How IBD dietitians are improving patient outcomes

Raise your hand if you were told ‘diet doesn’t matter’ when you were diagnosed with IBD? Personally, the dietitian who visited me while I was hospitalized after my initial Crohn’s disease diagnosis in 2005, scared the bejesus out of me. I’ll never forget her sitting by my bedside with a clip board rattling off all the foods I would never be able to eat. Fruits, vegetables, anything raw, fried foods, wheat…the list goes on. I felt incredibly overwhelmed and defeated in that moment. Even though it was nearly 18 years ago, it’s a moment in my patient journey that is still upsetting to think about.

When Brittany Rogers, MS, RDN, CPT was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in high school after suffering in silence for five years, she was 20 pounds underweight, exhausted, in pain, and experiencing frequent and urgent trips to the bathroom. She was put on medication and given little to no direction in the way of diet. Inspired by a nutrition class she took in high school and coupled with her own experience with trigger foods, Brittany pursued a degree in nutrition and became a registered dietitian. She strongly believes that learning about nutrition in college and applying that information to how she managed her IBD drastically changed the trajectory of her disease and quality of life.

Brittany as a teenager after her ulcerative colitis diagnosis.

The driving force behind Romanwell

Managing diet when you have IBD is complex and dietitians treating people with IBD need to be well versed in the latest research to provide safe and effective care. If you’re lucky enough to live near an IBD center, you may be able to see an IBD dietitian for a few visits through your doctor’s office. However, most people don’t have access to these centers of excellence and need more than one or two appointments per year to come up with a personalized nutrition plan to reduce their symptoms, improve their quality of life, and restore their relationship with food. Brittany’s practice, Romanwell, is tackling this issue head on by making expert IBD dietitians accessible to anyone, no matter where they live or work.

“I started Romanwell to be able to provide an exceptional level of care to people all over the country. I don’t want anyone else to suffer with symptoms the way I did for so long. Nutrition and lifestyle factors, such as stress, play a huge role in the symptoms we experience as patients. Unfortunately, people often don’t get the guidance they need to help them feel better,” said Brittany.

Diet research is quickly evolving and more and more providers are acknowledging the role of diet in managing IBD. However, there’s still a long way to go before GI’s everywhere start to refer patients to IBD dietitians routinely.

“If someone’s provider doesn’t have a referral for them, the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation has a directory of IBD providers including a number of dietitians that they can search for and reach out to. The American Gastroenterological Association (AGA) is also putting together a directory of dietitians that will make finding a GI-specific dietitian much easier. Patients can also always reach out to me and I am happy to point them in the right direction if our practice can’t meet their needs,” she explained.

The unique support of an IBD dietitian

In an ideal world, patients would get support from an IBD-focused registered dietitian starting the day they’re diagnosed. Examples of where it would be helpful to work with an IBD focused RD include:

  • At diagnosis, IBD dietitians can help answer questions around what they can eat, talk about the definitions of trigger foods, pro-inflammatory foods, & anti-inflammatory foods, and examples of each. They can talk about foods associated with an increased risk for active disease, foods associated with increasing the risk for colorectal cancer, and what to eat during active disease & in remission.
  • If someone needs IBD-related surgery, dietitians can help them optimize their nutrition before & after surgery to reduce the risk for postoperative complications.
  • If they’ve lost weight without trying or have a decreased appetite, they’re at risk for malnutrition and would benefit from working with an IBD focused registered dietitian. 
  • Anytime they’re having symptoms- dietitians can help manipulate their diet to reduce symptoms & improve overall quality of life
  • If someone want to improve their relationship with food, or have a history or active eating disorder, Romanwell can help them expand their diet, include more cultural foods in their diet, and use non-diet evidence-based approaches to reduce symptoms. Dietitians can also help people work on improving their relationship with food, their body, and their food-related quality of life
  • And, anytime someone has questions about their diet, or are worried about their nutrient intake, they should have access to an IBD-focused dietitian.

“We offer programs rather than individual sessions in our practice which gives us the time to help our clients make sustainable changes to their diet and lifestyle that will last them a lifetime. We build relationships with our clients, take the time to understand their needs, cultural influences on food, food preferences, and implement 100% personalized programs that work for them in their life. 95% of our clients work with us for 12 sessions, which we typically run over 3-6 months. In the beginning of a client’s program, we deep dive into their medical history, labs, supplements, labs, diet and their relationship with food and their body, and then set goals for the end of the program. We meet weekly or bi-weekly to make progress towards the clients goals, and are available via messaging throughout the client’s program to answer any and every question that comes up in the moments when they arise.”

Those of us in the IBD community know how isolating and upsetting it is when you’re in the middle of a flare. Brittany’s goal is to ensure that every client seen at Romanwell feels seen and understood and realizes that they’re not alone in this.

“I want patients to feel as though they’re our only patient and that they’re not alone in this. We believe all patients deserve that level of responsiveness and empathetic care. We want them to feel and know that we care about them and want the best for them,” she said.

