Tis the season for reflecting on the year past and all we’ve experienced and endured—both the beautiful moments, the hardships, and even the mundane. As an IBD mom, 2021 was a big year for my family. We moved to our forever home in June when I was 35 weeks pregnant with our third child and welcomed Connor to our family in July. While there aren’t many milestones more amazing in life, they also come with their fair share of stress. I don’t know about you, but stress often triggers my Crohn’s. It goes without saying the holiday season alone can be complicated to navigate with chronic illness, especially in the middle of an ongoing pandemic.
My best advice—listen to your body. If you feel like you’re being stretched thin and your symptoms are trying to speak to you, take time to listen. While chronic illness is always inconvenient when it’s flaring, ignoring an issue that is presenting only delays the inevitable and could set you up for an even bigger setback. I hope this week between Christmas and the New Year that you take time for YOU. Breathe. Relax. Reset. It’s something I struggle with and hope to improve on in 2022, so I’m right there with you!
COVID Every Where You Turn
I don’t know about you, but the pandemic has been creeping closer to my doorstep with each day that passes. Close friends had Christmas plans canceled. IBD friends near and far are sick with COVID right now. My family on both sides have dealt with being exposed, also re-shaping how our holidays ended up this year. I hosted Christmas for the first time in my life! Only 10 people (including my fam of 5), but hey, you gotta start somewhere! And moving forward, I think I’m going to host the holiday from now on!
On a serious note, these are troubling times. Almost two years in and it feels like we’re in a dark, never-ending tunnel, with no light. But, just like life with IBD, try not to allow the looming darkness to dull the beauty that still resides around you. I found myself crying happy tears many times on Christmas day. Despite the ongoing burden and hardship of the pandemic, I felt incredible amounts of gratitude for my family and getting to be a mom to three children. Seeing Christmas through their eyes was beyond magical and feeling well the entire day was the cherry on top.
As much as we’re all “over” the pandemic, it’s not a time to throw caution to the wind as we gear up for 2022. Stay vigilant. Use your voice. Speak up if you’re not comfortable, rather than being a people-pleaser. Set boundaries and don’t feel like you need to explain yourself to anyone. Think about the risk vs. the benefits, just as you do when making decisions about your body with IBD. Have ongoing dialogue with your care team and the doctors who treat you rather than from acquaintances on social media who have no medical background whatsoever.
Spread Holiday Cheer, Not COVID
I’ll leave you with my family’s Christmas card and a thank you for following our journey, offering support, love, and prayers along the way. The IBD family is so special to me. I honestly don’t know how I went the first 10 years of my disease without connecting with our community. Since I started sharing my story and opening myself up for support, taking on Crohn’s feels a lot less overwhelming. You inspire me to write, to share, to collaborate, and to do all I can to make a difference. Once you’re a journalist, you’re always a journalist…and I find it so rewarding to be a trusted resource in our community for insight about diagnosis to career, to finding love, having babies, being a mom, you name it. Thank you for listening and for reading. Excited to see what 2022 has in store!
When you hear the term “pay it forward” you may envision someone in a drive thru line surprising the person behind them by covering their order. Those words have held a different meaning for me as a person with IBD. When I had bowel resection surgery, I’ll always remember how my husband’s cousin and wife surprised us and showed up to the hospital with coolers of food and drink for my immediate family. It was an act of kindness and generosity that meant so much. That was six years ago, and we still talk about it.
Fast forward to present day and a friend of mine locally who has battled Crohn’s disease for decades had surgery. He’s a husband, a father of four, a successful businessperson, and leads our local Crohn’s and Colitis chapter as President of the Board. Through the years my husband and I have connected with him and his wife at Foundation events.
Staying connected through the pandemic
He recently posted on Facebook that he would be having his 8th Crohn’s-related surgery. He’s taken on Crohn’s with resilience and grit since being diagnosed more than 21 years ago. Thanks to the pandemic, the last time we had seen him, and his wife, was at the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation Gala in November 2019. Despite two years passing without seeing one another in person, there’s something special about the IBD community and the family feel it creates.
