From retirement back to working life
15 years ago, Christian Hirschfeld was suddenly diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). Unsettled and with many unanswered questions, he was discharged from hospital into his new life. What it really means for those affected to be chronically ill, unable to work and dependent on help is difficult for many outsiders to comprehend. With the support of his wife, family and friends, Christian Hirschfeld found his own way to deal with the disease and lead a self-determined life after many lows and highs, misdirections and detours.
Kalapa: Mr Hirschfeld, when you were diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, you were only 34 years old – a young man in the middle of life. What were the first signs and symptoms you noticed?
Christian Hirschfeld: I felt the first symptoms one night at the end of 2006. I woke up in the middle of the night with a tingling sensation in the left side of my face. In the course of the night, the tingling spread more and more and the next morning, the left side of my face was paralysed. I naturally made my way to the hospital. There I went straight to the intensive care unit. They gave me various infusions, did a lumbar puncture and subjected me to other diagnostic examinations. In the course of the day, I experienced severe coordination difficulties, balance problems, visual disturbances and severe motor impairments in the right side of my body. So there was not much warning that I had a chronic disease in me. I became a nursing case within 24 hours. Looking back, I can say that I had first symptoms as a teenager. I often had arms and hands that fell asleep. But this was never associated with a chronic disease.
Kalapa: In difficult health times you were even in a wheelchair – in the meantime you are active again, do sports and are employed. That is an unusual story. How did you achieve that?
Christian Hirschfeld: Accepting an illness and coming to terms with it are always ongoing processes, with ups and downs. I, too, had to, and still have to, develop in my life as a patient. This means that you have to come to terms with yourself and your illness. This requires time, good information, very understanding life partners, but above all the insight to seek and accept help and support.
My religion became neuroplasticity. I got to know this during my first rehab at the Quellenhof in Bad Wildbad.
Kalapa: Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to retrain and restructure, because the brain is constantly learning. This means that people with brain damage do not always have to remain limited.
Christian Hirschfeld: Exactly! Just the knowledge of the possibility that partly destroyed nerve pathways affected by inflammation can be repaired or synapses can be reconnected was extremely helpful to me. But you have to stimulate the whole thing yourself through physiotherapy and other training. I have been very diligent on these points, but I am also sure that the course of the disease has been merciful, at least for the moment, and that I have an unshakeable basic optimism.
Kalapa: You are now working again …
Christian Hirschfeld: I owe my return to work to many factors, but most of all to my employer and now a friend, Dr. Daniel Hölzle, owner of the Tiergarten pharmacy in Constance. I don’t think there are many employers in Germany who would have taken the risk of hiring someone with my health diagnoses and prognoses. Dr. Hölzle offers me a workplace that is tailored to me and my needs and – what is just as important – security and trust. I don’t have to worry about my professional and financial situation all the time. Fear of the future, especially in financial terms, is a huge problem for many chroniclers.
I have the wheelchair in my attic. I haven’t used it in a long time. But it’s there just in case. It is a good aid if the strength in the legs is no longer sufficient.
Kalapa: How did you find out about cannabis treatment and when did you first come into contact with it?
Christian Hirschfeld: Because of my diverse symptoms at the beginning of my illness, my list of medications grew larger and larger, but so did my problems with the side effects of these drugs.
I started looking for “Multiple Sclerosis Success Stories” and found a few. These people all had something in common. They have dealt with the topic of nutrition, they have devoted themselves to their psyche, as a rule they spent a lot of time in nature. They also did some kind of sporting activity. That doesn’t mean they ran marathons. You have done various forms of gymnastics, stretching, yoga or like that. They also used cannabis to treat spasticity, high muscle tone, fatigue, or other MS symptoms.
At this point in time, medicinal cannabis was already being used therapeutically in the Netherlands. I have contacted various doctors. There was also the Cannabis in Medicine Working Group, which had published articles on this topic on its homepage. At this point in time there were already studies and promising results in Israel. I also have a very competent neurologist with whom I have discussed this topic again and again. When I was in the Netherlands, I took the initiative and simply tried it out. It helped me. So I’ve continuously followed this path.
Kalapa: Kalapa: How long have you been taking medicinal cannabis and what has it changed in your life?
Christian Hirschfeld: I was already prescribed dronabinol in 2009, then Sativex in 2011 and then medicinal cannabis flowers from 2017.
What has changed? I was able to significantly reduce my long-term medications, such as antispastics, antidepressants and pain relievers. This relieves the organism enormously. With cannabis, I can lower my muscle tone quickly and easily. The quick effect of inhalation also enables me to experience rapid relief from painful spontaneous spasticity.
The quality of my sleep has improved significantly, so I’m more relaxed during the day and not permanently rested. In short, my quality of life has increased and stabilized significantly. I can take part in social life much more freely.
Kalapa: Do you have any side effects from the medication?
Christian Hirschfeld: In fact, even after all these years, I still have an extremely dry mouth. This is also aggravated by other medications and is especially annoying when speaking, but it is bearable. Since I have been an experienced cannabis patient for a long time and have had a very good, stable medication regime for a long time, I no longer notice any other side effects of cannabis medication.
Kalapa: In the meantime, you work in the field of medical cannabis yourself.
Christian Hirschfeld: Before my illness, I advised and supervised pharmacies for a cooperative pharmaceutical wholesaler for several years. In 2017, after the enactment of the Cannabis Act, I realised that the knowledge about cannabis as a therapeutic agent, which I acquired in the course of my illness, is lacking in all important places. In addition, the bureaucratic effort on the way to cannabis medication, both for the doctor and the patient, is rocky and costly. There was and still is an enormous need for counselling and information.
Kalapa: We also see this need for advice…
Christian Hirschfeld: And I am pleased that Kalapa offers well-founded knowledge and neutral information that is also easy to understand for non-medics. I also wanted to counteract the lack of information and education with my possibilities and help as a kind of information guide. Already in 2017, I exchanged views with Dr Hölzle about the unsatisfactory situation. This is how the idea of www.diehanfapotheke.de, an information site about cannabis as medicine and mail-order pharmacy for medical cannabis, was born. Patients, doctors and other information seekers contact us via this site.
I also completed training as a certified expert for cannabis medication in 2018 and regularly continue my education in various training courses, but also pass on my knowledge in lectures and seminars to doctors, self-help groups and other interested parties. For my work in this field, my own experiences as a chronic and cannabis patient are a great advantage. I know the side of practice and implementation from my own experience and personal experience. Through the daily work of talking to patients and doctors, my knowledge and experience have of course also grown enormously. I am more than happy and infinitely grateful for this development.