I met Doctor Geeta Shroff today in all her glory, beaming with confidence and compassion. She is humble, yet assertive. Another doctor, an infectious disease specialist, was there for the first 10 minutes to help assess my situation. Since Lyme is an infectious disease and Dr. Geeta Shroff is not a specialist, I find it responsible that she is getting another brain to process the information. As the first Lyme Disease patient from the U.S., I am questioned thoroughly, asked for copies of testing and “proof” that I am indeed sick. She will do her own testing as well. The Indian Health Council allows her only to treat patients incurable or terminally ill. Lyme Disease, at this stage, is considered incurable. I am the most able bodied person here and as I look around, I almost feel guilty that I can walk with no assistance. The doctors tell me there is no Lyme in India, but Dr. Geeta Shroff had one Indian patient with it, probably by contracting it in the U.S.
By the time I was called into her office, she had already reviewed a summary about me taken by another doctor that arrived in my room earlier in the morning. She came with two nurses. Still, they seem to be traveling in packs. There is more staff than I think could possibly be utilized. Some of the nurses just stand there and watch me, smiling shyly. An American who lives here and owns an American tourism company tells me that they are enamored with my white skin. It’s quite ironic since we often die trying to become brown by exposing ourselves to the harsh effects of the sun.
Critics around the globe are scrutinizing Dr. Geeta Shroff. She is careful to make sure I know she is documenting everything carefully. A baseline will be taken for comparison later. My dad makes a joke about that being proof for her critics. She smiles sweetly and says something like, “Oh, the world is my critic.” She is right. There is controversial internet muck galore available on her and her work. No one can understand how she is doing it. She explains it to us by making picture drawings and giving us examples we can relate to. Her secretive technology is not exposed, but we get the idea. As an infertility doctor, she is amazed that I was an egg donor and now I am receiving the gift of life back. Part of her unique technique involves using one embryo to treat hundreds of patients with stem cells. The embryo was donated by a woman who underwent In Vitro for infertility and have two beautiful children, decided she wanted to give back. None of Dr. Geeta Shroff's patients have shown any adverse side effects, which is astounding. She does not seem overly excited about this, but rather has an attitude of this is how it should be. I ask her the big question about teratoma tumors. Scientists around the world are saying this is the risk associated with embryonic stem cells. She says it’s not so with her cells. She defends herself against nay-sayers when I tell her what I’ve read. She explains that since they are using mice for testing, they cannot accurately judge what would happen in a human. By mixing embryonic stem cells with the genetics of a mouse, they are doing something unnatural (as I understand it) which is setting off the wrong reaction. The same would happen if we put mouse cells into our human bodies. Her stem cells are a purely human product being transplanted into humans – and the body accepts it.
We talk about how the cells should be able to reverse damage done to my body from the Lyme. By strengthening my immune system, we predict it will begin to fight some bacteria on its own. The new stem cells will also help to regenerate the havoc the disease has caused – damaged nerves, tissue, etc. She reminds me she can make no guarantees. I am not at all bothered or deterred by this. I know all too well that in life, they don’t even exist.
After our meeting, she takes us down the elevator to the physio unit (physical therapy). A sweet lady named Chavi examines me thoroughly, starting with measuring my biceps as if I am some sort of body builder. She asks me to walk in a line with my eyes open, then with my eyes close. I fail horribly – veering to the left like a drunken sailor (without the hat).
I have a list of tests that need to be done and Dr. Geeta Shroff says a doctor will come later to give me the costs. The same kind woman doctor from the morning comes up later and shows me a list of about 15 tests which include a spinal MRI, various blood tests including some special immune function ones my doctor at home does, a “Doppler” (ultrasound) of my legs, a mammogram and the list goes on. I clench my teeth when she begins with “The price will amount to….” and then she says $1,000. For a second it sounds like a lot until I realize that a spinal MRI in the U.S. is $2500 alone and 15 days of one of my medications just cost me $300. This is the deal of a lifetime. They come to my bed to take my blood and tomorrow I’ll do most of the other testing. They say that if they don’t have something available in the hospital, they’ll fly me to another city if need be. Wait time is zero in India for medical. You get what you pay for, and fast.
I am set to get my first mini-dose of stem cells later in the afternoon. Dr. Ashish, Dr. Shroff’s partner, comes with a gang of helpers to administer it. He explains the gameplan. This first test shot is to make sure there is no reaction. They are looking for a rash at the injection site. It seems humorous to me. After all I’ve been through, a rash would be the least of my problems.
Dr. Ashish takes his time, just like everyone else has. He explains to me that I have so much to do with how the stem cells take to my body – approximately 20%. These cells are embryonic and need to be trained to function properly. Part of the impact on the cells will be physical therapy, part will be my mind and spirit and the rest will be how my body reacts on its own. I assure him they have a good home waiting. It is kind of surreal how these cells that give life are already so loved. I almost can’t wait until he does the injection and they are mine to keep. He finally injects a syringe full of clear liquid into my arm with a tiny needle and leaves. One of the nurses tells me to rest. They have been reminding me all day. The cells should be calm, they say, so they can do their work. Dr. Geeta Shroff mentions earlier that I should eat a bit more than normal. It is also best that I don’t take any medicine that would harm a baby if I were pregnant. I have to think of my “baby” cells and what could hurt them. I suddenly feel a rush of responsibility. I rest all afternoon. It is extremely unlike me, but I lay quietly, listening to the sounds of the cars honking outside. I don’t want to move too much. This is going to work and I’m determined to help it.
Starting tomorrow I get two injections daily – one in the morning and one at night. Physical therapy with Chavi is in the afternoon. Some days I will get the stem cells intravenously. The nurses here are paranoid of “paining” me but they have no idea how much “paining” has gone on over the last few years. Needles are nothing.
Tonight I am calm as I listen to chanters on the street. I wonder if they are celebrating, or praying, or both….but I can’t hear clearly enough to decipher what is going on. Other patients are watching T.V., mingling in their doorways and the nurses are hustling about. They come in to check on us often and take our blood pressure with cuffs that look like they are from another era. As for me, I feel full of life in a new sort of way. I’m sitting in bed with the roar of the rambunctious city street below me. I am calm, content and thankful. If I could be doing anything in the world right now, there is nothing I’d choose over this. Absolutely nothing. Already I feel as if a new life has begun. And indeed, inside me, I really believe it already has.