When you’re knocked down by a disease over and over again and you’ve had surgery, you’re able to relate to the struggle, while also understanding how beautifully amazing recovery can be when you get a fresh start. While surgery is not a cure, it affords many of us with the opportunity to stay ahead of our disease and take out the portion of our intestine that is diseased and causing us problems.
A call to help
After I saw the social media post giving friends and family a heads up of the surgery happening in two weeks I grabbed my day planner and marked my calendar so I could be reminded of when to reach out to my friend in the days ahead, to pray, and to start thinking of how I could help his family of six during this uncertain and challenging time.
I immediately thought about his sweet wife trying to steer the proverbial ship for the family for months on end. Four young mouths to feed. I texted them both and said I would be bringing over a homemade meal. My text may have seemed out of left field, but I wanted them to feel supported and help in a way that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but has a lasting impact. Rather than asking how you can help, if you can help, or that “you are there if they need anything,” just come right out and say what you are going to do.
We picked a day for me to stop by with a homemade dinner and when we saw one another and were able to chat for a few minutes in person it warmed my heart. I could tell the gesture was so appreciated and that it brightened their day as much as it did mine. We all know how monotonous recovery can be, so having someone stop by—even for a few minutes—helps break up the boredom.
Passing along the appreciation
Fast forward to this week and while I was feeding my baby, an email popped up on my phone from a friend of mine in the patient advocacy space. She wrote:
Thank you for your tireless dedication to the patient community that you serve. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to work with you, and always appreciate your willingness to jump in and help my clients transform healthcare. Patient Authentic wouldn’t run without you! Please accept this gift as a small token of my appreciation for your commitment to making the world a better place and your support throughout this past year. Wishing you a wonderful holiday season and a joyful new year!”
This was such a sweet surprise and brought me back to this notion of “paying it forward” in the patient community and going out of your way to brighten someone’s day. When you live with chronic illness, and never know what the day will bring, it’s wonderful to have moments of reprieve where you feel thought about, appreciated, and seen for all that you endure and all that you go through.
Paying it forward to someone with IBD this holiday season and beyond
It’s not about the monetary value, but rather the effort and thought.
Send a card expressing how you are thinking or praying for someone, rooting them on, supporting them through the ups and downs their disease creates.
Offer to help watch the kids so they can have an hour to take a walk, run an errand, or just relax.
Ask if you can join them for a doctor appointment, to get lab work, go to an infusion, be there at their home when they do an injection—anything to be there as a source of support. I recognize with COVID you may not always be allowed, but it’s worth an ask. By doing a “ride-a-long” with a friend or family member, you’ll get a small taste of what their reality is like. It’s often the drive to and from appointments and procedures that makes our minds race and can get emotional.
A simple “tell me about how your Crohn’s has been?” or “how has Crohn’s been impacting your day to day?”…or “what is it like to live with Crohn’s?” means a lot…don’t waste your breath only asking “how are you?”…because most people with chronic illness take this as an opportunity to downplay their struggles or sugarcoat the reality. Dig deeper and ask empathic questions that show you really care.
Share content of fellow advocates on social media—whether it’s a blog, a podcast, a reel, a post on Instagram—being a patient advocate takes a lot of time and effort, it’s rewarding when you see your words and your work reach more people and even better when you learn how a story you wrote or a post you shared touched another person’s life and impacted them in a positive way.
Over the weekend a fellow IBD mom friend of mine was hospitalized from a flare and faced with the need to start a biologic. When she got home with her family last night, she sent me an email with an update and ended it by saying “thank you” for being a mentor/friend/support in her corner. It’s moments like this that validate why I do, what I do.
Overwhelmed. Terrified. Unsure. When Heather Hausenblas’ son, Tommy, was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease December 6, 2018 at age 16, she didn’t even know what IBD stood for. She knew she had a lot to learn and was on a mission to get her son healthy. Fast forward three years and now she’s a published author on the topic.
“Invisible Illness” chronicles how it feels from a parent’s perspective when your teenage child is diagnosed with a chronic illness for which there is no cure. The book provides an inside look at a mother struggling to find her way forward and how she turned despair into hope not only for herself, but for her entire family.
