When I first noticed the redness on the palms of our 5-year-old son’s hands, my husband Kyle and I assumed that he hadn’t been wearing his winter gloves. A week later, we noticed that he had the same, extreme redness on the soles of his feet. Not only was the skin red, but it also appeared to be thickening.
Five physician visits — and one very scary echocardiogram later — we learned that his body had reacted badly to a virus. The result was a rare skin disorder called pityriasis rubra pilaris, or PRP, which shows up as red-orange scaling skin patches with well-defined borders. Mostly, it appears on the soles, palms, elbows and knees, but sometimes it can cover a person’s entire body.
His feet and hands began cracking and peeling. We had to soak them in warm water every night and use a washcloth to scrape off the peeling and flaking skin.
The diagnosis of any rare — and possibly chronic — illness of a loved one is frightening. Having a good team of physicians helps. It also helps to have a team of complementary or integrative medical specialists on your side, too.
Integrative physicians and healthcare professionals look at the body as a whole, combining different treatments and involving the patient or family in the process. Together with traditional physicians, they offer a more comprehensive approach to treating health problems.
Here are some tips to keep in mind when working with both integrative physicians and traditional physicians:
“You have to participate in your own health,” says William Dunbar, PhD, MB, LAc, president of the Midwest College of Oriental Medicine, which has campuses in both Evanston and Racine, Wisconsin. “When you are invested in your health, you do the research.”
Integrative medicine integrates different modalities of treatment, says Eugene Ahn, MD, medical director of clinical research and hematologist/oncologist at Cancer Treatment Centers of America at the Midwestern Regional Medical Center in Zion. “Integrative medicine is about the doctor and the individual patient meeting at the table where both are equal partners in the treatment plan,” Ahn says. “But when it comes to long-term wellness, the most important physician in the room is the patient.”
Before you make an appointment with an integrative physician, call the practitioner and ask some preliminary questions, Dunbar advises. Ask about their experience with your condition. Or in the case of a rare condition, ask about their resources. Ask, “Do you have the sufficient resources to figure out how to take me down this pathway?” Dunbar says.
The day after our son finally received an official diagnosis, I called our family chiropractor and acupuncturist. Our chiropractor suggested laser light therapy, which aided the healing of the bleeding cracks and fissures in his hands and feet. Our acupuncturist did some research and learned that a 13-year-old girl who had the same disorder was helped with cod liver oil supplements, which helped my son too.
Coordinate and communicate
When coordinating between a traditional physician and an integrative one, keep both aware of any treatments you are receiving or supplements you are taking. Cancer patients, Ahn says, can be reluctant to tell their oncologists what supplements they’re taking. “A study showed that many chemotherapy patients who combine chemo with supplements won’t even consult with their physician. They do it in secret,” Ahn says.
Other studies reveal that oncologists skip the discussion of supplements with patients, too.
“Patients get overwhelmed with Dr. Google,” Ahn says. “Most patients just want to know what supplements can be used or not used with their conventional treatment.”
It’s important to coordinate, because some supplements can have adverse effects or interact in negative ways with chemotherapy and other drugs. “Just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous,” Ahn says. “The chemotherapy taxol comes from the bark of the Pacific yew tree and can increase chances of cancer cure at the right dose, but also kill at the wrong dose. The death cap mushroom can destroy a human kidney and liver and be fatal. Natural does not mean non-toxic, and serious drug interactions can happen.”
Do your research
When I started giving my son a teaspoon of cod liver oil every day for his PRP, I talked about it with both his primary care doctor and his dermatologist. The dermatologist told me that the vitamins A and D in the cod liver oil would be beneficial for my son’s disorder.
I also asked if the creams I was using to keep his skin hydrated during the day would interact with the medicated creams we applied in the morning and at night, and I learned they were safe.
Based on recommendations from our chiropractor and acupuncturist and my own research, I did my best to limit inflammatory food ingredients like sugar in my son’s diet, although it’s hard to keep a kindergartener 100 percent away from sweets.
Eight months later, my son’s hands and feet cleared up, and a year and a half later, he has no signs that he ever suffered from this condition.
My husband and I remain extremely watchful — especially if our son comes down with a cold, since it is believed a virus triggered the PRP. We continue to try to limit sugar, especially in our home. He still takes a cod liver oil supplement. And, upon the advice of our family practice physician, he was vaccinated against chicken pox because it’s a virus that produces a rash.
In all, we do our best to help him — and ourselves — stay healthy using all of the tools in our medical kit — both integrative and traditional. The combination can be the best of both worlds.