"Unbroken" Author Laura Hillenbrand: The Face of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

It wasn’t all in her head

Laura Hillenbrand is the New York Times best selling author of both Seabiscuit and Unbroken. Her feat of being such a great writer is even more fascinating and complicated considering she has been suffering with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for 27 years. I loved Seabiscuit the movie (I’m embarrassed to admit I didn’t read the book) and I look forward to seeing Unbroken that comes into movie theaters Christmas day. In a recent New York Times magazine section, Ms. Hillenbrand discussed the obstacles that Chronic Fatigue Syndrome presented in her life and ways she learned to cope–and ways she wished others had treated her.

Ms. Hillenbrand became ill with CFIDS (Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome) while attending her first semester at college. It had an acute presentation and she became so ill that she had to drop out and live back at home with her mother. This was all so devastating: she was an athlete and also loved to ride horses (hence her interest later on to write about Seabiscuit). The physical limitations due to chronic fatigue were equally matched by psychological scarring this illness brought with it.

Unlike cancer, where there is a clear cut diagnosis, and something doctors can see on X-rays or where your friends and relatives see the effects of chemotherapy, like loss of hair or weight, chronic fatigue syndrome has this invisible presentation that the patient looks normal, but yet is so ill they have no energy to function in a normal capacity. What I came to appreciate in this article on Ms. Hillenbrand, is that, equal to her physical limitation, the psychological trauma of friends not believing she was really ill–and even doctors telling her it was all in her head–was an impediment to getting better.

Maintain Your Mental Health

There are other blogs where I go into detail about the medical interventions: intravenous vitamins, gamma globulin as well as diet and exercise for my patients with chronic fatigue syndrome. However, today I want to truly focus on how important it is for any patient with the diagnosis of chronic fatigue to make sure they do everything in their power to empower themselves to maintain their dignity and mental health.

My first recommendation would be something I’ve learned from my patients: join a support group. This has never been easier. Online support groups are all over the internet and serious, compassionate fellow sufferers can offer golden nuggets of advice. I’ve always loved the quote from Dr. Bernie Siegel (author of Love, Medicine and Miracles): “Doctors are the tourists when it comes to illness, and patients are the natives.”

My interpretation of that insightful quote is that no one, not even your doctor, can understand the suffering of what you are going through like another patient with the same diagnosis. True healing of the soul can have a profound affect on your quality of life. Dr. Siegel discovered this with his cancer patients and those with other severe, chronic illnesses. My other advice to patients with chronic fatigue is take up some form of Mindfulness Meditation.

60 Minutes, the iconic TV show, just had an episode on Mindfulness Meditation. It actually featured Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, someone I did a professional training program with 20 years ago. The show portrayed how beneficial this form of meditation can be in helping one to focus. This is critical in chronic fatigue syndrome, where mental energy is sapped as much as physical energy. Mindfulness can be as simple as focusing on your breathing and if practiced regularly has profound positive effects on brain function. In addition, because of its tremendous impact on a patient’s life, it is more than reasonable to seek out professional counseling to learn to cope with feelings of helplessness and anxiety.

Find Purpose, Find Wellness

Finally, I think in Ms. Hillenbrand’s personal case and for anyone battling this illness, having a sense of purpose can be such an important way to cope with chronic fatigue. Finding a purpose or even finding small ways to help others can have a profound effect on your overall sense of well-being. I have witnessed this actually in the IV room at our office at Mitchell Medical Group. I realized it wasn’t just the IV vitamin C we were infusing into patients that gave my patients a lift, but the camaraderie that I saw each patient helping others and encouraging them or consoling them that led to healing.

This holiday season I hope you get a chance to see Unbroken –it looks like a special movie. I hope all the chronic fatigue syndrome patients also realize they are very special and loved.

- Dr. Dean Mitchell
Mitchell Medical Group, NYC

Categories: Chronic Fatigue

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