Varadarajan was on a pilgrimage to Badrinath in the company of extended family members in late 2010. Little did he imagine that he would be the victim of a fall, which proved disastrous and would alter the course of his life so abruptly. The initial 3-4 months of dramatic progress in his health condition reached a plateau, with minimal further improvement. It was at this point of standstill that the helplessness and hopelessness of a dependent status descended on him. The loss of self-esteem and of self-confidence built up, till the depression peaked in early 2013. All this in spite of a supportive family.
Mr. Varadarajan an engineering graduate, worked in a company for a few years before he decided to establish his own business. This he pursued in a committed manner and with enterprise, travelled a great deal on business, kept his family comfortable, educated his two children well, arranged & conducted his daughter’s marriage, an important milestone for any middle aged Indian couple. The daughter is settled abroad and visits with family every year. The trip to Badrinath, fulfilled Varadarajan’s religious inclinations as much as his urge to travel and seek adventure in the ‘mountainous Himalayan escape’!
Of Holy Shrines and Landslides The organised Char Dham pilgrimage is to the holy shrines of Lord Vishnu, Siva, Gangotri and Yamunotri, dotting the celestial Himalayan heights of Uttarakhand. The shrines are open to devotees in May and closed in early October, with the onset of the heavy snowfall. Roadblocks occur due to landslides, especially during the monsoon months of July-August, when the south-westerly winds bring with it rain, which lashes in all her fury on the slopes of the mountain ranges. Thousands of pilgrims may be stranded for a few days to a week for the roads to be cleared following a landslide. Natural disasters caused by the landslides and flash floods (the latter as in 2012 which claimed many lives) are no deterrent to the pilgrims, and year after year over 20 million pilgrims visit these holy temples in groups. The Border Road Organisation, Uttarakhand Government and the Badrinath-Kedarnath Temple Committee have their hands full during the pilgrimage season, not only to cater to basic amenities, which are sparse, but also to ensure the safety of vehicles on the winding, hazardous roads leading to the shrines. The Army is called upon to help in clearing heavy roadblocks and emergency helicopter service has to be sometimes deployed for medical emergencies and in disaster situations. The State Disaster Response Force has been established following the flash floods in 2013, to regulate the flow of pilgrims and towards better preparedness in the face of natural or man-made disaster situations. All these arrangements fall short of ideal organization, which the sheer enormity of the pilgrim population defeats.
The bus with the pilgrims had wound its way through the mountainous terrain until the driver was alerted of landslides ahead, and he knew by force of habit that he must halt the vehicle and warn the passengers to stay put. They had reached Pandukeshwar, a small town, 1829 metres above sea level, which lies about 20 km from the Vishnu temple at Badrinath. The bus crew took control of the situation, which was familiar to them, and made sure that there was no sign of panic among the busload of devotees. Their common mission was to reach Badrinath and that they would.
Exploring the Condition
Peace and calm prevailed and the long wait for the onward journey was taken as the ‘Will of God’. It was in the late evening that Varadarajan having just stepped out of the bus, perhaps to answer the call of nature, slipped on the slope, which sent him hurtling down 40 feet to land on his forehead. The bus crew and a few passengers rushed to the rescue. The wound was sutured and other first aid measures employed by the special team of healthcare providers. There was no immediate sequelae of loss of consciousness or seizures.
Varadarajan, within a few hours of the event, showed the foreboding signs of irritability and restlessness, pacing the floor of the shelter, becoming disoriented at times. He was transferred to the primary health centre at Joshi matt the following morning. In the next 3 days he progressed to semi-coma and was slipping into coma, and required specialized care. He was air-lifted by the Army helicopter and admitted to the ICU of a premier hospital in Dehradun, (the capital of Uttarakhand) which offered Neurosurgery as a superspeciality. The MRI reported ‘Subarachnoid haemorrhage and Subdural haematoma, with contusion on the right side’. His progress was monitored closely to minimize secondary brain injury following Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), and the condition was managed conservatively with the patient on heavy medication. He regained consciousness after 21 days, was disoriented initially and did not recognize his immediate family members, who had rushed down on receiving the news. At discharge he was able to sit up, was on oral feeds and was continent and off the Foley’s catheter.
Back in Chennai, followed by a neurologist, and on home care, in familiar surroundings, stimulated by the presence of family and friends and with minimum therapies, the patient made slow progress. Over a few months, his memory improved, and he recovered his gross cognitive ability and other faculties, including to some extent language and writing skills. There was a residual right-sided weakness, but the patient could walk with a little support. He had impaired hearing in the right ear. Repeat MRI confirmed resolution of the blood clots over large brain areas, which correlated with return of efficient brain functioning.
