Just nine months ago, 40-year-old Cristy Kessler couldn’t walk down the block. Diagnosed with three rare autoimmune diseases, the University of Hawaii associate professor was living in pain every day. She was simply “preparing to die,” she said.
“The pain was so intense, I was on morphine and vicadin ‘round the clock, everyday,” said Kessler, whose body was attacking itself because of three different autoimmune diseases: Scleroderma, Vasculitis and Akylosing Spondylitis.
Born in 1973, Kessler first knew there was something terribly wrong when she began to experience extreme swelling and pain on the year she turned 20. But as far as she remembers, she’s lived all her life in pain.
“I have always had this pain for as long as I can remember,” she narrates in her blog. “The first time I remember feeling the stiffness and pain when I put weight on my legs was when I was in preschool. I remember sitting on the reading rug and listening to (the preschool teacher) Mrs. Macky.”
“We were all sitting ‘Indian style’ and when story time was over and we were supposed to lie down to have our naps, a burning pain shot straight up and down my spine. With a jolt, I sat straight up and immediately got scolded for not lying down. None of the other kids seemed to be bothered by this pain, so I lay down, curled into a ball and cried silently until I fell asleep,” she recounts.
Inflammations from Akylosing Spondylitis was causing her spine to fuse together, making it less flexible and resulting in pain and a hunched-forward posture. Whenever Kessler lifted her head to look forward or moved abruptly, as she had done as a preschooler, a burning pain would shoot through her neck and head.
Scleroderma caused Kessler’s body to produce too much collagen protein, resulting in thickening or tightening of her skin and scarring of her internal organs. Many of her tissues were damaged by abnormal spasm and the thickening of blood vessels that caused abnormally elevated pressure in her systemic and pulmonary arteries.
At 23, Kessler had to undergo surgery to have her gall bladder removed—a procedure normally done on people above 60. At 32, she had to have a hysterectomy to remove growths in both her uterus and cervix. She has also had a small intestine resection to remove a cancerous growth, and both her Achilles’ tendons have had to be repaired in separate surgeries done a few years apart.
Because of her Vasculitis, Kessler’s blood vessels were inflamed, weakened and stretched, affecting some of her organs and causing her progressive kidney failure. It also caused her to suffer “milder” symptoms like fever and loss of energy.
Kessler has also has operations to repair other genetic defects like Meckle’s diverticulum, a small bulge in the small intestine present at birth and chiari malformation
By 2010, overwhelmed with pain and overcome with her numerous ailments, Kessler went on sick leave and began preparing to die.
The promise of stem cells
Stem cells are the precursor cells or “building blocks” of the body that have the potential to develop into blood, brain, bones and all body organs.
Because they can be derived from many different sources and give rise to different cell types under the right conditions, they can be a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat the autoimmune diseases that currently, have no treatment.
For Kessler, stem cell transplant was an option, especially for the Scleroderma that was destroying her internal organs. But it isn’t approved by the Food and Drug Authority and is not covered by insurance in the United States.