Nothing strikes greater fear in our hearts than the prospect of permanent medical disability. Sadly, with humans living longer (but not necessarily healthier) lives, multi-morbidity and chronic medical disability have become common. When struck down by disability, the prevailing medical model provides both for surgical correction and symptom relief through drugs and procedures. However, with a large proportion of patients either failing to respond adequately, or indeed rejecting those conventional options, there is a need to look beyond.
Mrs. L, an 80-year-old housewife, was rushed to the hospital after suffering a brain haemorrhage. Unconscious, paralysed on the left side, unable to speak and swallow, she needed ICU care with the ventilator (and tracheostomy) to help her breathe and a feeding tube to receive fair nutrition. Three weeks later, when she was transferred to rehabilitation care, Mrs. L was barely conscious; still had a tracheostomy tube, feeding tube and catheter in place, remained severely paralysed on the left side (not even a flicker of muscle contraction), and suffered from excessive throat secretions and severe chest congestion.
After a comprehensive assessment by the rehabilitation physician, with inputs from the chest and ENT physician, her medication was optimised and intravenous steroids to kick-start brain function were introduced. She also received an integrative therapy programme, including twice daily sessions of physiotherapy in the form of nerve and muscle stimulation, graded passive and active exercises, combined with manual interventions such as acupressure, acupuncture and reflexology. Over two weeks, Mrs. L responded well to this treatment. Her consciousness and comprehension improved, and she began to respond to and obey simple commands. She began to sit with support, and then her chest secretions reduced. She regained urinary sensation and gradually her catheter was removed. She started to show response in the paralysed limbs; she stood with support; even walked a few steps. However, there was persistent left vocal cord palsy and the tracheostomy removal failed. So the feeding tube had to be left in place. We started work with her family, helping them cope with her condition and setting graded, realistic goals.
She was discharged to home care and nursing and continued to undergo integrative therapy. Sessions of Ayurveda therapy in the form of oil massages and medicated foments were now introduced to improve limb power and movement along with continued physical and manual therapy procedures. The psychological therapist engaged her in cognitive therapy and motivational enhancement, apart from helping her caregivers deal with their distress. Over six weeks, she began to walk with support, express herself with gestures and swallow small amounts of soft solids. Apart from a minor bout of aspiration pneumonia in the interim, requiring brief hospitalisation, she made good progress.
When Mrs. L returned to the hospital for a team review, her tracheostomy tube and feeding tube were removed. She regained her ability to speak, albeit hoarsely. Her chest was clear and she was progressively able to swallow more each day. Her gait had improved and she walked well with support. She appeared bright, sprightly and ready to engage with the world, even presiding over her family’s “harvest festival” celebration. Today, this determined lady continues weekly sessions in the pursuit of complete wellness.
Mrs. L’s is an inspirational story. While modern medicine saved her life, it could not possibly, on its own, give her back “quality of life”. The integration of several medical therapies, as a rehabilitation model, succeeded in doing just that. Involving the use of trained personnel and a range of techniques and therapies — both ancient and modern — have great relevance in our culture. Modern medicine at the fountainhead of such treatment is crucial, not least because people with medical disability are especially vulnerable and need close scientific supervision. However, modern medicine cannot, on its own, address the care needs of several hundred thousand people confined to their beds and to wheelchairs, due to illness and injury. With an estimated 125 million elderly in India, slated to grow to 176 million by 2026, 30 per cent of whom have chronic medical conditions, we must clearly look beyond, at holistic care.