Creating evidence-based research that’s digestible for patients

When Brittany started Romanwell, she noticed that no one was talking about the research around diet and IBD on social media and translating that research and know-how into approachable and actionable content that people could easily learn from and implement in their daily lives. You may hear the term “medical nutrition therapy”—this is evidence-based diet and nutrition treatment for a specific medical condition(s) provided by a registered dietitian.

“I started publishing research summaries and tips on my Instagram pages (@weareromanwell; @brittanyb_therd) and people seem to really resonate with the content. Reading research articles is intimidating! It’s hard enough for someone with a scientific or medical background to stay on top of all the findings, let alone someone from a non-healthcare background. I try to create content that summarizes what we know (and acknowledges what we don’t) from the research and always try to find a way that someone could get immediate actionable value out of the content – be that by tips or recipes or swaps for trigger foods, etc.”

When working with clients, Brittany finds it helpful to know that oftentimes education on diet is insufficient in encouraging behavior change- instead, she’s found is that people also need help applying that information to their life.

“For instance, research suggests Crohn’s disease patients who consume the most fruit and vegetables were actually 40% less likely to flare than those who consume the least. Patients we work with often have already seen a dietitian or have received a handout on what to eat that may include this recommendation of eating lots of fruits and vegetables. And although this is great information to share with Crohn’s disease patients, sometimes it’s not very helpful because they often want to consume more fruits & vegetables, but don’t feel safe doing so because it triggers symptoms, or they’re afraid of causing a blockage,” Brittany said.

When implementing this recommendation with her clients, she shares the study, but then looks at a person’s individual diet, asks them which fruits and vegetables they enjoy, and makes a plan together with the client to slowly add in more servings week by week in a methodical manner, sometimes adjusting the texture or amount of what they are eating.

“By the end of the program, most patients are consuming at or above the recommended fruit and vegetable intake and have a huge list of meal/snack ideas they enjoy and that are tolerated so they feel confident the diet is sustainable.

Working to improve access for patients

The key to helping as many patients as possible get access to the care they deserve is getting their GI providers to refer patients to IBD dietitians and getting health insurers to cover the cost of those services so that patients can make meaningful and sustainable changes that will benefit them for a lifetime.

“I think there’s enormous potential for providers to help their patients have better outcomes by working closely with IBD dietitians and for health insurers to lower their costs by equipping patients with the tools and resources they need to stay out of the hospital. We’re trying to make this a reality by showing that our clients do in fact have better health outcomes after completing our program. We collaborate with every client’s existing GI care team to make sure the patient is getting the support and guidance they need.”

Romanwell is also measuring their clients’ outcomes and recently presented a poster at the Crohn’s and Colitis Congress showing some preliminary results. They’re hoping to submit the results to a peer-reviewed journal later this year.

“Our goal long term is for every patient with IBD to have access to an IBD registered dietitian and for programs like ours to be covered by insurance so everyone can access them,” said Brittany.

Counseling on the complimentary role of diet and lifestyle alongside medication

There’s a tremendous amount of information out there about the pros/cons of certain medications and/or alternative approaches to treatment that can be really confusing, misleading, and scary when you’ve just been diagnosed with a lifelong chronic condition. Some people worry about the side effects of medication and want to “heal their gut” using diet alone.

“We would never judge people based on the information they’ve read or the opinions they’ve formed about what’s best for their care, but we want them to know the evidence-based information so that they can make the best decision for themselves. We want patients to feel as good as they possibly can for as long as possible, so we love it when patients use nutrition along with medication and lifestyle factors to help them feel their best. We don’t believe it has to be either diet or medication, they work beautifully together!”

Looking to the future

Romanwell recently hired a second dietitian and has plans to hire more this year and next year.

“Our goal is to be able to thoroughly train dietitians in how to deliver exceptional care in a way that really helps patients achieve their goals. Unlike the training one might receive to practice inpatient or outpatient dietetics, our training program includes aspects of health coaching, counseling, motivational interviewing, intuitive eating and a weight-neutral approach to health. Since we’re a telehealth practice, we’re able to see clients on their terms and schedule, but that also means we can hire dietitians anywhere around the country which gives us access to much more talent than we’d be able to find locally.”

Romanwell pays for dietitians to pursue licensure in a number of states, so they can see as many patients as possible.

“I can’t even describe in words how incredibly fulfilling it is to get to help others with IBD. It’s been such an honor to help IBD patients get the care they deserve. I’m so grateful I get to do this for my job!”

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The prevalence of mental health struggles in the IBD community

Mental health often takes a major hit when you’re diagnosed and live with a chronic illness like IBD. I ran a poll on Instagram and Twitter this past week and the results were extremely eye-opening. Not only for the patient community, but for any caregivers, friends, or family who know people with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis.

On Instagram—out of 350 people polled over 24 hours, a resounding 93% responded “yes” to IBD impacting their mental health and causing depression and anxiety. On Twitter, I ran the same poll for 48 hours, of the more than 205 votes, 86% of people responded “yes”.

