How to find a dream team of specialists to take on IBD

Living with an unpredictable and often debilitating chronic illness like IBD can be overwhelming. Being confident in the care team who leads the charge in managing your disease is incredibly important. Life with IBD is a marathon, not a sprint. The variables and challenges change with each year. You need a team of doctors who listen, advocate for you, see you as more than just a number, and guide you with personalized care.

This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s, we look at the steps you can take to ensure you’re in good hands and feel comfortable with the specialists in your arsenal. Much like a support system, having a care team of medical professionals who genuinely care for the IBD community makes all the difference in how you’re able to cope and make the best decisions for your health through all the peaks, valleys, and lows.

When you meet your GI by chance

Since I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in July 2005, I’ve had two chance encounters in the hospital with gastroenterologists (GIs) who ended up being my doctors for years after our initial meetings. The first time—when I was diagnosed in my hometown (Chicago suburbs), I hit it off immediately with the GI who was given my case. He ended up being my doctor for a decade.

Prior to moving to St. Louis in 2014, I was hospitalized with a bowel obstruction. My GI was 5 hours away, so I had to rely on a stranger to guide my care locally. The GI who looked after me in the hospital had a wonderful bedside manner and as much as I didn’t want to switch medical providers, I knew I would need to find a GI in Missouri. That GI looked after me for about three years, until I had my third bowel obstruction in 15 months, even after switching to weekly Humira injections.

At that point, one of his partners called my hospital room and spoke to the fact that I kept having hospitalizations for the same issue, but no changes were being made. He ordered an MRE (Magnetic resonance enterography) to find the underlying cause of the issue and see if bowel resection surgery was on the table. When the results came through, this doctor CALLED my hospital room, and casually told me I needed at least 10 inches of my small intestine removed. My actual GI never followed up. Never reached out. Never followed up with me after my surgery that ended up involving the removal of 18 inches of my small intestine, my appendix, and my Meckel’s diverticulum.

I knew after that surgery it was time for me to advocate for my care and get a different GI. I desperately needed to make a change. While it’s not easy to break-up with a doctor and it can be hard to navigate the medical provider landscape in a new city, I knew it was necessary. You must stop worrying about hurting someone else’s feelings and put your health—both physical and mental, first.

How I switched to a different GI

Whether you’ve recently moved to a new state or know in your heart it’s time to make a change. It’s important you feel empowered as you switch your specialists. When I had my post-op appointment with the colorectal surgeon, I asked him which GIs he would recommend. He gave me two names. I then reached out to my local Crohn’s and Colitis Chapter and while they couldn’t give me names of specific providers, they connected me with fellow patients who could offer up advice. I went to lunch with a few ladies with IBD and I was given the same name. That GI has been my doctor ever since (November 2015).

Since that time, I’ve been in deep remission. My GI is extremely proactive and aggressive with her approach. She leaves no stones unturned. She calls me directly if I write her and the nurses a question on the Patient Portal. I’ve had three healthy pregnancies and three healthy babies. She’s helped me navigate so much of the unknown and listens to my questions. She knows I’m a patient advocate who follows the research and stays on top of my health and rather than talk down to me, she takes what I have to say into consideration, always.

Discovering what matters most to you

Everyone has a different preference when it comes to the personality and approach of their doctors. Some prefer a gentle bedside manner. Others want no fluff and a direct, business-like approach. Some like a little mix of both. Think about what matters most to you. I’m a bit of a softie and bedside manner matters a lot to me.

Try and think of it this way—at your worst, when you’re hospitalized, what kind of doctor do you want leading the charge, walking into your hospital room, and guiding your care? If your GI is intimidating, lacks empathy, and is cold, it could add insult to injury and make your already dreadful experience that much worse. On the flipside, having a straight shooter who tells you like it is and doesn’t sugarcoat what’s going on can also be beneficial. Envision who you want by your bedside as you fight a flare and go from there.

There are GIs who do not specialize in IBD, so when you are seeking a new one, try and make sure their focus and expertise is Crohn’s disease/ulcerative colitis.

Navigating Medical PTSD with new care providers

Medical PTSD is real. Oftentimes due to the nature of IBD we are put into vulnerable positions because of where our disease presents. You may be asked at a research hospital if medical students can watch. You may feel uncomfortable or uneasy starting fresh with someone new. This is all normal and justified. Each time you have to re-tell your medical history you are forced to re-live your trauma. A friend of mine in the IBD community recently told me that her therapist advises her to write out your medical history.

This way you simply hand over a document to your care team that lays out your full story without any key details missing and without having to talk about memories and experiences that can be harmful to your mental health and well-being. Along with bringing a printout version, it can be helpful to upload the document to the Patient Portal. This takes the pressure off you to give a high-level explanation of your IBD journey and allows you to focus on the right now. The right now being the questions you have presently and what issues you want to tackle. Say goodbye to the elevator speech that tends not to include the nitty gritty.

Do your homework prior to the appointment by writing down your questions ahead of time. You can either have pen and paper handy to write down notes, ask the doctor if you can voice record the appointment so you have the details, or type the notes right into your phone.

Building your dream team

With IBD we all know a care team is made up of more than gastroenterologist. It can be helpful to ask your GI who they recommend within their hospital system so that all the records are readily available. By following up with a recommendation from your GI, you know the other specialist is someone they respect and someone who they would have effective means of communication with.

Trust word of mouth—but also trust your gut. If a medical provider feels dismissive, rushed, or like they aren’t listening to you, move on to the next. You are in the driver’s seat to build your team. Depending on where you live—I know it can be tricky and complicated to find accessible care and leading IBDologists. It may mean you have to drive a couple of hours every few months to receive the type of care your IBD demands. Ideally, your GI will be local so that when a flare up requires hospitalization you can go to the hospital and know who will lead your care. But not everyone is afforded that luxury. While I was finding my GI in St. Louis, I would contact my GI in the Chicago suburbs and keep him aware of what was happening. He provided me advice every step of the way and I’ll always remember how he called me from his cell phone the night before my bowel resection and assured me the surgery would be a “fresh start”. He was right.

While IBD is often out of our control, building your care team and finding specialists who do all they can to help improve your quality of life, understand your individual disease process, and constantly look to do more than status-quo, will give you the confidence you need when symptoms start to go awry or when you need to make major medical decisions about medication, surgery, and beyond.

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