Strides to fight invisible illnesses

Lynne Hesterman and Gillian Bishop will walk from Cape Town to Durban to raise awareness for invisible illnesses.

Two women from the far south are preparing for the trip of a lifetime – to walk approximately 1 635 kilometres from Cape Town to Durban to create awareness of people suffering from invisible illnesses.

Glencairn Heights resident Gillian Bishop, 61, says she and her good friend, Lynne Hesterman, 45, will set aside two to three years of their lives doing lengthy walks to continue the awareness as far and wide as possible.

The aim of the walk is to give sufferers of invisible illnesses such as attention deficit disorder (ADD), epilepsy, lupus, cancer, hypothyroidism, bipolar, fibromyalgia and depression a voice, and to create awareness of the struggles they face on a daily basis -but also to educate those with invisible illnesses that it is possible to improve your health if you’re prepared to put in the effort.

Gillian has suffered from invisible illnesses her entire life and was diagnosed with epilepsy (a neurological disorder marked by sudden recurrent episodes of sensory disturbance, loss of consciousness, or convulsions, associated with abnormal electrical activity in the brain) at the age of eight.

She says at the time, there was not much information available on epilepsy and people did not know much about it.

“It was an embarrassment to my parents and they did not know how to handle it,” she said.

She said her condition gradually worsened, with a dramatic increase in grand mal (loss of consciousness and violent muscle contractions as well as foaming at the mouth) and petit mal (brief loss and return of consciousness) attacks which are ongoing.

Later on, her episodes became so frequent that it affected her entire life and she struggled to complete her daily tasks as a personal assistant at a large engineering firm.

At the age of 41, Gillian was the first woman in South Africa to receive a vagus nerve stimulator.

Vagus nerve stimulation is a procedure that involves implantation of a device that stimulates the vagus nerve with electrical impulses. There’s one vagus nerve on each side of your body, running from your brainstem through your neck to your chest and abdomen.

She says the vagus nerve stimulator impacted her life positively by controlling her grand mal attacks but unfortunately, it increased the number of petit mal attacks.

“The petit mal attacks were milder but more frequent,” she said.

She said she was amazed at how many people had no idea what epilepsy was and compare it to autism or a brain disease.

“I always explain it as having a portable radio and the signal to the radio goes haywire,” she said.

At the moment her grand mal attacks are under control with the help of medication and a healthy diet. She also uses cannabis oil for the treatment of lupus, a chronic inflammatory disease that occurs when your body’s immune system attacks its own tissues and organs, which she was diagnosed with last year. Inflammation caused by lupus can affect the entire body including joints, skin, kidneys, blood cells, brain, heart and lungs.

In Gillian’s case, she suffered from rashes, extreme fatigue, dizziness and discolouration of her feet due to the capillaries in her feet going into spasm. She is also in remission from two unrelated cancers.

But despite the hardships she has faced, she is positive and has come to terms with her illnesses. She is a firm believer in healthy living and natural remedies such as cannabis oil for the treatment of invisible illnesses. She does not take any medication for lupus.

But before the duo can hit the road there is much to be done. While they have secured some sponsors for the trip, said Gillian, they were in need of more and of course they have to prepare themselves physically. To date they have not set a departure date. “But it will definitely be next year,” she said excitedly.

Before departing Gillian and Lynne must both go for fitness assessments and a full medical assessment. They must take replacement vitamins and ensure they are walking fit and their bodies are healthy. Gillian will also see a physiotherapist to ensure she trains correctly and effectively and both will follow a special diet. “We have no idea how long it will take as we both suffer from illnesses and might not be able to walk every day,” she said.

Lynne grew up in Noordhoek and matriculated at Fish Hoek High School. She spent 16 years abroad before returning to South Africa and settling in Mossel Bay where she is currently working.

She will soon be moving to Glencairn Heights to live with Gillian so they can train and plan their trip.

She suffers from hypothyroidism, meaning the thyroid gland does not make enough thyroid hormones. The thyroid controls how the body’s cells use energy from food, through a process called metabolism.

For more information about the walk, email Gillian at gregill@hotmail.co.za or visit their Facebook Group page: Invisible Illness Walk Fund.