Gunhild Stordalen has long been known in Norway for her environmental activism and jet-set lifestyle. As a doctor and the wife of wealthy hotel investor Petter Stordalen, she’s had the expertise and resources to try “to change the world,” as she’s put it, but now she’s fighting for her life in a hospital in the Netherlands.
The Stordalen couple went public over the weekend with the reason as to why they suddenly have been canceling important meetings and speeches both in Norway and abroad, and disappearing from the public eye. In lengthy interviews with newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), Gunhild Stordalen candidly revealed that she’s been diagnosed with the rare and potentially life-threatening disease systemic sclerosis. The disease, also called systemic scleroderma, is characterized by a thickening of the skin and can spread to key organs including the kidneys, intestines, heart and lungs.
Stordalen, age 35, has been the high-profile founder of the climate and environmental advocacy group GreeNudge and, most recently, the EAT Forum, a global effort to connect scientists, politicians and business leaders to share ideas on how to sustainably feed a growing population. Stordalen, a physician herself, wants people to eat healthier food, and has had a talent of getting such international figures as former US President Bill Clinton and top UN officials together to promote the cause.
Through the couple’s Stordalen Foundation, they’ve donated millions over the years to such environmental organizations as Regnskogfondet (the Rain Forest Fund), ZERO and animal rights organizations. On a more personal level, they’ve worked to make Stordalen’s vast chain of Quality, Clarion and Choice hotels more environmentally friendly. After reducing the size of plates at the hotel breakfast buffets, Stordalen could report, for example, that people ate more selectively and wasted far less food.
It’s ironic at best that an environmental and fitness activist like Stordalen should contract an illness for which there is no cure and may be caused by environmental or genetic factors although experts can’t explain why it occurs. Stordalen told DN she started suffering mysterious pains in her knees earlier this year, which spread to her hips and wrists. That was followed by changes in the skin over her chest, and by chronic fatigue.
“As a doctor, I should have recognized the symptoms several months ago, but it was a denial process,” Stordalen told DN. “I didn’t want to see that it could be something serious. And when you always have a lot to do, it’s easy to overlook physical ailmets. I just kept going as always.”
Until she finally realized what was wrong in mid-October, and received confirmation October 22. There is no cure, and after receiving a treatment plan at Norway’s national hospital in Oslo (Rikshospitalet), the couple wanted a second opinion. They flew to New York and on to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to meet Dr Thomas A Medsger, considered one of the world’s leading experts scleroderma. He reportedly described her case as very serious and advised what Petter Stordalen called “the big gun:” experimental treatment offered in the Netherlands. She’s now at hospitals in Utrecht and Amsterdam, starting heavy doses of chemotherapy to be followed by stem cell transplants. She’s determined, though, to be back hosting the next EAT Forum in Stockholm in June.
“If you have children (which the couple doesn’t), you can think that they will live on,” she told DN. “My children have been the causes I have fought for. I will do all I can to make sure EAT and GredNudge function and expand.”
“I’ll be back,” she told various Norwegian media that followed up on DN‘s story about the Stordalens’ health drama on Saturday. For now, the couple will live at the Dutch hospital for the next three months while her treatments proceed.