Navigating inflammatory bowel disease as a pediatric patient brings on additional stresses, concerns and worries. For 22-year-old Emily Gavol, this was the case. At 12 years old, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. This week, a look into her life and how she took on the disease as a preteen, went to college out of state and landed her dream job in California with Walt Disney, after growing up in Wisconsin. My hope is that Emily’s story of perseverance, brings comfort to parents and fellow children and teens experiencing IBD as their life story unfolds.
What was it like to be diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when you were in seventh grade?
Initially it was a relief to know that there was finally an answer as to why I had been so sick for months. But it was also difficult to hear that I was diagnosed with a chronic illness that I had never heard of before. Being so young I didn’t really full grasp the severity of being diagnosed with a chronic illness.
How do you think the disease impacted your childhood and your perspective on life?
Getting diagnosed so young forced me to grow up very quickly. I had to learn to manage my symptoms while still attending school, doing homework and other normal activities. My perspective on life also changed, it became clear to me that health is something to never take for granted and appreciate it while you have it. Along with realizing quickly that the little things in life are not important. While most of my friends were worried about what to wear to school, I was just hoping I would feel well enough to make it to school. Additionally, this disease has taught me that there are many things that are out of our control and you just have roll with it sometimes.
How did your family and friends handle your diagnosis and how have they been there for you throughout your patient journey?
My family and friends were always there for me to lean on during my diagnosis and have been ever since. While I know that my parents were scared, confused and upset that I was going through this, they never let that show to me. They were and always have been the ones that lift me up when I am down, and never fail to stay by my side through all I have endured.
How did it feel to “fail” so many biologics?
Over my nearly 10 years with Crohn’s disease, I have struggled to find a medication that works for a continued period of time. When I first failed Remicade, it was frustrating because I had been getting better, then backtracked to experiencing more symptoms again. That frustration has continued and morphed into annoyance, as I have continued to fail more biologics. It is frustrating to feel like all these medications are being thrown at me to knock down this disease and nothing seems to work.
What inspired you to leave home and attend college in Minnesota, despite your illness?
Since I was nine years old, I knew that I wanted to become an Imagineer with the Walt Disney Company and work as an Interior Designer. As I got older, I knew I needed to attend a good school that would set me up for success. I researched the best programs in my area, and the University of Minnesota was the best fit for me. Their program and campus seemed to be everything I was looking for, so I wasn’t going to let my Crohn’s disease stop me from trying to achieve my dream.
What’s it like to attend college away from home, while battling a chronic disease? What roadblocks/hard times did you face?
Attending a school so far from home without a doubt was a big challenge. And there were times when I wished I would have decided to go to school closer to home, because that would have been easier. The biggest roadblock was the physical distance, because it meant a lot of back and forth travel. Especially, during flare ups. I found myself needing to make the 4-hour drive home more often than I wanted to, which resulted in the need to miss more classes. Additionally, learning to manage my symptoms completely on my own and having to adequately communicate with my medical team from so far away, was challenging at first.
How do you overcome the setbacks that come your way and not allow them to de-rail your goals and plans?
I have always been a very determined and strong headed individual. I will always do my best to achieve my goals and not let anything stand in my way. Despite, all the setbacks my disease has thrown my way, I have just rolled with the punches and kept pushing forward. I do my best and my best is all I can do.
Talk about what it was like going through the ileostomy and knowing you are getting a permanent ileostomy? How do you feel about it–why kind of emotions does it bring?
Going through my transition of getting an ileostomy was the most difficult thing I have gone through as a result of my Crohn’s disease. My health took a drastic turn and it became clear that I would need an ostomy sooner rather than later. I initially was very scared and upset that this was happening. I didn’t know what an ostomy was or anyone that had one, so I had little idea of what to expect going into it. By the time I was a couple weeks away from surgery, I was honestly ready to have it done. I had been experiencing more symptoms and was ready to have the surgery behind me and be feeling better. I was doing my best to go into things with a positive outlook and think about it as a fresh start, but this was no easy task for me. It was an overwhelming and emotional couple of weeks following the surgery getting used to having and caring for an ostomy. I am not afraid to admit that I was scared to look at it and care for it myself after my surgery. But then I realized, this isn’t going to go away anytime soon, so I had to start doing things myself. The more familiar I became with everything, the more comfortable I was and began to realize that I was actually feeling better than before the surgery. This was hard for me to admit to myself, because I didn’t want to be put in the situation of having an ostomy or needing one for the rest of my life. While I am now on the road to needing a permanent ostomy, it still has not sunk in that it will actually happen yet. And I don’t think it is going to fully sink in until that surgery happens.
You landed your dream job post college. Speak to what it’s like to live across the country, away from family and friends–while living out your dream job…with Crohn’s.
I am literally living out my biggest dream. This is something that I never thought I would get to experience, and I think having Crohn’s has made me appreciate this opportunity more than I could ever imagine. The last year has been a wild roller coaster ride. I am just thankful to be here, because there were many times where I didn’t think I would even be able to graduate last year. My family and friends have been very supportive because they know how much this opportunity means for me personally and professionally. It is hard to be this far away from my main support system, but they are always just a text or phone call away. Additionally, my providers were very encouraging to me, pushing me to continue to live my life to the fullest and not let my disease slow me down. Hearing them say that to me, was really the last push that I needed to make this a reality. Knowing that my medical team wanted what was best for me, and was willing to work with me to get me where I am today, helped give me the confidence that I could do this.
Do your coworkers/did your college roommates know about your Crohn’s? How are people towards you when they hear?
In college I deliberately chose to live on my own with no roommates in order to give myself the best environment to thrive in. Over the past few years of having different jobs, I have told my coworkers about my Crohn’s disease. I don’t usually share it right away, because I want people to get to know me for me and not just my disease. When the time feels right, I do tell people about my Crohn’s disease. After I tell people about my Crohn’s, I always feel like a weight is lifted off me. Once people know my story, they have been as sympathetic as they can be. There always seems to be the range of people who know a friend that has it, to the people that have never heard of it before. For those who have never heard of it before, it is a good opportunity to teach them about it.
What are your hopes for the future?
My biggest hope for the future is an easy one, a cure for this disease. Aside from that, I hope I can continue to live my life and do my best to not let my disease stand in the way.
Advice for newly diagnosed patients?
My advice for newly diagnosed patients would be to find a good provider that you trust. It is important to trust their advice and recommendations, as scary as they can be sometimes. Additionally, try your best to not dwell on the negative things that are currently happening and think about what your future can hold. Always do your best to roll with the punches and keep moving forward, your best is all you can do.
What would you tell yourself at 12 years old…looking back at what you know now?
I would go back and tell myself that this is only the beginning. Life will be a never-ending roller coaster of ups and downs. Some of the downs will really take it out of you and knock you so far down you won’t think you will be able to find a way back up. And the some of the ups will be achievements you never thought were obtainable. But things will get better and there is always something better to look forward to right around the corner.