Heather Hausenblas, PhD, is a mother of three boys, health psychology expert, and award-winning researcher. She says when her eldest son was diagnosed with Crohn’s, her personal and professional roles collided. Not only was she going to battle for her child, but she also began her mission to help those with chronic illness eliminate the overwhelm and (re)discover health.
Dealing with the words chronic and incurable
“I kept hearing there was no cure, no known cause, no one treatment, and no one symptom. No. No. No. No. He will always have it. It’s never going away,” writes Hausenblas in her book.
Chronic and incurable-these two words were exploding in Heather’s mind on repeat. Tommy went from being on the high school baseball team, with lots of friends, doing well in school, and being very active…to living with a complicated and often debilitating disease. Everything in their life came to an abrupt halt. She explains how the illusion of youthful invincibility began to fade. Something anyone in our community can relate to. Health is often taken for granted until it is robbed away from you.
Feeling helpless through the struggles
She writes, “I could hear the pain in Tommy’s voice. But I was helpless. To put his excruciating pain in perspective, one Crohn’s patient described it as, “I’ve given birth without an epidural twice in my life, and the pain of Crohn’s disease was far worse than that.” “Tommy’s physical agony was accompanied by the unending frustration involved in trying to diagnose this complex disease. His symptoms and complaints had been overlooked—even dismissed.”
When a child or parent is diagnosed with IBD it impacts not only the person with Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis, but each family member in a unique way. It’s often said that IBD is a “family” disease.
“Torture was seeing my child wasting away to a skeleton, dropping nearly twenty pounds on his already lean frame, constantly running to the bathroom, and having excruciating pain. Torture was watching him leave the house only to run back seconds later for the bathroom while his friends went to the party.”
As a mom with Crohn’s myself, reading Heather’s perspective as the parent watching her son endure pain and hardships struck a chord with me because when you’re a young patient and are diagnosed before becoming a parent yourself, you often don’t take the time to think about how your disease and struggles are impacting the people who love you most. Not out of disregard, but simply because you are dealing with so much internally and externally it can be difficult to think outside of yourself.
Healing with food
While Heather shares a great deal of insight about the importance of diet and nutrition as it relates to IBD throughout the book, she also talks about the challenges Crohn’s presents since each person tolerates food differently. She explains how it’s impossible to find a one-size-fits-all diet but advises patients to journal everything from what they eat to how often they go to the bathroom to try and tailor a personal diet that works for you. Discovering your own triggers and knowing which foods are risky or tend to cause pain is a huge step in managing your illness.
“After a few weeks of strictly following the SCD (Specific Carbohydrate) diet, Tommy said that gluten wasn’t his issue. He somehow knew. He knew his body. He now eats gluten when he wants…Tommy’s liberalization of the SCD highlights the practical concern of adhering to a very restrictive diet.”
“Invisible Illness” includes 30 pages of helpful inflammation-fighting recipes. Throughout the book Heather talks about how she “detoxed and decluttered” her home and the cathartic effect journaling had on her coping process then and now.
Now, as a sophomore at Clemson University studying engineering, Tommy is in remission and does not take medication. He manages his Crohn’s by eating a healthy diet made up of organic, whole food, has an active lifestyle, and says his Crohn’s disease does not define who he is.
Forming connections and offering hope
Heather hopes that by candidly sharing her family’s journey with IBD that she opens the door for connections between other parents and families living the same reality. She recommends fellow parents to get involved with local organizations, so you recognize from the get-go that you are not alone.
Her main goal with publishing “Invisible Illness” was to “to help others navigate through the storm of medical and health information to figure out the right wellness path.”
How to purchase “Invisible Illness”
You can get your hands on a book by ordering a copy on Amazon.
Work life balance takes on a whole new meaning when you have chronic illness. Molly Dunham-Friel can attest to that. Diagnosed in 2012 with ulcerative colitis, one year after receiving her undergraduate degree, Molly was forced to begin her professional career with unexpected titles she was just getting accustomed to—IBD and IBS. Molly remains just as ambitious and aspirational as she was prior to her diagnosis, but undoubtedly has experienced common roadblocks that come along with living with chronic health conditions. While the career detours were not always welcome, the experiences Molly has had over the last nine years blossomed into finding what she is truly passionate about.