Dr. Yezaz Ghouri, MD, Director of Inflammatory Bowel Disease Services, University of Missouri School of Medicine at Columbia, offered helpful insight on the topic. I had the pleasure of meeting “Dr. ZaZ” (as he commonly goes by) in person at the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation’s Mid-America Chapter Gala in November. Dr. ZaZ was awarded the 2022 Catalyst for Mission Advancement award and I was so inspired and intrigued by his work as I was emceeing the event, that I knew we would have to collaborate on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s! We made it happen.

Here’s my interview with Dr. ZaZ about how our IBD can impact our mental health.

NH: “During the first day of the Crohn’s and Colitis Congress 2023 conference it was shared that rates of anxiety and depression are about twice as high in the IBD community compared to the general population–why is that?”

Dr. ZaZ: “The exact cause of IBD is not known. There are some common theories that have been suggested, these include genetic factors, changes in gut microbiome, alteration in immune function of the body, and effect of certain environmental factors. Interestingly, some of these factors have also shown to be associated with mental disorders like anxiety and depression. The gut-brain axis is a nervous system-based pathway that connects the nerve cells from the brain to the gut. This gut-brain axis has been found to play a role in the release of nerve cell chemicals (or neurotransmitters) in the intestines. One such neurotransmitter is Serotonin, which has a well-established role in several psychiatric disorders like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, etc. Studies have pointed out an alteration in serotonin activity in the intestines of patients with IBD 1.

The gut microbiome comprises of trillions of species of organisms mainly consisting of bacteria. The healthy gut-microbiome is altered in individuals with several conditions like anxiety, depression, Alzheimer’s, Autism, etc. This alteration is also seen in IBD and has been a subject of active research to better understand the various changes in the bacteria of the gut. Some of these bacteria produce chemicals that can serve as neurotransmitters in the gut. It is unclear if these chemicals could influence the gut-brain axis and contribute towards the occurrence of mental disorders. Last year we published a study that showed this association of increased prevalence of anxiety and depression among IBD patients 2. The added burden and distress was not just limited to IBD patients, the study also showed an overall increased healthcare cost and burden to hospital systems. It is in the best socio-economic interest of the government and the public to address mental health issues in society, especially among those with chronic illnesses like IBD.”

NH:How can patients best articulate their concerns and communicate with their doctor about their mental health?”

Dr. ZaZ: “IBD patient sometimes suffer from anxiety, depression, sleep disturbances, and other mental conditions like eating disorders. Your GI doctor hopefully has established a healthy physician-patient relationship where you are comfortable to bring up any issues that you would like to discuss with your GI specialist. During my clinic visits apart from addressing the medical aspects of IBD, I frequently have a friendly conversation about my patient’s life in general with a focus on their overall well-being, including talking about their mental health. In addition, several individuals have a primary care provider (PCP) with whom they generally have a good relationship and feel comfortable bringing up any health-related concerns.     

Psychiatric conditions can manifest with sleep disturbances, fatigue, loss of appetite, lack of interest in activities that you previously enjoyed, depressed mood, suicidal thoughts, etc. Sometimes IBD flares can contribute to some of these symptoms, especially sleep disturbances due to night-time diarrhea or constant abdominal pain. Use of biological medications can be frequently associated with fatigue that may last a day or two after taking the biologic. In a large-scale UK based study, presence of a diagnosis of IBD was associated with a higher likelihood to cause deliberate self-harm, anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Interestingly, the risk was higher among those with Crohn’s disease than with ulcerative colitis 3.

Remember, mental stress can also contribute to an IBD flare. Frequently I see some of my IBD patients go through an uncontrolled spell of psychological stress, maybe related to personal relationships or their place of employment. This when unchecked can precipitate an IBD flare, and in some cases develop psychiatric illnesses like anxiety or depression. Hence, it is important to have a stress-free life or mitigate stress to minimize its effect on your mind and body.”

NH: “I know you see a lot of college students; how do you navigate these concerns as their care provider? Do you tend to see this more with your younger patients—or is it across the board?”

Dr. ZaZ: “College life of a freshman can be quite stressful. The move away from the comforts of their homes to a new city or town and being surrounded by strangers can be overwhelming. This can cause psychological stress which may precipitate an IBD flare. Moving to college can also disrupt the continuity of care received from their established pediatric or adult GI specialist. Students may skip their medications due to storage issues, changes in insurance, feeling of shame of having IBD or fear of not being able to ‘fit-in’. All these factors can contribute to inadequate management of their underlying IBD. We at the University of Missouri try our best to accommodate college students in our clinics so they are cared for and IBD flares are prevented from occurring. The student health clinics are efficient in recognizing students with chronic illnesses and referring them to GI clinics. I frequently encourage students that they continue to see their primary GI specialist but also establish care in our clinic/hospital system, so in case there is a medical emergency or if they experience a flare, we will be well-informed beforehand about their medical history and have a plan in place to adequately treat them.  

In a large study comprising of more than one million IBD patients, it was shown that being a female, having diagnosed with IBD as a child or a young adult and having a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease have been associated with higher likelihood of suicide attempts and suicide death 4.

