For some people, Malta is an actual, literal lifesaver.
“Everyone complains about the humidity of the air, but it helps me – yes, helps!” laughs Rachael Hollwey from her home in Malta, where she’s lived since 2018.
Born and bred in Surrey, UK, the 27-year-old Pilates instructor and the face behind Reach One Hundred had her life turn upside down when she began to suffer from an unknown illness that would worsen whenever the air was cold, risking her losing her limbs.
Whenever it got too cold, Hollwey’s hands and feet became swollen, blistered, discoloured and infected, and she would suffer from chronic pain throughout my body.
“In 2017, I had to go on very strong medication, such as steroids, in order to stop me from losing my hands and feet,” Hollwey recounted. “I couldn’t wear shoes with the pain it caused touching my toes, I had to wear silver-lined gloves 24/7 and be in the house when the sun was down, which is by 4pm in the UK in the winter.”
In 2017, at the age of 25, it all got to a head.
“Eventually, my doctor said she was at a complete loss as to what to do to save my hands and feet, and I was at high risk of losing them,” she said. “I was also taking 300-400mg of Tramadol each day to cope with the pain in my body. The doctor asked if I know of anything that seems to help, and having just visited the South of France, I found that I was a lot better in these climates. She told me to seriously consider moving abroad.”
“Either way, my life was about to completely change; either living and working in another country, or living and working without hands and feet, and in chronic pain.”
After a night of researching, she chose Malta.
“It was to be quite a quick move,” she said. “Malta being close to the UK, and English speaking, it soon became my new home! I was very lucky I did move, as when I visited the UK in August, within three days my body started breaking down.”
“This time, it was not my hands and feet, but I went into critical Hemolysis, whereby my body was attacking my Red Blood Cells. I experienced the most horrific pain radiating from the centre of my head through my whole body, felt too fatigued to move, and I was losing weight by the minute, losing three kilos in three days,” she said.
Her doctor told her to return to Malta immediately, and within two hours, she was on her way to the airport.
“I had to be given medical clearance to fly, and it was not strictly allowed until it was realised to be much worse to remain in the UK,” she said. “They had to take any measure to keep me safe, so I was given a row of seats to be able to lie down, and brought a hot water bottle every half an hour.”
“Two days in Malta, and I was back looking healthy and as though nothing had happened.”
While her health is improving, it’s not all sunshine and roses.
“It wasn’t the easiest move and didn’t go as smoothly as I had hoped for many reasons,” she said. “I was quite distressed about moving away from my friends and family so suddenly.”
But despite this, everyone could see that she was the healthiest she had been in a decade.
“Within one month, my hands and feet were back to normal, and my pain levels had reduced,” she explained. “However, I did then experience another flare-up with the cold winter in Malta… luckily the winters are far shorter here, and so I was able to recover quickly from this.”
While Malta may have made her life so much more bearable, she still misses the UK dearly.
“In March, I was desperate to return back to the UK, I wasn’t having the best of time,” she recounted.
“I had a flight booked and my dad came over to help me pack. When I met him in Valletta, he said that after speaking with my mum, they had never seen me so healthy and that I had to keep trying in Malta. It came from love and in fear of what would happen if I did go back, but waving dad off on the flight I should have been on too was torture all over again.”
“I now can’t thank them enough, I am in shock myself when I look back at pictures and see the difference.”
“I worked hard and persevered to now live a very happy life in Malta. Even if I could, I wouldn’t leave the island. As she would say, ‘Mum knows best!’,” she laughed.”
Now settling into a routine in Malta, Hollwey is looking to the future with high hopes.
“I continue to smile and enjoy my life smiling, and I now look very healthy with a lot more energy,” she said, though doctors are still at a loss as to the exact nature of her condition.
“Many say I have Raynaud’s and Fibromyalgia, but having been previously diagnosed and treated for these, the symptoms didn’t match up and medication did not work,” she said. “The most complex thing is the ever-changing nature of it, and it seeming to evolve and worsen year-by-year.”
The hardest part for her was moving away from her friends and family – she can’t be there to see her nephew grow up, she couldn’t attend her grandfather’s funeral, and she spent Christmas on her own.
“But one day I will find a cure,” she says clearly. “I will be free to visit the UK, swim all year round, even hold an ice-cold Gin and Tonic as opposed to drinking from a straw! Even when this happens, I am now very happy in Malta with the life I have built, so I will remain here no matter what!”