This week on Light’s Camera Crohn’s we take a close look at having IBD in the workplace, whether you work in an office or at home.
Quite the Go-Getter
While IBD is unpredictable, one constant in Molly’s life has always been her go-getter attitude. She tells me she’s been known to work multiple jobs since the age of 15.
“I am not very good at slowing down and I get frustrated when anything gets in my way, including being chronically ill. The one professional aspiration that I have always held is my drive to help people in need, the marginalized, the forgotten, the invisible, the ones who truly need my help.”
Since her ulcerative colitis and IBS diagnoses, Molly has worked full-time, while often holding additional part-time jobs. At one point she was working five jobs, simply to pay for her healthcare costs! Molly says life got more complicated and extremely overwhelming once she turned 26 and could no longer be on her parents’ medical insurance
“It was stressful and defeating because now I had added pressure to hold a job that provided me with affordable medical insurance to get the care I need as a chronic illness patient. IBD is extremely expensive to manage due to the medication, procedures, doctors’ visits, labs, you name it, it costs a lot. This felt heavy as a 26-year-old still learning how the world works and how I wanted to make the world a better place.”
Molly has had to leave jobs she enjoyed to go to companies with better benefits, which also came with less satisfaction.
“I have been stuck in jobs solely because I needed the cost controlling benefits the organization offered. I have had to say no or not apply to amazing jobs and organizations because the benefits would not cover my chronic illness needs enough where I could afford it. I feel like my health insurance needs as a chronic illness warrior trump my career aspirations, which feels suffocating and leaves me frustrated. I want to do what brings me joy and not just what brings me healthcare coverage.”
New purpose, new goals
After starting her blog, Better Bellies by Molly, beginning to volunteer with the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation, and connecting with amazing warriors via social media. Molly realized her passion for helping to support the IBD community.
“My goal is to support, educate and empower chronic illness patients, particularly those living with IBD and IBS, so they don’t feel alone, like I did upon my diagnosis. I am also passionate about helping patients feel empowered to advocate for their health. I haven’t figured out how I will turn this into my career, but blogging and social media is a great start!”
Advice for those with chronic illness nervous about working
There is no sugar coating how hard and demanding it is to work full-time on top of the full-time job of managing chronic illness life. Here is Molly’s advice:
No job is worth your health. Put your health first whenever you can.
Know your rights. IBD and IBS are both conditions listed in the American Disability Act. If you are discriminated against due to your IBD or IBS, speak to someone you trust to fight for your rights. Depending on the organization, employees with disabilities can submit formal paperwork to receive reasonable accommodation, which is any modification or adjustment to a job. Like most things with chronic illness, there is a lot of paperwork involved, but reasonable accommodation is one mechanism to look into in addition to going to HR and asking what other accommodations your employer offers.
Who you work for matters. Having an empathetic and compassionate boss and supervisor makes working full-time while chronically ill more enjoyable.
Disclose what you wish to disclose when you wish to disclose it. I currently find disclosing my disability status/medical conditions helpful so that my leadership can support me, but it took me six years to get to this level of confidence speaking about my chronic illness life. Give yourself time and grace. I have not always been met with compassion and understanding so follow your intuition and share when you feel ready. I have only held two jobs in the last 10 years where my diagnosis was discussed prior to being hired and onboarded and one of those times it was because my diagnosis related directly to the work and the other was because my advocate work made its way onto my professional resume and after sharing my story online and growing comfortable talking about it.
The more flexibility the better! Ask about work life balance ahead of time. It is especially hard to work an 8:30-5 job which a chronic illness because work hours directly conflict with when doctors’ offices are open and operating. Most medical facilities outside of hospitals are not open for routine or diagnostic care on nights and weekends so the more flexibility your work will allow, the better.