Traumatic Brain Injury
- Moderate to severe Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) is a major Public Health concern in India, as it is globally. 1.5 to 2 million persons are injured and 1 million succumb to death every year in India due to accidents. A comprehensive report in 2002 of the Dept. of Epidemiology, WHO Collaborating Centre for Injury Prevention and Safety Promotion, Rehabilitation, Policies and Programmes, at NIMHANS, Bangalore, India, headed by Prof. Gururaj, states that road traffic injuries are the leading cause (60%) of TBIs, followed by falls (20%-25%) and violence (10%). Since then, road traffic accidents have increased exponentially, and with an ageing population, falls in the elderly must add significantly to that category as well.
- Of all TBIs, 63% affect persons aged 15 to 64 and these represent the primary working population. These persons often have severe problems resuming a productive life and maintaining satisfactory interpersonal relations, despite the significant physical recovery within the first 6 months of injury. Depression can occur at any stage following an acquired brain injury, from the acute hospital stage to many years later. Post-injury depression may range from mild, (where a person may still be able to function in day to day life, but generally feel ‘low’), to severe depression and debilitation. Like in other forms of depression, the mood may be of sadness, despair, flat emotional reaction, increased frustration, irritability and anger. The thinking pattern may include a sense of hopelessness, pessimistic beliefs, and behaviour patterns may be of reduced attention to physical appearance, social withdrawal, loss of motivation to participate in activities the subject enjoyed premorbidly, accompanied by fatigue, sleep disturbances and poor appetite. There may be inability to return to previous employment and the subject may become dependent and progressively isolated, with a gradual decline in ability to perform everyday tasks and progressive disability to cope with everyday stressors. Most of the patients with these disturbances are unable to identify the cause of their inner mental state or report their social functioning accurately and the family may be at an equal loss to fathom the reason. Researchers have consistently suggested that the psychosocial problems associated with TBI may be the major challenge facing rehabilitation. This is where a specialist integrative therapy team can step in to achieve what seems impossible, patiently holding the hands of the patient and family members, guiding them through the assessments followed by the therapies in a graded manner and coaxing stepwise positive advancement in the patient’s condition. This is the ‘Art of Medicine’.
- Recognition of pituitary hormonal insufficiencies after head injury and Aneurysmal Subarachnoid Hemorrhage (SAH) may be important, especially given that hypopituitarism-related neurobehavioral problems are typically alleviated by hormone replacement.
- Gururaj G. Epidemiology of Traumatic Brain Injuries: Indian scenario. Neurol Res. 2002 Jan;24(1):24-8.
- Rafael Gomez-Hernandez, Jeffrey E. Max, Todd Kosier, BS, Sergio Paradiso, Sergio Paradiso, Robert G. Robinson, Social Impairment and Depression After Traumatic Brain Injury Archives of Physical Medicine Rehabilitation 1997; 78: 1321-1326
- Daniel F.Kelly, Irene T, Gaw Gonzalo, Pejman Cohan, Nancy Berman, Ronald Werdloff, Christina Wang Hypopituatarism Following Traumatic Brain Injury and Aneurysmal Subarachnoid Hemorrhage: a preliminary report J Neurosurg; 93: 743–752, 2000
The Prolonged, Gloomy, Negative Phase
The rehabilitation progress seemed to have reached a plateau within the next few months . The realization of the problems related to recovery from TBI dawned on Mr. Varadarajan. He was no longer the independent, vigorous, frequent-traveller, successful businessman, to whom the whole family looked up and others marveled. He was dependent, even for some physical help, could no longer travel alone on business, and with the financial stress and poor back up of human resource for his private enterprise, he was in the verge of closing down his business, which he had nurtured with a certain nonchalant air of confidence through these years. Life seemed to be slipping away from his control, and he was home bound, sleeping much of the time, with poor appetite, poor socializing and full of all the negative thoughts which sheer hopelessness can bring with it.
At this juncture, Varadarajan’s son’s marriage was fixed and the wife was forced to take up single-handedly, the elaborate arrangements and formalities which go with an arranged south Indian marriage. The daughter, who arrived early from abroad for her brother’s marriage, was alarmed at the father’s state of health, with weight loss, socially withdrawn, curled up in bed and sleeping long hours and finding it difficult to participate spiritedly in the wedding activities, which was very unlike the father she knew. She realised that something had to be done to pull him out of this state and to instill in him some positive energy. It was at this point that she came across information of the novel and holistic TriMed-Neurokrish approach to healthcare and decided to pursue it.
