Rachel Winard went from never being sick and having great skin to suddenly having a constant fever, getting covered in full-body rashes, and having all sorts of other weird illnesses. It took her 15 doctors to finally get diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), an autoimmune disease where your immune system attacks your own tissues and organs. She was eventually put on chemotherapy and several other drugs. When she wasn’t healing, she finally decided to take control of her own health and find another way to heal.
Winard’s health issues started when she was in law school in New York City and coincided with 9/11. Seemingly overnight, she went from being very healthy to very sick— along with the issues mentioned above, she got bronchitis four times, sun sickness (who know that was a thing?), and cat scratch fever (also, what?!). For the first year, she just hoped it would go away, that it could just be stress, but by the second year, things were getting worse.
At that point, her skin was so reactive, she couldn’t even put water on it. “Your skin is an immune-functioning organ, so it really is like a canary telling you when other things are more fundamentally going wrong,” she told WellBe.
Winard visited multiple doctors, often with frustrating results. One tried to test her for Type 1 diabetes and when she was negative, sent her on her way. Another basically said, “You’re a girl, emotions can be really hard, so manage your stress.” Finally, at her 15th appointment, a doctor finally sat down and listened to her— even though he was 85 and she was his last patient before he was to retire. He suggested she get tested for lupus and she was finally diagnosed with SLE at age 24.
With that information, Winard then had to find her own team of specialists and realized none of them talked to one another to share information about her health. “I was sort of this odd pinball, bouncing from place to place, trying to synthesize what everyone was saying, trying to make sure that all of my documentation got to the right place,” she said.
Winard’s doctors tried out multiple drug protocols to get her liver, lungs, and blood under control and when that didn’t work, she was on daily chemotherapy for a year to slow down her out-of-whack immune system. Her blood work showed progress, but not remission. Her weight was down to 90 pounds and she felt like “absolute crap.” “My body needed to stop fighting all the time. I needed that wake-up call,” she said.
On top of that, she was working at a law firm and knew the stress of the job played into her inability to heal. So she took a meeting with a partner and told him she was going to India for four months, expecting to be fired. He gave her a sabbatical instead and she went to see an Ayurvedic doctor in Mysore.
For the next four months, they worked together daily. “We never talked about lupus specifically. She just addressed what my body was showing her,” Winard said. The experience of not being defined by a blood panel, but instead by what her body was showing, was life-changing.
When she came home, her blood work came back normal for the first time since her diagnosis. Now, Winard had to figure out how to make her protocol work back in her real life in New York. She went back to work and after two days, knew she couldn’t stay. Six months later, she quit.
The Ayurvedic protocol her doctor left her with included dietary changes such as adding herbs and avoiding dairy and nightshades, which are both allergens for her. Because her GI tract was in shambles from all the drugs, she eats mostly cooked food, which she finds is the easiest way for her body to absorb nutrients.
Winard isn’t cured of lupus, so she stays alert. She doesn’t take any prescriptions unless she’s having a flare-up or having a related illness that requires it. In those situations, she tells doctors she will only take them for the minimum time, and only if she absolutely needs to.
When she left for India, she was on 12 drugs daily, and estimates most SLE patients are on at least three. She likened it to being in a game of Whac-A-Mole, constantly treating one symptom, only to have another pop up somewhere else in her body. “With Ayurveda, that whole philosophy of looking at what you’ve got in front of you and then gently unraveling to what might be the base cause with the herbs, plants, and oils, [that] made a profound effect on me,” she said.
Winard took that philosophy and launched Soapwalla, a skin care company that she created for her own sensitive skin issues. Based in Brooklyn, they source from small farms for their hand-crafted, vegan products that don’t use harmful chemicals like sodium lauryl sulfate, parabens, and phthalates.
It will be a lifelong battle to make sure her lupus stays in remission, but Winard uses her diet, herbs, oils, yoga, meditation, and boxing to help.