Follow your passion, even if you must detour. I have had so many career detours due to my health insurance needs and flare-ups, but I have never stopped pursing my passion for helping others, even if that meant starting something of my own outside of my full-time work.
Working full time is hard, working fulltime while chronically ill is harder. Juggling work alongside appointments, sick leave, flexible scheduling, and economical health benefits can be overwhelming. These can be hard to find, but as chronic illness patients we are no stranger to doing hard things.
The new perception of working from home
The pandemic has helped companies, organizations, agencies, managers, supervisors, and senior leaders recognize that so much can be accomplished and in many instances that more can be accomplished, by working from home, teleworking more often, and commuting less. It’s not surprising that companies that have pivoted into a more flexible scheduling system will be more likely to retain top talent, including us chronic illness warriors!
“I wish it didn’t take a global pandemic to teach the world that we can work from anywhere, that we can be trusted as employees and that yes more flexibility might actually make us better employees. I think the perception of working from home has drastically shifted and is no longer viewed as an “easy way out” or something that will lead to employee’s “slacking off.” However, I have realized that while many companies and leaders have made this shift, not everyone has and that there is still much room for improvement.”
Working from home benefits patients with IBD and IBS by:
Being able to use our own bathrooms, with our preferred toilet paper and easy access. No longer fearing if the bathroom is occupied when the moment hits.
Not commuting lowers stress and gives us back the time it takes to travel back and forth each day.
Being able to work while feeling ill is easier when in the comfort of your own home, with your blankets, heating pad and supplies to help keep your body as comfortable as possible, while also getting work done. Many times, this would not be possible in an office setting.
Leaving the house can be anxiety producing for those with IBD and IBS due to the often very sudden need to use the restroom. Being able to work from home can diminish that fear.
Having access and privacy for administering medications throughout the workday is easier done at home.
Allowing flexibility to work around doctor appointments, infusions, lab work, procedures, you name it.
Breaching the subject with a boss or superior
Much like the stress surrounding when to tell a love interest about your health conditions, knowing when to the tell a boss you have IBD can be worrisome as well.
Here are Molly’s tips for approaching the subject:
Unless an emergency is forcing you to disclose your condition, I recommend sharing when you feel comfortable to do so.
Begin by asking if they know what your condition is “Have you ever heard of IBD? Do you know what IBD is?”
Based on their answer, follow-up with education and explaining how your condition impacts your life.
A good supervisor will ask you how they can support you. Be prepared to ask them for what you need which might be a flexible schedule or understanding that your illness is invisible, and you are in fact a motivated and loyal employee.
Sharing is not for everyone, but you might be surprised who else at work is dealing with a chronic illness, bosses included.
IBD Wins in the Working World
*Having bosses who support you personally and professionally lowers stress which supports optimizing mental and physical health.
*Finding ways to unwind—whether it’s exercising, taking Epsom salt baths, or going to therapy.
*Use each professional experience to help shed light on where your passions lie. You’re constantly learning what you like, what you don’t like, and each experience helps to inform the direction your career will take.
*Celebrate all the wins—large and small.
*Be mindful of how your employer handles a hospitalization, flare up, or surgery. It’s telling to see how your work family supports you or doesn’t in times of need. Your health should always be the top priority.
*While chronic illness may hijack where you thought you would be in your career, it may help dictate what you enjoy doing.
“As chronically ill workers we need to voice our needs and push for systems to change so that we can break down barriers, make working more accessible to the chronic illness community, and to obtain and retain talented chronic illness employees.”
It won’t be easy, but you can do it!
Feel empowered to stand up for yourself.
You deserve to be accommodated in the workplace and it is not a weakness to have a disability or need special needs.
Chronically ill people belong in the workforce.
You can still achieve your dreams after diagnosis, they might just look different.
Your career path might not go according to plan, and that is ok.
Follow your passion and heart whenever possible.
Working full time isn’t the answer for everyone.
Give yourself grace.
No job is worth your health.
If a job is making you sicker due to stress, toxic environment, or lack of flexibility, work towards changing that situation.
Your aspirations, dreams, goals, and plans will shift over time. Honor where you are and how far you have come!