Chris Gibbens, 60, was expecting to die soon and had begun to say his goodbyes. It was November 2010, and he had been diagnosed with “probable lymphoma” after dropping down to 125 pounds.
Gibbens’ sisters flew him to Michigan where two doctors diagnosed him with probable lymphoma. But he couldn’t afford a biopsy or treatment. One of his sisters, a retired RN, found doctors willing to do the biopsy, “but no hospital that would let them do it,” he recounted. “We kept hitting these roadblocks.”
Gibbens’s sister returned with him to Florida and started the process of getting him onto Medicaid. “But that takes six months, and I was going to be dead in six months, as I knew it at the time,” he said.
“There’s not a lot of assistance for people who have no insurance,” Gibbens pointed out. He was ready to give up, but his sister persevered. Then they heard about VIM Clinic.
That, Gibbens said, “was the first miracle.”
Gibbens “looked awfully ill,” the first time Dr. Howard Voss saw him. “He was so skinny and emaciated, he looked as though he had gotten out of a concentration camp.”
Voss was immediately suspicious of the diagnoses. “His disease was so chronic, he’d had it for so long, that if it were a lymphoma, I thought he’d have been dead by now.”
In fact, the doctors’ notes did mention another possibility — celiac disease. That’s what Dr. Voss homed in on.
He suspected celiac sprue, an autoimmune disease that causes the body to turn on itself and create antibodies against its own intestinal tract. The treatment? A gluten-free diet.
Dr. Voss had seen many cases of sprue during the Vietnam war. That sprue was different in that it was an infectious disease, but the symptoms were the same: abdominal pain, loss of appetite, severe diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and extreme weight loss.
Through VIM, Gibbens was referred to gastroenterologist, Dr. Amitabh Kumar. An endoscopy, colonoscopy and bloodwork were all done. A biopsy found no cancer. An antibody test confirmed celiac sprue. Gibbens’ body couldn’t absorb nutrients because of the gluten in grains.
‘Dodged a Bullet’
“For two months, I had it in my head this this was lymphoma,” Gibbens said. “For two months I thought…”
Gibbens swallowed as he struggled for a moment with that thought. “I started saying my goodbyes,” he finished.
Gibbens believes a higher power was looking out for him. “I dodged a bullet,” he said. “It’s pretty crazy to think that wheat would almost kill you, but it almost killed me.”
Dr. Voss thinks Gibbens had celiac for years before it became acute. Left untreated, a person can die from the lack of nutrition.
“The treatment is simple after you’ve made the diagnosis,” Dr. Voss said. “But it’s very hard to have a gluten-free diet.”
Gibbens bought a book, Sprue for Dummies, and assiduously monitors his diet. In two months, he put on 50 pounds. In fact, when he returned to the clinic in May, Dr. Voss didn’t know who he was.
“He’s grown a beard and gained so much weight that I literally did not recognize him. He looks wonderful.”
Gibbens did suffer one setback, though, when a restaurant assured him his meal was gluten-free and it wasn’t.
“Just that one incident caused him to go through it all again,” Dr. Voss noted. “The symptoms persisted for over a month, just from that one meal.”
Gibbens finally did get Medicaid and is no longer a VIM patient, but he wanted to say thank you for the care he received at the clinic. So, the cabinetmaker built and delivered a beautiful glass and oak bookcase. “I’ve got my life back, I’m healthy. I just can’t thank the volunteers enough,” he said.
Gibbens wanted to pay something back, not only for his health, but for his second miracle — the chance to repair his relationship with his daughter.
“Since all this, it’s brought us a lot closer — her and my grandkids,” he said. “In fact,” he added, smiling broadly, “I’m going to visit them tomorrow.”