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Tristan before and after taking the unprescribed supplements given to him by members of a gym he frequented. The insulin supplements sent him into a hypoglycaemic coma. Image Credit: Supplied

Abu Dhabi: For South African expat Neville Albert, November 18, 2017 holds the most horrific memories. It was the day he discovered his only son was in a coma. Two years on, and Tristan — now 20 years old — still remains hospitalised at a long-term care facility in Abu Dhabi, unable to move or communicate, while his family is crippled by his growing medical bills, and fears that he will never lead an independent life again.

“My son was a very loving, helpful. He was extremely outgoing, and loved by everyone who knew him,” Neville told Gulf News.

“What we regretfully did not know was that he had been taking a range of unprescribed supplements given to him by members of a gym he frequented. “Tristan wasn’t diabetic, but the insulin supplements sent him into a hypoglycaemic coma, and induced traumatic brain injury and respiratory failure,” Neville added.

Dh43,000

monthly bills incurred for Tristan’s care

The then-teenager was rushed to hospital, and remained in intensive care for more than three months, before being transferred to the NMC ProVita International Medical Centre, where he has remained ever since.

Lives turned inside out

“Our lives have been turned inside out,” said Neville. “Every day, I head to the care facility and spend half an hour with Tristan before work. My wife then stays with him between 10am and 4pm, and I go back to the facility after work and wait there until 10pm. We have no semblance of a life outside the care facility and the rehabilitation of our son.”

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Tristan’s father also fears his son may need further care that his family can’t afford.

“My son needs brain scans every three months to ascertain if the physical and occupational therapy he receives is helping. But each session of scans can cost between Dh5,000 and Dh10,000. Given that, I have to pay monthly bills of Dh43,000, I simply haven’t been able to afford scans for nearly a year,” said Neville, 54, who makes Dh30,000 a month working as a manager of an automobile firm, and is his family’s only breadwinner.

Because Tristan’s medical bills exceed Neville’s take-home pay, the family has been forced to burn through their savings as well.

In addition, they still owe more than Dh652,000 to the facility where Tristan was initially hospitalised.

Signs of improvement

A report from NMC ProVita says there has been improvement in Tristan’s general medical condition, including his level of consciousness and overall responses. It goes on to say that Tristan listens intently when spoken to, smiling occasionally, and is gaining better control of his lower limbs.

However, he is still unable to “take care of his basic needs, and requires nursing care for the administration of medication, feeding [through a tube inserted into his small intestine], daily injections, and monitoring of blood sugar”.

Every day, I head to the care facility and spend half an hour with Tristan before work. My wife then stays with him between 10am and 4pm, and I go back to the facility after work and remain there until 10pm. We have no semblance of a life outside the care facility.”

- Neville Albert, Tristan’s father

The report states that he still requires “intensive rehabilitation with the goal of providing more sensory stimuli [that can] produce the desired response”.

Neville said: “I want to ensure that my son is getting the kind of care he needs. But without regular scans, there is no way to tell that the therapy is helping. And we simply do not have the resources to get more scans, or explore other forms of treatment that may be more helpful.”

Tristan’s maternal uncle runs an Instagram account linked to a crowdfunding page to help raise funds for his nephew’s treatment, but the staggering cost of long-term care mean that the donations have hardly made a dent.

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“My wife and I keep blaming ourselves for what has happened, but that doesn’t get us anywhere. We need to do whatever we can to help our son,” said Neville. “If any parent hears our story, we want them to understand that they must be vigilant with their children. You can never tell what your children are being given at the gym right under your nose, and what risks they could be bringing upon themselves,” he added.

Gym-goers warned to consult doctors before taking supplements

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Gym supplements Image Credit: Agency

There are a variety of different supplements available in the UAE, both in physical stores and online. These include multivitamins, minerals and even hormones. But before a supplement is prescribed, a doctor must look at a number of factors.

  • Dosages should be determined based upon the person’s age and weight.
  • Underlying conditions must also be considered.
  • Other medications being taken simultaneously with the supplement could also prompt an adverse reaction.
Dr Sadaf Brown

Dr Sadaf Brown, consultant and head of family medicine at Healthpoint, told Gulf News that because of the above factors, people shouldn’t take nutritional supplements without first consulting their doctor, because only a trained medical professional can tell if the benefits of a supplement will outweigh the risks.

“Healthy human bodies can get all essential nutrients from a balanced diet, and use them to produce the exact amount [of hormones and building blocks] required. Taking additional supplements could interfere with this balance, and this is why it is important to check with a physician first,” she said.

“Substances like insulin, for instance, should never be taken unless approved by a doctor,” she added.

The risks of doing so could be unforeseen and severe because the hormone helps regulate blood sugar, and therefore metabolism.

“Your body produces the amount it needs, and if you have a condition that prevents it from doing so — like diabetes — this should be managed in consultation with a physician.”

Multivitamins are generally considered safe, but taking too much or too little could be dangerous.

“For instance, large amounts of Vitamin D — a Vitamin we all need for healthy bones and teeth — could increase calcium absorption, and result in cardiac arrhythmias,” she said.

Similarly, biotin helps in hair growth and health, but it can interfere with blood test results.

“This is why it is important to inform physicians about all the supplements one is taking, even if the supplement is bought over-the-counter.”

Physicians also play a role in helping residents select the right supplement.

“A basic mix of multivitamins would not be the best choice for a pregnant woman, because their supplements should contain folic acid, which helps the neurological development of the foetus. In addition, the levels of Vitamin A have to be lowered because higher levels can prove toxic,” said Brown.

“Just because a supplement is available without a prescription doesn’t mean that it is safe for everyone. Besides, the person selling it to you could simply be trying to make a sale, so always check with your doctor,” she said.