Mental disorders in IBD are seen across all age groups but are somewhat more pronounced in those individuals whose disease is not well controlled or have not achieved remission since their initial diagnosis. Majority of IBD cases are generally diagnosed at a young age, several times in college students. Unfortunately, we also see frequent occurrence of mental disorders in younger age groups. Students have additional mental stressors when they have a chronic bowel condition like IBD. Many feel that they the lack of freedom in choosing to eat anything they like when they go out with friends or their need for frequent bathroom breaks, which can sometimes hinder them from participating in activities they choose or in making new friends. Many feel embarrassed to disclose their medical conditions to new friends or acquaintances, this perhaps cannot be stressed enough among those with an ostomy bag.

This leads to a state of inadequate social/family support which may push at risk students into developing mental conditions like depression, anxiety or eating disorders.”

NH: “Any advice for caregivers of young patients–who may have concerns about their child/teen/young adult and are unsure how to make sure their child is not dealing with anxiety/depression, but don’t want to overstep or upset their loved one?”

Dr. ZaZ: “It is very important for not just the physicians but also the caregivers involved in managing IBD in young patients to recognize signs of depression or other mental disorders. Do not always assume that if an individual is constantly tired, has disturbed sleep or looks depressed, that it is due to their IBD. Several times these are early signs of depression, and these young individuals need the support and help that they deserve to address these issues. Perhaps adult patients who have depression may recognize it and seek help, but kids or teens generally do not perceive these signs as an abnormal expression of behavior and may not even disclose them to their loved ones. Caregivers who attend clinic visits with pediatric specialists should bring up any unusual behavior they notice about their child and discuss it with the provider.”

NH: “How can mental health issues exacerbate IBD symptoms? 

Dr. ZaZ: “Studies have shown that individuals with mental disorders who have IBD have a higher chance of developing IBD flares, they require escalation of their therapy and have increased incidence of death 5. (See Reference 5) This is quite alarming and should be brough to the attention of providers who take care of IBD patients. “Providers are not just prescribers”, simply writing prescriptions for medications, some of which are very expensive, is not enough to heal the patient. IBD is a chronic disease which lasts a lifetime, and medications alone cannot be the solution. Providers need to step up and participate in the mental well-being of their patients. If they are not able to address the mental health related issues themselves then referring to experts in the field is perhaps the best alternative approach. Depression may cause patients to skip their infusion visits or physician visits, uncontrolled anxiety or paranoid states may make them apprehensive about any therapy that they have been appropriately prescribed and may even stop the treatment. IBD patients with eating disorders may starve themselves or eat uncontrollably causing worsening of their bowel condition. These eating disorders are commonly present among young and female IBD patients who have body image disturbance 6.”

NH:How is anxiety and depression typically managed in patients with IBD? (Medication, talking to a psychologist, etc.?)”

Dr. ZaZ: “The first step to treating anxiety and depression is to approach a provider with whom you are comfortable to freely express your medical complaints, problems, or any issues that you would like to discuss. Psychotherapy or behavioral therapy is probably the preferred approach in mild cases but in individuals with more profound symptoms, medications may be preferred in addition to psychotherapy. Finding a good therapist and setting up sessions at frequent intervals is important. In severe cases with suicidal ideations or attempts perhaps hospitalization may be required.

Multiple medications are commonly used for treating anxiety and depression. A PCP or psychiatrist may be able to find the right one for you, and please make sure you follow up with these providers since these medications may need to be monitored for their side effects and to adjust the dosage. Sometimes GI physicians may feel comfortable to prescribe these medications, but that may generally not be true for majority of gastroenterologists.”

NH: “As a GI, how do you try and facilitate positive relationships with your patients to help ensure they feel at ease with taking on their disease, managing it, overcoming flares/surgery, etc.?”

Dr. ZaZ: “My first step towards approaching IBD is to make sure that the symptoms that my patients are complaining of are truly from IBD and not from IBS or any other illness. Once IBD is diagnosed, I have a detailed visit with my patient with their new diagnosis. I usually encourage them to read up as much as they can and write down questions about their illness prior to this clinic visit. During the visit I start by giving a broad overview of what IBD is and the mechanism of disease process.I do this little exercise of talking about mechanisms by which IBD develops because I have noticed in my experience that several patients feel guilty about having their illness, and believe that in some way it was ‘their fault’ that they developed IBD. We then focus our attention on what are the available treatments why I think the recommended treatment would be a good fit, so the patients can make an informed decisions about their choice of therapy. I highlight the signs or symptoms they need to look out for that could suggest a complication or flare up of IBD. We provide them access to communicate with our clinic team if they have any questions; if they are concerned about a flare or if they suspect side effects from their therapy. Next, I answer questions they may have come up with during my discussion or from their personal research prior to the visit. Once the questions are answered I provide them with written material about their illness. I frequently encourage our patients to join patient support groups and direct them to online sources for information about IBD like the website for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation.”

