Two doctors who were previously diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) claim an unconventional treatment cleared them of the symptoms of the disease.
They are among a growing number of MS patients who have made big lifestyle changes as part of a program, devised by Melbourne professor George Jelinek, which they say eliminated the symptoms of the disease that threatened to end their careers.
Sam Gartland’s future looked bleak when he was diagnosed with a relapsing remitting form of MS.
His symptoms were so severe he had to quit his job as an intensive care doctor.
“I couldn’t actually walk from the car park to the intensive care unit,” he said.
A decade later, Dr Gartland spends his mornings either kickboxing or surfing on the New South Wales central coast.
“I try and exercise every day,” he said.
“To the point where I’m sweating and my heart rate’s up.”
‘If this was a drug, by now everyone would be on it’
MS remains the most common disabling disease among young adults. Eighty per cent of those diagnosed will be forced out of full-time work within 10 years.
The Jelinek program consists of a strict regimen of exercise, meditation, low-fat diet and sun exposure to combat the condition.
“If this was a drug, by now everyone would be on it,” Professor Jelinek said.
Professor Jelinek devised his Overcoming MS (OMS) program after being diagnosed with MS himself in 1999.
It now has thousands of proponents worldwide and almost 20 years later, he remains symptom free.
As a doctor, Sam Gartland says he was initially sceptical about the program.
“Even though I’d read George [Jelinek’s] book and the evidence seemed strong that this was largely a disease related to lifestyle factors, my training through medical school was very different,” he said.
“My experience of multiple sclerosis was of a relentlessly progressive condition and I couldn’t see how such a powerful disease would be affected by simple lifestyle changes. I struggled with that.”
Facing early retirement from his job as an intensive care doctor, Dr Gartland travelled to a retreat in the Yarra Valley hosted by Professor Jelinek.
“One of the key things, I think for me, was looking at meditation and finding clarity in my mind about what I needed to do to address this illness,” he said.
Dr Gartland began the OMS program in 2009 after experiencing three relapses in year and not working for 12 months.
By 2012 the lesions that threatened to cut short his career had disappeared.
As a result, one neurologist questioned whether he ever had the disease.
Like Professor Jelinek, Dr Gartland remains symptom free.
‘I could see myself confined to a wheelchair, or worse’
Another devotee of OMS is Melbourne-based pathologist and Sceptic Society member Dr Virginia Billson.
She experienced double vision and an inability to speak after being diagnosed.
“I could see myself not being able to work, not doing anything, possibly confined to a wheelchair, or worse,” she told 7.30.
The attacks continued for five years and medication alone did not help.
With nothing to lose, Dr Billson tried the OMS program, changed her diet, and began exercising regularly.
Eventually, the attacks became less frequent and less severe.
Although she still struggles finding time to meditate, Dr Billson credits the OMS program with turning her life around.
“I haven’t had an attack for about 15 years,” Dr Billson said.
“I feel terrific.”
More testing required, says mainstream medicine
Some medical experts warn the program may not work for everyone diagnosed with MS.
Professor of Neurology and director of the Melbourne Neuroscience Institute at The University of Melbourne, Trevor Kilpatrick, is among those calling for randomised controlled trials to test some of the anecdotal results emerging from the Jelinek program.
“Even if it was beneficial for the first person, a disease such as MS is so variable we need to understand if an intervention is potentially of benefit, [and] who it might be of benefit for within the constellation of that disease,” Professor Kilpatrick said.
MS Research Australia says there is a growing body of evidence showing significant associations between MS, diet and other lifestyle factors.
Dr Gartland says the experience of being diagnosed and overcoming multiple sclerosis has made him a better doctor.
“Having a deeper understanding of what that entails for someone’s life, I think, is essential,” he said.
“That’s what I see every day in my work as a general practitioner.
“People who are able to make significant lifestyle change do better.”