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When Health takes over
In April of 2006, Paola Henderson was a happily-married new mother, running a successful restaurant in Port of Spain, La Trattoria Guiliano’s, with her husband, when she received the shock of her life: her baby son Tommy, then just 6 weeks old, was diagnosed with a rare (1 in every 100,000) condition called Alagille Syndrome (AS). Basically, AS is a condition where the liver does not have enough bile ducts to properly digest food. Consequently, the bile finds other means of escaping. There is no known cure for the disease.
The first few years of Tommy’s life was spent in a constant revolving door of doctor’s offices, hospitals, planes and health facilities here, in the US and in Ecuador (Paola was born in Ecuador but moved here when she was 7 years old). The family was given the devastating prognosis that they would most likely have to seek a liver transplant for Tommy before he reached his teenage years. They eventually closed the restaurant when they had to move abroad indefinitely for Tommy’s treatment. In spite of his condition, she did everything she could to make her son’s life as normal as possible, even writing a book, simply called ‘Tommy’, to both help other families enduring the same circumstances and to educate children about accepting others who are ‘different’.
Despite it all though, she remained uncertain and confused as to what the best treatment for Tommy’s condition really was. She had what she could only call a ‘gut feeling’ that his diet was intrinsically linked to his condition – or at least the treatment of it – but not a single medical professional placed any real importance on that beyond prescribing a low-fat diet. She eventually followed her instinct and took Tommy to a ‘holistic’ doctor in Barbados, who immediately prescribed a gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free AND soy-free diet. Paola describes the first attempts at implementing the changes in Tommy’s diet as ‘hell’. Beyond just the challenge of trying to get a 6 year old, already having suffered through so much, to give up EVERYTHING that he enjoyed eating, there was now the added stress of sourcing the foods that he could eat. But desperation strengthened her determination and she persisted, and almost immediately it began to pay off. The changes she started seeing in her son were nothing short of drastic. His skin colour began to clear up almost at once, and the skin itself stopped itching so much. He had more energy than ever before in his young life, and his immune system was boosted to the point where he rarely even caught a cold anymore. The improvements extended even further, with his teachers reporting increased alertness and improved academic performance.
Tommy existed on a daily cocktail of antibiotics, monthly trips to the doctor’s office and an annual trip to Ecuador where the specialist who treated him was based. Now, since making the change to his diet, Tommy no longer takes ANY antibiotics, has not had one single unscheduled visit to the doctor, has not been to Ecuador for two years, and his test results continue to show constant improvement. The change could easily be described as miraculous, but Paola knows the real miracle is that, by the grace of God and a mother’s instinct, she just knew that the foods her son was taking into his system was contributing to his illness. In her constant search for knowledge, she was further able to determine that the low-fat diet that was prescribed for Tommy was actually doing him far more harm than good because of what is added to ‘low-fat’ foods to replace what is taken out (which, incidentally, is most of the nutritive value, she says).
Her son’s dramatic improvement, together with all of the knowledge she’d gleaned in the course of her searches, solidified Paola’s conviction that diet plays an incredibly important and yet amazingly unidentified role in an alarming number of ailments and afflictions that a lot of people suffer from, due in most part to the consumption of processed and chemically altered foods. She was inspired to continue her education in the field and enrolled herself into an online program at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN) in New York City. She is now a certified Health Coach, certified by the American Association of Drugless Practitioners, with her own small practice in Maraval.
She is careful to point out that Health Coaching is not just about changing diets but rather is a holistic approach to a person’s entire lifestyle while focusing on food and nutrition. It emphasizes the key role diet plays in the quality of not just your physical health but also your mental and emotional health. It examines your relationships, career and spirituality. It’s a complete 6-month program, where the client makes gradual changes in diet and lifestyle to see what fits them best. She lives by the philosophy of her mentor, Joshua Rosenthal, founder of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition: “Healthy relationships, regular exercise, a fulfilling career and spiritual practice can satisfy your hunger for life” and her goal is to encourage and enable as many as possible to follow suit. She named a number of afflictions, including insomnia; constant and unexplained fatigue; low energy; depression; some cancers; tumors; stress, that show direct causation from poor diet, and she can cite cases where dietary change in conjunction with holistic treatment has resulted in the complete disappearance of the affliction. Now that Trinidad & Tobago has been ranked the third fattest country in the world in a recent article in the UK’s Daily Mail, and medical statistics are proving that diseases such as obesity, diabetes and chronic diseases all on the rise here, Paola thinks that the need for greater awareness of the dangers posed by diets high in processed, refined and sugary foods is now at an urgent stage.
Her focus is especially on busy mothers, who struggle with fitting healthier lifestyles into already packed and stressful lives, and on changing the concept of ‘tuck shop’ fare in schools from processed, packaged foods to healthy and wholesome options for our nation’s children.
She knows that a lot of people are of the impression that making changes like this results in a very restrictive existence, not to mention very expensive, and she would like the opportunity to show that making these changes actually leads instead to more “energized and passionate lives… happy and healthy in a way that that is flexible, fun and free of denial and discipline”. She works with each client individually every step of the way towards discovering the food and lifestyle choices that best suit their unique current and future health, and life, goals. She now has a philosophy of her own, that ‘Food should be our medicine and medicine should be our food’.
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