NH: “Why is it so important to focus on whole person care–and recognize that IBD impacts more than the GI tract?”

Dr. ZaZ: “If we understand the mechanism by which IBD develops in the body, we can say that a dysfunctional immune system perhaps has the central role in the disease process. This immune system is connected to the entire body, it’s in our blood, guts, and other organs. Abnormal functioning of this immune system is likely to affect the entire body, although in IBD this abnormality primarily targets the bowels. But we frequently encounter what are called the “extra-intestinal manifestations of IBD”. These are referred to conditions that cause joint pains, skin rashes, eye redness, oral ulcers, liver disorders and other symptoms or signs that can be encountered in patients with IBD. Beyond these, patients with IBD are shown to be associated with higher incidence of mental disorders, pregnancy-related complications, chronic fatigue, and vitamin/mineral deficiencies. The effect on the bowels by this disease has a major impact on what one can eat, thereby limiting their nutritional intake. It is only fitting to treat these individuals as a whole, and not just their bowels. In terms of methods of treatment, apart from allopathic medical therapies, several other modalities of treatment are now being explored and accepted. Addressing diet and exercise is an important aspect to maintain healthy lifestyle in general, and especially so in patients with IBD. Running or other forms of cardio-based exercises have been shown to have a positive impact on the disease. Consuming healthy dietary supplements, like probiotics have been shown to be beneficial. Relaxation techniques and meditation also help keep oneself stress free, and perhaps prevent development of mental disorders as well.

One last thing we must also remember is that in today’s world social media can contribute to a lot of mental stress and anxiety, especially where disinformation campaigns can lead to confusion and poor choices in life. Hence it is important to have reliable resources to gain knowledge about IBD and its therapies. Sources like the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation and its members like Natalie have been leading in educating several individuals through various platforms. In summary, eat healthy, exercise regularly, educate yourself about IBD, try to relieve stress and follow up with your doctor for medical care.”

I hope this article sparks a conversation and allows you to feel less alone in your mental health struggles. The findings show it’s anything but “just in your head.” Your feelings, fears, and struggles are valid. You are loved. You are not a burden. You are worth it. You matter. We need you here. Remember that.

If you’re thinking about suicide, are worried about a friend or loved one, or if you would like emotional support, call 988 any day of the week, any time. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, across the United States.

Reference Guide List

1: Coates, M. D., Mahoney, C. R., Linden, D. R., Sampson, J. E., Chen, J., Blaszyk, H., Crowell, M. D., Sharkey, K. A., Gershon, M. D., Mawe, G. M., & Moses, P. L. (2004). Molecular defects in mucosal serotonin content and decreased serotonin reuptake transporter in ulcerative colitis and irritable bowel syndrome. Gastroenterology, 126(7), 1657–1664. https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2004.03.013

2: Tarar, Z. I., Zafar, M. U., Farooq, U., Ghous, G., Aslam, A., Inayat, F., & Ghouri, Y. A. (2022). Burden of depression and anxiety among patients with inflammatory bowel disease: results of a nationwide analysis. International journal of colorectal disease, 37(2), 313–321. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00384-021-04056-9

3: Umar, N., King, D., Chandan, J. S., Bhala, N., Nirantharakumar, K., Adderley, N., Zemedikun, D. T., Harvey, P., & Trudgill, N. (2022). The association between inflammatory bowel disease and mental ill health: a retrospective cohort study using data from UK primary care. Alimentary pharmacology & therapeutics, 56(5), 814–822. https://doi.org/10.1111/apt.17110

4: Xiong, Q., Tang, F., Li, Y., Xie, F., Yuan, L., Yao, C., Wu, R., Wang, J., Wang, Q., & Feng, P. (2022). Association of inflammatory bowel disease with suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, and suicide: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of psychosomatic research, 160, 110983. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2022.110983

5: Fairbrass, K. M., Gracie, D. J., & Ford, A. C. (2022). Relative Contribution of Disease Activity and Psychological Health to Prognosis of Inflammatory Bowel Disease During 6.5 Years of Longitudinal Follow-Up. Gastroenterology, 163(1), 190–203.e5. https://doi.org/10.1053/j.gastro.2022.03.014

6: Stoleru, G., Leopold, A., Auerbach, A., Nehman, S., & Wong, U. (2022). Female gender, dissatisfaction with weight, and number of IBD related surgeries as independent risk factors for eating disorders among patients with inflammatory bowel diseases. BMC gastroenterology, 22(1), 438. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12876-022-02526-0

The Patient Experience: My j-pouch changed my life

It’s considered the most common surgical procedure for ulcerative colitis patients when medication fails to keep IBD under control. The ileal pouch anal-anastomosis (IPAA) or j-pouch, is created after a surgeon removes your colon and rectum and uses the end of your small intestine to form an internal pouch, which looks like the shape of J.

This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s we hear from a colorectal surgeon and IBD patient himself, along with several women with j-pouches about their experience, what they’ve learned along the way, and what they hope others know who are living similar realities.

What does the j-pouch procedure entail?