Our Healing Approach
After putting the marriage celebrations behind her, Varadarajan’s daughter arrived at the Trimed-Neurokrish reception counter and made enquiries and met Dr. E. S. Krishnamoorthy. She knew right away that that ray of hope to give her father some quality of life lay in this setting. She did not delay by even a day to arrive with her father to initiate the comprehensive assessment, integrated therapy and counselling offered here.
The Neuropsychiatric diagnosis was Post-Traumatic Brain Injury Depression, and Gait Disability. The residual neurological deficit was minimal on clinical examination, with some gait dysfunction and right sided weakness. Blood examination was unremarkable except for D3 deficit. A careful endocrinal screening was done to rule out neurobehavioural problems secondary to hypopituitarism, which can occur in TBI with subarachnoid haemorrhage.
Varadarajan’s blood pressure was under control on regular medication with Amlodipine taken twice daily. He was also on regular Phenytoin Sodium twice daily, Clinidipine for heart function, started on admission soon after the TBI and these continued. Other medication introduced at Trimed-Neurokrish included antioxidants, piracetam, ginseng (all for brain health), pregabalin (for anxiety and seizure prophylaxis) once a day, Donepezil (for memory) and Paroxetine (for mood). Vitamin D3 and B12 supplementation was initiated as well.
On neuropsychological evaluation, deficits in certain subtler areas of cognition were noted, which could hinder efficient performance. When questioned, Varadarajan said he felt hopeless, worthless, and had a sense of guilt for not being able to support his family. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy for depression and Cognitive Retraining were introduced and continued for over months, with a definite positive trend in his outlook. Family counseling and psychoeducation added to the improvement. The physiotherapist noted severe hamstring spasm, with restricted SLR bilaterally – basic exercises to make the limbs more flexible were given with Yoga and mud therapy. His gait disabilities were addressed specifically and over time he began to ambulate with greater ease. Yoga therapy helped his posture and balance, apart from reducing anxiety. Ayurvedic medicated oil massage for muscle spasm and joint flexibility, Shirodhara for cognition and mood and sessions of acupuncture were all spread over 3 months. Patient and family members were extremely pleased with the personal participation in the recovery process, the positive waves from the team enhancing the results of the long term therapies.
The focus of the TriMed-Neurokrish challenge was not just to improve the physical independent activity of the patient, but to modify behaviour (with the negative feelings of hopelessness and helplessness of the patient, leading to severe depression), to positive waves in slow but sure stages through cognitive behaviour therapy for the patient and through family counseling. Gaining the trust of the patient and family as the first step made them go along with the therapies with a sense of total dynamic participation in the process of rehabilitation and it even became a ‘fun game’ as marked improvement was noted. Recognising the patient’s often warped ‘thoughts and beliefs’, the altered life situations and the loss of self-esteem that contribute to the maladaptive and social withdrawal behaviours and the immediate triggers that set it off, are part of the sensitive professional assessments. These can be remedied by cognitive behaviour therapy, (when followed with diligence), towards placing the patient back in his original zone of comfort and self confidence in the home and in the community. A supportive network in this process includes health care providers, family, old friends, new friends, and persons who have had similar experiences.
The yoga sessions, massages, and other integrative therapies reinforce the wellness of the person through their general and specific actions, ensure continuity with the treatment team, and motivate the patient and family to participate willingly in the path to patient recovery.
“She knew right away that that ray of hope to give her father some quality of life lay in this setting.”
Over months, Varadarajan has made a steady recovery. His cognitive difficulties have largely remitted, his walking has improved, so much so, that he now does 5 kms on his own and walks his dog as well; his mood has improved, anxiety reduced and confidence levels have been boosted considerably. He is attending to his business again and has started to strike new deals, possibly saving his factory from closure; he is even planning a visit to the USA to spend time with his daughter, rekindling too an old desire for travel. Mr. Varadarajan continues to attend his medical reviews and booster therapy sessions regularly as scheduled and is gregarious in his interactions with the treating team, often sharing a hearty laugh.
For us, Varadarajan and scores of courageous patients like him, are our true inspiration. His family are beside themselves with joy to have him well and truly back in their midst, for his has truly been “A Himalayan Odyssey”. The Longman’s Dictionary of Contemporary English which defines the word ‘odyssey’ (with its roots in the Homer’s epic poem by that name) “as a series of experiences that teach you something about yourself or about life – a spiritual odyssey”, suits the theme of this TriMed-Neurokrish story best.