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Overcoming an Impossible Medical Condition

January 14, 2016

Featured in the October issue of SOKA magazine 

In 1987, at age 32, I was diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver during an emergency operation for a perforated ulcer. It was discovered some months later that my disease was caused by chronic-active autoimmune hepatitis, which is a non-contagious, genetically predisposed condition. In terms of our Buddhist practice, I think we could call it a major dose of negative karma!

With a combination of autoimmune suppressants and anti-inflammatory steroids, I gradually recovered from the surgery and resumed a fairly normal active life. I retrained to work as a message therapist, gradually resumed my martial arts training and began Zen meditation. In 1993, I left Toronto for Vancouver hoping to find a more peaceful environment. A few years later, I moved to Victoria for the same reason.

It was in Victoria where I was introduced to Nichiren Buddhism by a massage client, who was a relative stranger to me at the time. Six months later, in the fall of 2003, I became a SGI practitioner.

As I learned more about our Buddhist practice, I realized that my health challenges could help me transform my karma into mission. As SGI President Daisaku Ikeda has said, “When we base our lives on faith in the Mystic Law[1], we can always change our karma into mission, however daunting the problems we face” (New Century, September 2015, p. 15). It was an opportunity for spiritual growth. The hepatitis had become more stable, but my liver function was still seriously compromised.

In 2010, some 23 years after my initial diagnosis, my specialist in Victoria told me that I might be a good candidate for a liver transplant. I met the transplant team at Vancouver General Hospital and underwent several tests to determine my eligibility. I was accepted and placed on the liver transplant list in 2011. I began to carry a pager around the clock. By this time, my muscles had atrophied, I was weak and my abdomen and legs were constantly swollen, making me feel very uncomfortable.

When the doctor told me I would probably need to wait two years before a donor would be available, I replied that I wasn’t sure I would still be alive by then.

During those two years I began to experience the serious side effects from the long-term use of medications. These side effects included thinning of the skin that left me prone to skin tears, so much so that I spent about $100 a month just on Band-Aids. I also developed cataracts, skin cancer, insulin-dependent diabetes and frequent infections, especially cellulitis.

At one point I was hospitalized to treat five concurrent bacterial infections and a leg ulcer, which took five months to heal. Throughout all of this, I continued to chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo,[2] to value each and every day, and to introduce others to Buddhist practice.

I had to give up my work, my martial arts, driving my motorbike, my bicycle and finally my car. Many fellow practitioners in Victoria were chanting for my complete recovery, an outcome I must admit was hard for me to imagine. But I knew they were watching and expecting me to recover. I didn’t want to let them down. I didn’t want to let myself down.

President Ikeda said as the Daishonin taught that “when the disciple strives with the same spirit as the mentor, there is no obstacle or devilish function that cannot be surmounted, and there is no illness that cannot be positively transformed in accord with the principle of ‘changing poison into medicine’” (New Century, August 2014, p. 24).

Two years ago, a doctor on the transplant team noted the fragility of my skin and insisted that I change my glucocorticoid medication and begin another type of steroid, which would not damage my skin. This mineral corticosteroid would compensate for my reduced adrenal function but it would not have the same anti-inflammatory properties.

I knew the transition period would be extremely painful and I was doubtful as to whether my skin would recover in the six months as he had suggested. As it stands, we were both right. It was very painful and my skin improved. I also cut back my immunosuppressant medications, to reduce the number of infections. I was now off the two primary medications that I had taken for over two decades to control my hepatitis. As a result, my lab results reflected this. The markers for the hepatitis steadily elevated for about a year.

Something had to change. The pure faith and sincere prayers of my fellow practitioners in Victoria encouraged me to strengthen my determination to defeat the devil of illness and to change my karma.

My health has miraculously improved in the past year. Thankfully, my most recent blood results   were nearly normal. I no longer use a walker or cane, and on a good day I can walk several kilometres. My focus has returned so I may now drive my car again, and my balance, strength and energy have improved so much that I can ride a bicycle once again. For the first time in four years, I had the stamina to fly to Toronto on my own to see my family and to fully participate in a SGI Canada Caledon conference in November 2014.

Joan with her partner Deborah Nicol

My health has not yet completely recovered. However, when I last saw my surgeon in Vancouver, he reviewed all my test results and remarked on how much I had improved. He said I was so well that if he were to give me a transplant now he would be charged with malpractice! A few days later, the nurse coordinator of the liver transplant team called me to congratulate me that I was no longer on the active liver transplant list. My specialist in Victoria confirmed that my hepatitis is now in remission. As well, my other conditions––cellulitis, adrenal insufficiency and diabetes––have also subsided.

 My doctors and friends asked me how this improvement is possible. I tell them it is due to the power of chanting and my Buddhist practice. I know that taking care of myself through diet, exercise, creating art and getting regular therapy have had a beneficial effect as well. However, none of them have the profound power to alter the course of this disease. As President Ikeda writes:

When faced with sickness, we need to summon the heart of a lion king from within us and fearlessly take on the devil of illness. This kind of courageous faith is vital. (New Century, September 2014, p. 26) The beneficial power of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo even once is boundless and immeasurable. (Ibid, p. 25) I truly believe this with all my heart.

Joni Borutski lives in Victoria with her partner Deb Nichols

[1] Mystic Law: The ultimate law, principle, or truth of life and the universe in Nichiren’s teachings; the Law of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. This term derives from Kumārajīva’s Chinese translation of the Sanskrit word saddharma, from the title of the Saddharma-pundarika-sutra, or the Lotus Sutra. It has been translated into English also as Wonderful Law, Wonderful Dharma, Fine Dharma, etc.