Before we dig deeper, a short “lesson” on what the j-pouch procedure involves. It’s typically a one, two, or three stage process.

According to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation:

  • The first surgery removes your colon and rectum and preserves your anus and anal sphincter muscles. The ileum is made into a j-shaped pouch and connected to the top of your anal canal.
  • A temporary ileostomy is typically created to give your newly formed pouch a chance to heal. A loop of your small intestine will be pulled through an opening in your abdomen, called a stoma, to allow waste to exit your body into an ostomy bag.
  • During this time, you will need to always wear an ostomy bag, and it will need to be emptied several times a day.
  • You will have your second surgery eight to 12 weeks later, once the pouch has healed.
  • The second surgery will reverse the temporary ileostomy and reconnect your small intestine. Your internal pouch will then collect waste and allow stool to pass through your anus in a bowel movement.
  • Some surgeons choose to perform this surgery in just one stage, in which the pouch is created and joined to the anus without a temporary ileostomy. This is done less often than the two-stage procedure because of an increased risk of infection.

This topic resonates with Dr. Stefan D. Holubar, MD, MS, FASCRS, FACS, IBD Surgery Section Chief & Director of Research for the Department of Colorectal Surgery at Cleveland Clinic, for many reasons. He was diagnosed with Crohn’s colitis when he was 7 years old and was on and off steroids (the only treatment at the time) for many years.

“I had learned to live with chronic embarrassing urgent incontinence, as well as being small and skinny, and with a swollen face from the steroids. I was offered an end ileostomy as a teenager (not a J-pouch as it was Crohn’s) and was lucky to get a second opinion with the famous Dr. Daniel Present (RIP) at Mount Sinai. I went on NPO and TPN for one year which helped get me into remission and grow about a foot in one year. Somehow, I made it through college and got into medical school, but it turned out I hadn’t had a colonoscopy in about a decade.”

Over Christmas 1999, Dr. Holubar had a colonoscopy and received a call a few days later while he was skiing that he had colon cancer.

“That same day, the tumor swelled from the biopsies, and I developed a large bowel obstruction. I had emergency subtotal colectomy w ileosigmoid anastomosis without an ileostomy. After chemotherapy and completing medical school, I needed the rectum removed (due to risk of rectal cancer) and underwent a modified 2-stage J-pouch without ileostomy one month before surgical residency. I’ve been great ever since, not perfect as I have had some complications over the years, but great, with three kids, the best job and wife in the world.”

During the second half of medical school, Dr. Holubar was considering going into GI or Medical Oncology and learned that colorectal surgery was a specialty.

“Once I learned Colorectal was a specialty and they are the IBD experts, my future path was set in stone. It’s rare to know that you want to be a colorectal surgeon that early in training. I’m blessed to share my successful story and give patients with complicated IBD like me hope every single day of my life. My experiences have also influenced me to do clinical research to try to change care more broadly and ideally, globally. My IBD history is a source of endless inspiration for our innovative work.”

I asked Dr. Holubar what advice he has for patients who are on the fence about getting a J-pouch. His most important advice—is to seek expertise.

“I would recommend looking for surgeons who specialize in IBD. J-pouch surgery is a niche these days (hence “IBD Surgeons”), and your care team should be expert in taking care of the complications that may develop. A majority (>90%) of patients with a pouch would do it again and/or recommend it to a friend or family member.” (Fazio et al., Annals of Surgery, 2013, PMID: 23299522).

Dr. Holubar wants to highlight a couple important points in terms of this article:

  • Only about 10% of people who are deemed candidates for a pouch choose not to have it, for personal reasons such as work, or lifestyle-related reasons such as lack of access to a toilet for many hours at a time, or those who prefer a one-and-done approach (Holubar, Inflamm Bowel Dis, 2009, PMID: 19266572). We have a new article on this, but it has only been published as an abstract so far (Total Proctocolectomy with End-Ileostomy Versus Ileoanal Pouch for Ulcerative Colitis: Who Doesn’t Pouch, And How Do They Do? Dis Colon Rectum 64;5; Meeting AbstractPOD169)
  • On the other hand, the overall long-term pouch survival is about 90-95% which is very high (in other words, it works out most of the time, but not always) (Fazio et al., Annals of Surgery, 2013, PMID: 23299522).
  • In the current digital era, we are blessed to have support groups on social media and active discussions on #SoMe4IBD. That said, it’s important to know that not everyone who has a pouch – whether the experience is great, or they have complications – is vocal on social media. It’s important to check with your care team to discuss the best treatment options for you.

When it comes to the risk and benefits of having a J-pouch, Dr. Holubar says each patient needs to chart out the pros and cons of end ileostomy (or rarely a continence ileostomy aka Kock pouch) vs. IPAA as the risk-benefit profiles are quite different.

“The main benefit is that a patient can maintain transanal defecation and avoid a permanent ileostomy and care of the ileostomy. An added “benefit” of having a pouch is that you can almost always go back to an ileostomy if it doesn’t work, or you are not satisfied with the function. Going back into the belly is of course with some risk of further surgical complications,” he explained.

