JEDDAH: Afnan Aljaadi was a freshman in college when she received the life-changing news that she had multiple sclerosis (MS) in 2008. Aljaadi is now one of Saudi Arabia’s leading chefs, specializing in French, Italian, and Asian cuisine. She talked to Arab News about how she has been able to make her dreams come true against the odds.
MS is a medical mystery. Its cause is still unknown, there is no cure yet, and symptoms and progress vary from person to person. It is a relatively rare autoimmune disease that affects the central nervous system including the brain, cerebellum, and spinal cord. According to the American National Multiple Sclerosis Society, there are only 2.3 million people worldwide with a confirmed diagnosis of MS, 1 million of whom are in the US.
The first symptoms Aljaadi noticed back in 2008 were dizzy spells that would cause her to faint, sensitivity to sunlight, and migraines. Her college work began to suffer and her GPA dropped significantly. Unfortunately, she told Arab News, her college professors thought she was making excuses and faking her symptoms until she had been properly diagnosed.
After a series of tests and an MRI, she was transferred to a neurologist, who suggested brain and nerve radiation therapy. It took several more tests and visits to other neurologists before her diagnosis was confirmed.
“The disease was very strange. I had never heard of it before, but I am very thankful that I discovered the symptoms (early) and did not lose the ability to move,” Aljaadi said. “I was struggling so much in that first year because society did not accept the changes I was going through. That has turned me into a very reserved person.”
Aljaadi developed further symptoms: The frequency of her fainting increased, the left side of her face felt numb, and her skin became extremely sensitive to cold water. These are not uncommon — the lesions seen when patients with MS undergo an MRI can affect areas of the brain responsible for sensation, meaning many experience a loss of feeling in parts of their bodies, as well as blurred vision, weakness, and “brain fog.”
Like many people diagnosed with a life-altering condition, Aljaadi became depressed. “I went into a spiral of sadness and depression after acknowledging that I had been diagnosed with the disease and was not receptive to it,” she said.
The head of the neurology department at My Clinic in Jeddah, Dr. Rumaiza Hussein Alyafeai, a Saudi neurologist and consultant, and an MS specialist, explained how MS affects the brain and muscle function.