It is common knowledge that a doctor’s prescription should be followed to the letter, particularly because a doctor’s word is often regarded as gospel truth. But what happens when the prescription given has severe side effects? Mercy Wairema Ndegwa, 45, narrates to MWAURA MUIGANA her harrowing experience with an allergy possibly triggered by a doctor’s prescription.

“While expecting my daughter Linda Ndegwa, now 14, in 1997, I had a severe allergy attack (urticaria) that triggered intense itching all over my body. It was as if wasps or bees had invaded my bed and stung every area of my body. I scratched to suppress the itching but this only caused rashes on the skin while the itching persisted. I sought medical help and was put on antihistamine drugs but they didn’t work. This went on for weeks and the doctor opted to use steroids saying they were best for any skin problems. And, what a relief! The allergy cleared. But before I could breathe a sigh of relief, the worst happened.

Two years later, while I was expecting our second child, Nicholas Mwangi, the itching recurred. It was very traumatising to my entire family and especially my husband, Julian Ndegwa, a financial manager at a local printing firm. I would suddenly wake up in the middle of the night in our South B Estate home in Nairobi and scratch my body endlessly. He did not understand what was happening to me. My house girl would wonder in vain what food she had served that could have triggered it. For years, everyone around me blamed themselves for my allergy.

When everything else seemed to have failed, one doctor came up with the magic solution: an extremely high dosage of steroids. As soon as the dosage was administered the problem cleared pronto! What he didn’t tell me is that while steroids are the best for clearing any skin condition, they’ve got devastating side effects, specifically immunity drops that render the body vulnerable to all kind of infections and ailments.

In my case, tonsillitis remained a major health complication. For example, throughout my pregnancy when I was expecting our last born, Alice Wangui Ndegwa, now 6, I was on a tonsils drug. Unfortunately my baby was born with very low immunity and suffered tonsils like I did. 

The sword of Damocles…

Because of constant suffering, depression took over my life. Laughter and joy were unheard of in our house. I spent most of the day in bed scratching and nursing huge swellings all over my body. My business at Gikomba open-air market where I supplied clothes to retailers from all over the country came to a standstill. The next to go was my self-esteem. I couldn’t go out in public for fear of been ridiculed or raising curiosity from the public. I missed out on social functions like weddings and the rare occasions I attended, I had to carry my food and hide in our car to eat or if I ate in public, I kept explaining to people why I had to carry my food. How I envied people enjoying cakes, soft drinks, nyama choma and all the sweet things that were a no-go zone for me!

The mother of all allergies…

The itching started again suddenly and violently in 2010. I was so confused and tried to eliminate all possible causes of the allergy. I got rid of my old mattress and bedding, quarantined myself in the bedroom for months, away from even my family except in the evenings, after their dinner, when they would come to my room to chat with me.

I consulted doctors in several public and private hospitals and was prescribed different drugs; mainly antihistamines and lotions that only provided temporary relief. Pushed to the wall by the pain, I would insist on being treated with steroids. Some doctors would comply reluctantly, while others flatly turned down the request cautious of the serious side effects.

Finally after a lot of stress and hopelessness, in February 2010, I settled for a cardiologist whose clinic was at ICEA building in Nairobi. The doctor was honest and explained to me the dangers of steroids. He put me on Antihistamines but they didn’t work as instantly as I had hoped. After several visits, I sought another opinion from a Nairobi West-based doctor. He put me on some tablets that didn’t work, turned to injections that were no magic either, then back to the steroids. Then came the relief… The drugs did magic as they do on any skin condition. I never scratched again. I was happy and at peace.

One day in March 2011, I went to the doctor’s clinic. His wife, also a doctor, was standing in for him. She was both perplexed and concerned about my condition as my skin, scratched to the meat, appeared spotted like that of a leopard. She suspected diabetes, did a test and the sugar level was at the highest it could get, 18. The normal level is between five and eight. She dropped the bombshell: I was diabetic! I went into denial. How could I be? To the best of my knowledge what I had was a skin condition and not a lifestyle disease. You see; I had cared for my diabetic mother for many years before she died of its complications but not in my wildest thoughts did I think I was suffering from diabetes.