The j-pouch patient perspective

Jackie was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in March 2009. She was 24 years old and had been given a multiple sclerosis diagnosis before that. At the time, her care team was concerned a biologic could set off her MS.

“Less than a year after my diagnosis, I was told that I’d run out of medication options and I’d need to have my colon removed and opted to schedule surgery at that time to work towards a j-pouch,” said Jackie.

Getting acclimated to having an ostomy didn’t come easily. She says her biggest obstacle was getting over her own biases.

“I didn’t know anything about ostomies except from what I read online from other patients at the time and the consensus in the online forums was not good. I was nervous, but I learned almost immediately that I felt better, was healthier, and could do more. After my first surgery, I traveled across the country and hiked through some parks in Oregon. None of that would have been possible before my ostomy. It only took a few experiences like that to realize how much the ostomy had really given me.”

Of course, there’s a learning curve. There’s new terminology to learn, you must find what works on your body, and that can be frustrating.

“I was curious from day one. I knew that I was sent home in the appliance the hospital had set me up with, but I wasn’t convinced that was the best one for me, so I took it upon myself to test lots of brands and products to get the one that worked best for me.”

Jasmine was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2017 when she was 19. She was a freshman in college. Two years later she dealt with a flare she started Entyvio, but the drug failed her shortly thereafter. She switched to Remicade in January 2020 and had the same problem, even after receiving the highest possible dosage every 4 weeks. Her health continued to rapidly decline, and she was hospitalized in March 2020.

“This was the first-time surgical intervention, an ostomy, and a j-pouch were mentioned to me in a real way, however, the doctors continued to say they felt cautiously optimistic Remicade would pull me out of my flare. Throughout these months, I tried a variety of diets including SCD and AIP, visited multiple dieticians and nutritionists, met with natural health doctors, sought out second opinions, and followed a robust supplement regime that was continuously updated by my functional health doctor.”

Despite every effort, by April of 2020, her health was the worst it had been her my entire life. Weighing 105 pounds, she lived in constant, excruciating pain, unable to sleep or eat, too weak to stand in the shower for longer than five short minutes.

“IBD completely ruled my life. When I spoke with my doctors in early May, they told me I had two options: I could try Stelara, the last drug available to me, which my team was 99% sure would not work and would result in emergency surgery since the drug takes months to kick in and provide relief. Otherwise, I could have surgery immediately. My options hardly felt like options when both resulted in the same outcome, just at different times. I opted to have surgery sooner rather than later. If it was inevitable, I wanted to begin the process and start feeling better as soon as possible, rather than continuing to needlessly suffer.”

A few days later, Jasmine met with a surgeon, and less than a week after that appointment (and the morning after her college graduation), she was rolled into the operating room to have my colon removed.

 “No life experience prepares you to look down and see an internal organ on the outside of your body. A stoma is far outside the lines of normal human experience, and despite all the preparation in the world, your brain can’t fully process what it will be like until it’s happened. I found the transition to be difficult; while the nurses in the hospital were helpful, the nurses sent to my home barely seemed to know what to do. I had to teach myself how to empty the bag, and at first, it often took me an hour to change the ostomy. However, with time and as my body healed from surgery, I became more confident and able to quickly take care of the ostomy in under five minutes,” said Jasmine.

Even though the physical acclimation was challenging, Jasmine says the mental acclimation was even harder.

“At the time, I was 22 years old and had never in a million years imagined my life to involve a bag of waste attached to my stomach. I felt like I was constantly grieving the life I’d imagined and the life I’d never get to live. The ostomy felt like a reminder of all that had been taken from me that I couldn’t ignore, concrete proof of how different I was from all other 22-year-olds and how far my life had diverged from the normal college experience. I spent many days looking in the mirror and crying at what I saw, struggling to accept the ostomy as the life saver it was. Over time, as I began to regain more freedom and control over my life, eating the food I wanted, sleeping through the night, exercising, and traveling, I slowly began to make peace with the ostomy through the lens of all it enabled me to do.”

Aimee was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2011 when she was 22 years old. She struggled responding to medical intervention and dealt with severe abdominal cramping and high levels of blood in her stool which destroyed her quality of life.

“I had to give up my job, my life, my apartment, my social life and moved back to my hometown to be taken care of by my parents. In one hospital admission 9 months after first symptoms, the surgical team advised I do the ostomy to avoid a tear or rupture to the colon which could lead to emergency surgery or worse, sepsis.”

The ostomy relieved Aimee’s constant cramping and she felt instant relief from her chronic pain. Going into surgery the plan from the start was to do a three-step surgical journey over 12 months that resulted in a j-pouch May 2012.

“There is so much help in the hospital that it was only the day I was leaving that it hit me that this was going to be something that would be hard to get used to. I was 22 and I was embarrassed to tell everyone and conscious of my looks, so there was a vanity piece that was hard to overcome. When I was home, I felt alone. I wanted to manage the bag all by myself, I didn’t allow anyone to see the stoma or my bags or anything. Looking back at my young self, I wish I had let my family and friends in more to help me, I didn’t need to hide it.”

