JEDDAH: Afnan Aljaadi was a freshman in college when she received the life-changing news that she had multiple sclerosis (MS) in 2008. Aljaadi is now one of Saudi Arabia’s leading chefs, specializing in French, Italian, and Asian cuisine. She talked to Arab News about how she has been able to make her dreams come true against the odds.
MS is a medical mystery. Its cause is still unknown, there is no cure yet, and symptoms and progress vary from person to person. It is a relatively rare autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system including the brain, cerebellum, and spinal cord. According to the American National Multiple Sclerosis Society, there are only 2.3 million people worldwide with a confirmed diagnosis of MS, 1 million of whom are in the US.
The first symptoms Aljaadi noticed back in 2008 were dizzy spells that would cause her to faint, sensitivity to sunlight, and migraines. Her college work began to suffer and her GPA dropped significantly. Unfortunately, she told Arab News, her college professors thought she was making excuses and faking her symptoms until she had been properly diagnosed.
After a series of tests and an MRI, she was transferred to a neurologist, who suggested brain and nerve radiation therapy. It took several more tests and visits to other neurologists before her diagnosis was confirmed.
“The disease was very strange. I had never heard of it before, but I am very thankful that I discovered the symptoms (early) and did not lose the ability to move,” Aljaadi said. “I was struggling so much in that first year because society did not accept the changes I was going through. That has turned me into a very reserved person.”
Aljaadi developed further symptoms: The frequency of her fainting increased, the left side of her face felt numb, and her skin became extremely sensitive to cold water. These are not uncommon — the lesions seen when patients with MS undergo an MRI can affect areas of the brain responsible for sensation, meaning many experience a loss of feeling in parts of their bodies, as well as blurred vision, weakness, and “brain fog.”
Like many people diagnosed with a life-altering condition, Aljaadi became depressed. “I went into a spiral of sadness and depression after acknowledging that I had been diagnosed with the disease and was not receptive to it,” she said.
The head of the neurology department at My Clinic in Jeddah, Dr. Rumaiza Hussein Alyafeai, a Saudi neurologist and consultant, and an MS specialist, explained how MS affects the brain and muscle function.
“The immune system is not affected in itself, but some immune cells lose track of attacking foreign particles and they start to attack the myelin sheath (an insulating layer around the nerves) in the nervous system, hence the lesions start to appear,” she said.
“Among the most challenging obstacles that patients with MS might face is the lack of knowledge,” she continued. “Autoimmune diseases, in general, are quite difficult to handle as they have a variety of symptoms that make the patients pass through a sometimes overwhelming journey prior to having their diagnosis declared. You might start to see symptoms such as mood swings, depression, euphoria, forgetfulness, and emotional lability.”
One of the main things that helped Aljaadi overcome her depression was her passion for cooking. Having completed her college degree in six years, she started work as an administrator. But she also participated in several cooking competitions, and in 2013 she took part in “Master Chef,” which she credits with opening many doors for her.
She has now received two chef certifications from the acclaimed French-born Monégasque chef Alain Ducasse and French culinary school Le Cordon Bleu, and she is a certified professional pastry chef. She runs her own cake decoration business — @unemeringue (“My inspiration is generated from my passion in art, combined with my pastry skills to create edible art pieces with a unique fine taste,” she said) and has also joined the Middle Eastern food and lifestyle TV channel Fatafeat.
“The most challenging obstacle is losing control of my muscles, especially when I do my daily routine of work in pastries and cooking and all I feel is numbness,” she said. “But I am a survivor. I changed my lifestyle and understood what could hurt me. I’m still fighting it. It’s a matter of adapting and adjusting to a certain healthy lifestyle and habits to maintain a sustainable day-to-day routine.”
Finding the right diet has played an important role in living with her condition, she explained. Every patient’s dietary needs will differ, depending on their blood type and their family’s medical history.
“I follow a gluten-free diet,” Aljaadi said. “I avoid lactose, I increased the amount of vegetables I was eating and reduced my meat intake.” Exercise, especially walking, is also crucial, she added. “Continuing treatment without a healthy lifestyle will not give any satisfactory results.”
But it’s not just her physical well-being that Aljaadi needs to pay attention to, she explained. “Visiting a psychologist — just talking to a (professional) — helped me a lot,” she said. “It improved my confidence and (increased my belief) in Allah’s mercy, with patience and persistence, to accomplish my ambition.”
“Most MS patients are great warriors and heroes of their own unique stories,” Alyafeai said. “They almost always cope well with the disease (with the help of) their neurologists.”
For anyone else with MS, Aljaadi has some advice. “I’d encourage you to let go of your comfort zone to avoid bouts of depression,” she said. “Remember that your persistence is a source of energy for others who are suffering.”