Living with vitiligo
Gabriella Celene Biswah’s huge, beautiful eyes are what caught my attention the first time I met her. She got onto the hospital bed, took out her mobile phone, looked around the ward, shrugged her petite shoulders and resigned herself to her to the stay at the institution. It would be one of the 20-plus stays since she was 13 and diagnosed with vitiligo.
Vitiligo is a condition in which the pigment is lost from areas of the skin, causing whitish patches on the body, often with no apparent cause. While the last seven years have been more downhill than up for this 20-year-old woman, her condition has now come to represent her fate in life.
"I am angry now, but for different reasons. I am mad when I see people taking their organs for granted.
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"It irks me to see young people smoking and drinking when there are sick people out there who would literally die for a clean lung or alcohol-free liver," she said shaking her head.
But wait, how does one go from having vitiligo, which is not chronic or life-threatening, to being hospitalised on so many occasions? Biswah’s health struggles began when as a student of Asja Girls’ College she saw the first spot on her body. In a panic, Biswah said her parents, Nigel and Hanisha, took her to a private doctor.
"I researched the hell out of the condition and became even more scared finding out how progressive it could become.
"Then we sought a second opinion," she recalled.
It was this second opinion and the doctor’s prescription which the family believes led to Biswah’s condition worsening. Biswah was prescribed a heavy dose of steroids by the well-known doctor, whom her family trusted "100 percent." She claimed the pharmacist questioned that it was too much for her small body structure and age, but the drug was administered anyway. She took the drugs, her health worsened.
Counselling was recommended and Biswah was later introduced to a young woman whose whole body was a whitish colour. The meeting, she said, was meant to inspire her to accept the condition, but it did quite the opposite. Added to this were the bouts of illnesses and days which she missed from school.
"I began feeling sick, weak, having headaches, vomiting and losing weight even though I was always hungry.
"I had numerous trips to the bathroom. Eventually, it was my grandmom, Radhika, a diabetic, who saw it for what it is," she recalled.
A blood sugar test was done and she was taken to a private doctor, then rushed to San Fernando General Hospital. Biswah was eventually diagnosed with Graves’ Disease, Type 1 diabetes and hyperthyroidism. She now had to take four shots of insulin daily.
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Despite this, the support of teachers and classmates at school saw her attain a full certificate at CXC, with several grade ones and distinctions among the seven subjects passed. Eventually, Biswah’s organs became affected and she also developed heart disease and polycystic ovaries. By 17, she would have her first surgery for a ruptured appendix and cyst.
Last year, she survived a second procedure for an infected abscess on her body. Biswah admitted that battling the many diseases which afflicted her emotionally and physically caused her to have suicidal thoughts. She wrestled daily with thoughts of never becoming better or finding someone to love and accept her.
Then she met Ishaan Poonwassie. "It’s been three years since I actually found love and it’s like he makes me feel like he does not see the spots. He sees me for who I am. I can be myself around him, and he just accepts my moments and moves on," she said. She also found inspiration from the story of Chantelle Brown-Young, a model on Cycle 21 of America’s Next Top Model, who was discovered by producer Tyra Banks on Instagram.
Brown-Young, who was just four when diagnosed with vitiligo, was bullied at school because of her condition. While she didn’t win the coveted title on Tyra’s show, she was subsequently signed to front the top Barcelona-brand, Desigual, following her stint on ANTM. With new-found love and a positive outlook on life, it is still no smooth sailing for Biswah who continues to struggle with the effects of diabetes which have taken a toll on her body.
The support, love and care of her friends, family and numerous medical staff, she said, helps to cushion the blows.
"Now an advocate for living well and taking care of your body, Biswah tells everyone who would listen:
"Take care of yourself, don’t take your body for granted.
"Don’t ill-treat it because you feel you are as strong as an ox, fit as a fiddle or can over indulge in drinking, smoking today and feel fine the next day.
"Stop taking for granted what others can only pray and hope for."
Biswah said, "there will always be a question mark on my life, but I have finally become comfortable with me and intend to live life to the fullest, once God allows me to."
Karla Ramoo: I look in the mirror and see a beautiful woman
The media’s own, Karla Ramoo, former Guardian senior photographer, has been living with vitiligo for the last ten years. She admitted that initially she felt fear which led her to take a lot of drastic actions like not washing her clothes in the washing machine using certain detergents and changing her dress code.
A wife and mother of three, Ramoo said she wore clothes to cover up as much of her skin as possible and drank every concoction suggested.
"I tried to gauge people’s reaction to seeing the spots. I would joke a lot and tell family and friends I would soon be a white woman. I thought, at first, it would mess with my beauty, but I don’t feel the need to offer an explanation anymore when I see someone I haven’t seen in a long time," she said.
Life, she said, continues as normal, with the only significant change being the way the sun affects her.
"It burns differently, my eyes get red and my lips feel swollen and tender if I am out too long.
"But time has made me courageous. Now I look in the mirror and I see a beautiful woman with some white added in," she joked.