‘A suspected episode of lead poisoning left me temporarily paralysed’
Posted on 26 October 2017
After losing the use of her legs, a battery of tests, and chelation therapy that made her hair fall out, Lienkie Diedericks was finally declared free from lead poisoning. But what caused her condition? The answer, like the diagnosis, was not a simple one.
In early 2015, Lienkie Diedericks was admitted to Mediclinic Bloemfontein with an antibiotic-resistant infection. Lienkie is allergic to most antibiotics, but she was prescribed a popular alternative and the infection cleared up. Little did she know this was only the start of a long and harrowing rollercoaster ride to recovery.
By July 2015, Lienkie was once again a busy and lively postgraduate student at UCT and was also performing in a Chinese opera summer school. Six months later she was admitted to Mediclinic Cape Town with an acute neurological episode that looked like an autoimmune disease.
Confined to walking around on crutches and plagued by general ill-health, Lienkie underwent intense physiotherapy for what was first thought to be multiple sclerosis. There was very little improvement.
Lienkie was moved back to Mediclinic Bloemfontein where her impairments were discussed with a few specialists, one of which was her father. Together they pieced together a startling diagnosis: poisoning!
Lienkie’s doctors ordered a heavy metal toxicity screening test, looking for signs of aluminum poisoning. They later realising it was her lead levels that were unusually high.
The doctors traced the cause of her condition back to the heavy stage make-up she wore every day for 10 weeks during her time in China. Lienkie had suffered from renal impairment as a child so doctors came to the conclusion that treatment for the antibiotic-resistant infection she contracted in early 2015, together with her weaker renal function, had made her more prone to developing lead poisoning from her exposure to lead-based makeup.
‘I started chelation therapy in March 2017, which made me very sick and I lost most of my hair. I was admitted to the emergency room at Cape Town Mediclinic about four times during the treatment course.
‘After finishing the eight-week treatment I started feeling much better. I have much better motor reactions in my legs, and I am able to absorb essential minerals from food again. Plus my hair has grown back! Lead poisoning makes your mind really fuzzy and I’d suffered severe memory loss. This has now cleared up completely. I’m feeling a lot healthier in general,’ she says.
While Lienkie still has some motor impairment in one leg, she’s feeling very positive about the future. Recently accepted into a neuroscience masters programme at King’s College London, Lienkie plans to focus her thesis on neurological diagnoses in the female population.
‘I learned during my experience with lead poisoning that symptoms women or girls display are sometimes not taken seriously. The more I learned, the more I realised this extends to autism too, which is commonly underdiagnosed in girls because they don’t present the same symptoms as boys.
‘My honours thesis looks at how we are setting up our diagnostic processes for autism in a neuro-scientific context. There is a new research protocol coming out and I’m looking at how we can avoid making the same research mistakes,’ says Lienkie. Her paper was such a success that she was invited to speak at a prestigious neuroscience conference in Sydney, Australia.
One piece of wisdom she would like to share with other people facing neurological disorders is to make use of the incredible support offered by auxiliary medical staff such as physiotherapists and occupational therapists.
‘Specialists can be quite limited in what they can help you with; they will offer a diagnosis and treatment plan but you will need to walk the journey to recovery,’ she says. ‘My physiotherapist literally taught me to walk again and I am incredibly grateful for her expertise and the time she took to help me back onto my feet.’