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Illustration by Ruth Basagoitia

Itchy red patches on the skin are probably as common as colds if you add up all of the ways they might appear. Bug bites, poison ivy, and eczema are just a few.

I had eczema. I’m told it showed up when I was 3 years old. The problem with my eczema was it was wild, uncontained. And every doctor my mother took me to labeled it “extreme.”

Years later, my life would take such an unexpected course, putting me within inches of death because of my eczema that anyone might agree my case was, indeed, “extreme.” And while dying from eczema is rarely heard of, it’s how a simple diet change turned my life around that might surprise you the most.

My mother’s father was a pediatrician. Though my grandfather didn’t say much about my skin, he always had some strong cortisone cream for me when we visited. He told us it was just one of those things kids had, and he was sure it would go away.

Our family doctor also told my parents and I that my eczema would vanish by itself one day. There was nothing to be done except to use the prescribed cream two or three times a day, take oatmeal baths, and wait.

So I dutifully slathered on my lotions, but my skin itched. It was intense. Imagine having 20,000 mosquito bites. That was how I felt all the time.

“Don’t scratch,” my dad would say in his nonchalant way when I tore at my skin without really thinking about it.

“Don’t scratch,” my mom repeated when she saw me reading, watching TV, or playing a game.

Pain was a relief from the itch. I didn’t mean to cause my skin to break open and constantly need to repair itself. Sometimes that would happen even if I just rubbed it too hard with a towel or other fabric. Eczema made my skin fragile, and over time cortisone made the layers thin.

Broken skin can get infected. So while my body was working hard on repairing a lot of scraped-up spots along my arms, legs, back, stomach, and scalp, it had fewer defenses for colds, flus, and strep throats. I caught everything going around.

One particular day when I was crying from the pain of getting into the bath, my mother decided to take me to another skin specialist. I was admitted to a hospital for tests. Everything came back normal. The only thing I was allergic to was dust. No one had any answers, and I was told to learn to live with it.

Then I went to college and almost died.

I chose a school in Southern California for two simple reasons: It had a terrific chemistry program, and the weather was warm all year. I was going to become a chemist and find cures for diseases, and my skin was always better in the summer.

Sniffles and sore throats were something I usually walked around with, so everything seemed normal as I went to classes, played cards with friends in our dorm, and ate in the cafeteria.

We all had mandatory mentor meetings because the small school prided itself on taking good care of the students. When I visited my mentor, and I was sick once again, he became very concerned. He drove me himself to his personal physician. I was diagnosed with mononucleosis, not a cold. I was told to get a lot of rest.

I couldn’t sleep because the pain in my throat and congestion had gotten so bad that lying down was unbearable. My roommate and friends became alarmed as my body swelled, and I couldn’t talk because it felt like I had glass in my throat. I wrote on a small chalkboard, that I wanted to fly to my parents. I thought this was the end. I was going home to die.

I was wheeled off the airplane to my father. He tried not to panic as he took me to the emergency room. They put an IV in my arm, and the world went black. I woke up days later. Nurses told me that they didn’t know if I would make it or not. My liver and spleen had almost burst.

I survived, but teachers, administrators, my parents, and friends all asked me to quit school and learn how to be well. The biggest question was how? Eczema had made the mono much worse and was a constant battle my body fought against.

The answer came when I was well enough to travel. I visited a friend who had moved home to London, and by accident, I found the National Eczema Society there and joined. The literature had many cases like mine. For the first time, I wasn’t alone. Their answer was to embrace a vegan diet.

Though there isn’t much conclusive evidence to show a strong connection between a plant-based diet and an eczema cure, some pilot studies have shown that a diet without animal products can be hugely beneficial. There are some who vouch that a raw, vegan diet is the solution to eczema.

Of course, drastically changing your diet is no easy feat. Growing up in Minnesota, I ate the basic four food groups: meat, milk, bread, and produce. I liked fruits and vegetables, but they had been extras next to other foods on the plate. A plant-based diet was new for me, but I tried switching things up by eliminating all dairy and meat. The difference was astonishing. Within two weeks of adopting my new diet, I had clear skin for the first time. My health soared, and I’ve been eczema free ever since.

It took years of research and experimentation to find the right balance of animal-based and plant-based foods that kept me healthy. This is what works for me, so I can stay healthy and eczema-free:

  • Small amounts of meat
  • No dairy
  • No cane sugar
  • Lots of whole grains
  • Lots of beans
  • Lots of produce

I also embrace healthy dishes from around the world, which are fun to eat and to make.

While it may be hard to believe, I now see my eczema as the gift that gave me terrific health. Though at times it was scary, living with and managing my eczema helped me find a way of life that, in addition to clearing up the condition, is healthier and fuller today. And now I laugh when people tell me I have such beautiful skin.

Susan Marque is a versatile writer with an eclectic background. She started in animation, became a healthy food expert, has written for every type of media, and continues to explore all avenues from screen to print. After many years in Hollywood, she went back to school in New York, earning an MFA in creative writing from The New School. She currently lives in Manhattan.