My name is Monica Aggarwal. I am a cardiologist. The road to getting to that point has been long and hard. Being a woman in subspecialty medicine is in itself an important topic. When I finally finished my training, almost ten years after starting, I was thrilled. My husband and I had postponed having a family because of the work demands and call schedule. When I finally became board certified and was practicing, I thought I had finally achieved and It had all been worth it. As soon as I finished training, I became eager to start a family. Because I had waited so long and wanted to have a few children, the need to have them in quick succession became evident. I had two kids in three years and was thrilled to have them. I was working hard all day and then would run home and be full on mom. I was on the floor with the kids playing, then would cook and clean once they went to bed. I tried to do everything 100%. The only thing that I sacrificed was my sleep. I took for granted that my body would be able to handle the 3-4 hours of sleep each night before I started over again the next day. I became pregnant again with my third child which I felt would complete my family. I delivered my baby girl to then have three children under four years of age. I had three kids in diapers (my oldest only at night). All that time was squeezed even more. Still working hard to be perfect at everything, I continued to cut sleep out. I would wake and try to work out and then make lunches for the kids. I would make mine next and run out the door with a banana for breakfast. I would see patients all day and run home to nurse the baby and do all the evening routines parents all know so so well. I still remember nursing the baby and answering calls for heart attacks at 3 AM.
My Disease and Journey
When the baby was four months old, my life changed. I woke up one morning with a stiff and red shoulder. Two days later, it was my left second index finger. Two days after that, another joint. I started developing severe migratory joint pain. I figured I had contracted Lyme disease so I started myself on antibiotics but three days in, I was still miserable and I was getting worse. I remember the feeling of the glass cutting my feet as I walked. There is no pain that I have had that comes close to that pain. I remember the day my life changed very clearly. I hadn’t been able to exercise in weeks. I had woken early to make lunches for the kids to take to preschool. I remember hobbling down the stairs. I remember the pain so vividly. As I was making lunches, the baby woke up and I got worried that she would wake up the other children. I thought I would run up the stairs and get her and nurse her. I remember trying to lift my leg to make the first step. I couldn’t climb. I couldn’t walk up the stairs. I had to crawl up the stairs. I remember vividly the salty taste in my mouth from my tears of humility, pain and sadness. Something really bad was happening to me. A week later, I was diagnosed with a severe, debilitating form of rheumatoid arthritis. My rheumatologist told me that my markers portended a poor prognosis and that I needed to start medication as soon as possible and preferably within a week’s time. He told me to stop nursing the baby and get on medication. So, out of fear, I did. I still harbor the guilt and sadness of having that choice being taken from me. I was angry also. I didn’t understand how someone like me, as “healthy” as I could become sick. I started feeling anger towards my third child, thinking that if I hadn’t had a third child, then maybe I wouldn’t have become sick. I was in a dark place.
Taking the medication was miserable. My long black hair started falling out. I was nauseated all of the time. There was a metallic taste in my mouth all of the time. But, my joints got better. I was able to go back to my procedures and started taking the stairs again and seeing patients without difficulty. Life went back to a new normal. I still slept little and over worked, but my joints didn’t hurt. A few months later, I met a nutritionist who wanted to participate in one of heart fairs and to show me what she had to offer, she offered to do a diet assessment. I was immediately skeptical as most medical doctors are but I let her do it. It was then for the first time, I started understanding the impact diet has on our health. Three years later, I have taught myself what I did not learn in medical school. I have learned how to treat a patient with diet. I have learned inflammatory foods to eliminate and the anti-inflammatory foods to add back in. I have read the trials. I know now what has validity and what does not. I have tried everything out on myself and with trial and error, have learned to cook a new way.
It has taken me a long time to embrace my disease. I have learned that it is not illness that defines us but rather, how we respond to it that makes us who we are. A person like me who was so controlled and rigid falls hard when illness hits. I blamed my poor daughter for being the cause of my illness. I was mad for a long time. But, now I am the healthiest I have maybe ever been. My cholesterol is ridiculously low. My inflammatory markers are nonexistent and I am off all medications. I am strong. I just rocked my first triathlon. I feel great. I have learned to take time for myself. I have learned to laugh more and not worry so much about being late or about climbing a ladder. I thank my body every day for what it has to give me and I forgive it for what it cannot. In some ways, the crazy thing is that getting sick was the best thing that happened to me. I have my girl to thank for bringing me back from a world in which I was drowning. I realize now that my daughter didn’t make me sick, she saved me.
I know now that my job now is to educate people on how to become healthy without medication. My job is to help people heal themselves. My job is to teach people how to prevent disease. Come and take this journey with me.
Monica Aggarwal, M.D., F.A.C.C.