed low back pain she simply put some pain relief cream on the problem area and took an Advil, attributing the pain to overuse, stress and working long hours. When the problem began to get worse—progressing to nerve pain in one of her legs and eventually preventing her from bearing any weight on the leg—she went to see a doctor. She was immediately diagnosed with sudden onset neuropathy—essentially a trapped nerve in her lower back, and not all that uncommon. She began physical therapy and spinal injections, but nothing helped. She began to lose the ability to control her foot and leg, so her doctor suggested surgery to prevent permanent damage and loss of movement. Kathleen reluctantly agreed; after the procedure she awoke in the hospital, unable to move her lower body.
The paralysis was frightening to Kathleen and her husband, even after tests confirmed that no nerves in her back had been damaged during the surgery. The only explanation given was the post-op label “poor response to surgery,” so Kathleen was eventually sent home, where she was expected to slowly regain motion and feeling in her legs.
“That was the beginning a very long and unexpected journey because it ended up cascading into a whole host of very complex autoimmune responses in my body,” Kathleen says. “I ended up developing chronic pain syndrome, fibromyalgia, and neurological symptoms. So I never actually recovered. I got much, much sicker.”
Her doctors were perplexed, with few suggestions outside of additional surgeries and medication.
At that point, Kathleen says, “It really becomes the patient’s responsibility to seek other ways, and I tried everything. I went to Boston, I went to sports clinics, I sought out forward-thinking doctors who work with athletes, figuring they might have an answer because maybe they see these kinds of unique injuries.”
Unable to work, with no prognosis of recovery, she was put on permanent disability. It was a struggle on so many levels—not only going from being active and healthy, working twelve hours in a day in a career she loved, to being bedridden—but also having two young children, a three-year old and an eighteen-month old, who she could not care for the way she wanted to.
“It was quite shocking to us,” Kathleen says. “People often ask me, ‘what was that like?’ but it’s one of those things that you never anticipate. I was a spouse and a mother, but I was also a patient. My husband had to go to work and we had to have help with the kids. It was a very difficult period for all of us.”
Complicating their family life was concern for their oldest son, who had developmental disabilities and autism.
“Initially, we were proceeding with all the traditional therapies, for me as well as my son,” Kathleen says. “He was going to speech therapy, I was going to physical therapy. It was a full-time job, doing everything we could to ‘manage’ our symptoms. I was prescribed a lot of pharmaceutical medication for my pain, and then at one point I realized that if I continue down this road, I would probably not survive. The drugs I’m taking are just too strong, and my liver will never hold up. I was on a lot of morphine, a lot of codeine, which are the interventions offered for chronic pain syndrome.”
When Kathleen showed signs of vision loss, her doctors found small lesions on her brain and said that she may be in the early stages of multiple sclerosis. Not at all satisfied, Kathleen began to do her own research. The medical community was quick to dismiss her inquiries, indicating that her condition had nothing to do with diet, nutrition or lifestyle.
“I kept thinking, there has to be something,” Kathleen says. “It doesn’t make sense to me. So I just made a commitment to myself that I was going to literally dedicate every waking hour I had, if it wasn’t with my children or in therapy, to research. And that’s what I did. I researched everything I possibly could about food as medicine and tried to find answers to questions like: What are the specific compounds in food that heal the body and brain? What triggers inflammation when someone has chronic pain? And where are those messages coming from and can we turn them off?”
Among the things she studied were biochemical pathways to determine why some people have inflammatory diseases, and in her case trying to determine why a healthy woman in her thirties would develop sudden onset neuropathy.
“Where were those signals coming from?” Kathleen wanted to know. “I was fascinated by these questions.”
To her astonishment and great satisfaction, she found all the answers that her doctors said didn’t exist—and then some. The DiChiara family changed not only their diet but their way of thinking about health, and the incredible story of Kathleen’s full recovery, as well her son’s recovery from autism, is the subject of a new documentary film, Secret Ingredients. To view the trailer and find out more about the film’s release dates and locations, visit: http://secretingredientsmovie.com
After recovering from her physical ordeal, Kathleen and her husband Stephen welcomed a third son, and in 2015 she wrote her first book about her successful personal mission to save herself and her family from chronic health problems. The Hidden Connection: Discover What’s Keeping You From Feeling Happy, Healthy and Symptom-Free is available online and wherever books are sold.