To make matters worse the doctor put me on the same medication I used to buy for my late mother. I was in shock. How I prayed to God that it was a misdiagnosis, but being in denial did not change the facts. With the stoppage of the steroids treatment, the artificial relief gone, my condition was getting worse and I started slowing down on daily exercises recommended by the doctor.

Two weeks later I went for a review only to find another doctor standing in for the couple that had traveled. He was reluctant to treat me and referred me to a dermatologist. I was a bit hesitant and continued with self-medication to get relief that was elusive. By the time I consulted a dermatologist, I was critically ill. I made several visits to his clinic, often after every other day. It was expensive considering that I had spent an enormous amount on my previous search for a cure. At this point, I exhausted my outpatient medical cover.

No sooner did my husband do a top up than it was exhausted. It was stressful.

Because I scratched my skin so vigorously, it was eroded from the normal five layers, to only one. I had no clue of it until the dermatologist put me in the picture. He stopped the use of steroids identifying them as the cause of the diabetes and prescribed other drugs. Three weeks of spirited treatment by the dermatologist yielded no positive results and indeed the condition worsened. Thankfully, he totally ignored my request to use steroids because I was diabetic. The relief provided by steroids gone, the itching and subsequent swelling on the skin was beyond description.

Our children were very scared and apprehensive that I could die just like my late mother.

Once, I visited the clinic three consecutive days without let up. The dermatologist was stunned by the turn of events and asked me to double the dosage hoping that would work. It didn’t and he secured me an admission at the Nairobi Hospital in critical condition in June 2011.

Doctors and nurses at the hospital were equally astonished by this strange allergy. My skin was charcoal hot. My doctor counseled me as he tried to find out what I was reacting to. They tried injections, tablets and painkillers whose usefulness wore out almost immediately. The nurses kept calling my doctor for advise as my body just craved for more and more drugs to get some semblance of ‘sanity.’

He was at loss and called in another specialist doctor to put their heads together and from then on they worked together to unravel the mystery. The new doctor ran various tests all of which gave my body a clean bill of health! And with that, I was put permanently on sleeping tablets and some antihistamines. I slept day and night only with interruption by nurses to give me another dose or during mealtimes.

The doctor incorporated a cardiologist and both run various tests all of which ruled out their suspicions. After one week, they gave up and I was discharged on sleeping pills, painkillers and some lotion to sooth the itching. That was like a death sentence and my self-esteem long gone, I totally lost hope. My meals had been narrowed down to boiled bananas mixed with potatoes. Moreover, because of the allergy, I showered with plain water without soap and had long stopped using any skin care products or any chemicals.

Back to my roots and health…

A friend referred me to a nutritionist at the Old Mutual Building on Kimathi Street in July 2011. It was difficult for us to have a proper discussion as I was scratching so much and my body was full of blisters. She perceived the disappointment and frustration and assured me that my problem would be solved.

She came up with a dose for a healthy lifestyle calmly saying, ‘…you must have your five regular meals in the right portions and well prepared. Eat lots of traditional foods – legumes and lentils, sweet potatoes, arrowroots and so forth. Eat in moderation! Cook your food as naturally as possible and avoid additives, deep fried foods, red meat, fizzy drinks, sugar and sugary foods (honey from a good source is alright)…’

I used to take expensive food supplements but the nutritionist narrowed them down to B immune, a supplement that I take once a day. My sugar level normalized to 5.2 after a month of this healthy lifestyle. I stopped taking the diabetes medication in August 2011.

Since then, I haven’t taken any antibiotics because I don’t get tonsils. I now take cold beverages and can eat anything I want in moderation. I am now free of the allergy.”

What is urticaria? 

Urticaria is an immune disease and is characterised by profound itching and skin eruption. It can be acute or chronic. Mercy suffered from the chronic type. Most chronic cases are caused by the body’s unexplainable development of antibodies to itself (auto-antibodies). 

Chronic bacterial and parasitic infections, long-term use of blood pressure drugs, underlying thyroid disease and autoimmune diseases such as lupus can provoke urticaria. It is not contagious and affects women and children more than men.

Treatment involves use of antihistamine medication for long periods. Steroids are occasionally required to settle severe symptoms but are not recommended.

Published in April 2012