Elissa was initially diagnosed with ulcerative colitis when she was 14 years old, back in 1994 and years later, Crohn’s, in her small intestine. Her diagnosis journey was a difficult one. She was told she was lactose intolerant, had food allergies, IBS, anxiety, and a nervous stomach.

When Elissa was 20, she underwent emergency surgery to remove her colon. She was one of the first patients to participate in a clinical trial for Remicade back in the day. Unfortunately, the medications kept failing her, she became dependent on high doses of steroids, and she had precancerous cells in her colon.

“I was in college at the time and didn’t feel comfortable telling most people. There were a few occurrences of my bag leaking (one especially memorable experience in the middle of a fraternity party), and I was mortified. However, my recovery also highlighted the thoughtfulness and generosity of my best friends and family members who would drive me to the pharmacy to pick up medical supplies, drive me to doctor appointments, even just sit with me and rest. People really come out of the woodwork – sometimes asking for help is the hardest part.”

At times Elissa felt very alone. She wishes she had known the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation was available, along with support groups. She says, now, there are so many amazing resources available for people in recovery, including the forum j-pouch.org.

Dani was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2005, when she was just 8 years old. She was initially managed on oral medication then switched to biologics and went through Remicade, Humira, Xeljanz, Stelara, and Entyvio.

“I always knew that surgery was on the table, and I felt like I was always buying time until a new medication came out. In January of 2021 I became extremely sick and was admitted to the hospital for IV cyclosporin to try to lessen my immune response. I was ok enough to leave the hospital and was feeling ok for about four days out of the hospital and then I started to become sick again. My surgeon came around a few times to check on me and introduce himself. He said, “I just want you to know that I’m not the scary man with a knife.” At that time, I didn’t know he would be my surgeon. When I started to get sick again after leaving the hospital, I knew that surgery was going to be the next step.”

From then on, Dani met with her GI doctor and Colorectal surgeon (who work together), and they scheduled her for a subtotal colectomy a few weeks later. She began the 3-step surgical process in March 2021.

“It was a huge adjustment. I constantly felt my bag and it felt so foreign to me. At the same time, it gave me an independence that I had never had before. My plan was to go through all 3 j-pouch surgeries to have an ostomy for nine months and then have a j-pouch. I felt confident that I could adjust to an ostomy again if necessary and that I wanted to give a j-pouch a try.”

Dani got her take down surgery J-pouch in December 2021.

The hope of reversing from the start

Jackie: “The plan was to reverse, but I did have a major panic moment a few months before I was supposed to have another surgery. A friend of mine who had started his journey to a -j-pouch around the same time I did, was one step ahead of me in his surgical sequence, and he was having some major problems. I figured the ostomy was the devil I know, better stick with what you know, because I was afraid of what the other side looked like. But I knew myself, and I knew I had to at least try for a reversal, otherwise I’d spend the rest of forever wondering how it would have gone.”

Jasmine: “From the start, the colectomy was presented to me as a step toward the larger goal of getting a j-pouch. I went into the first surgery planning to try the j-pouch.”

Elissa: “I knew the ostomy would be temporary, but I really had no idea what to expect as far as recovery was concerned. My doctors and surgeons did not explain any potential complications. I wish I had known more questions to ask.”

For Elissa, a pouch was created at the time of surgery that removed her colon. Three months later, she had reversal surgery during college spring break – unfortunately, the reversal failed, she caught an infection and ended up in the ICU. The ostomy was placed again for her body to recover from an additional open abdominal surgery. She then went on to have a successful reversal in July of 2000. 

Making the decision to go for a j-pouch

Jackie: “I knew that I could have chosen to keep my ostomy, but there was a real sense of “why wouldn’t you get a j-pouch” from the medical team. There was an undertone in what they said and did that insinuated the j-pouch was the more ideal situation and that I should clearly want to go that route. At the time, I was still regularly following most professional medical advice and didn’t really question it. But the option to keep the ostomy was never really discussed and it was always assumed I would reverse it.”

Jasmine: “Because I was young, otherwise healthy, and it had been confirmed many times through testing that I had ulcerative colitis, rather than Crohn’s disease, my doctors said I was a great candidate for j-pouch surgery. In general, my surgeon told me that close to 90% of j-pouch surgeries are successful, and I felt confident trying based on my background and the conversations with my medical team. By the time I’d had surgery, I’d only had ulcerative colitis for three years and had been in remission for two of them. The j-pouch felt like the best avenue for a life as close to normal as possible given the circumstances, and at 22, with (hopefully) a lot of life ahead of me, that sense of normality was important to me.”

How it felt leading up to reversal

Jackie: “I kept reading about all the things that could go wrong and it really freaked me out. I knew people personally who had some complications and it made it seem less like a potential statistic and more like a reality. The reality is that more people do well but are not often talking about it online. At that time there weren’t enough stories about people thriving after j-pouch surgery. I knew what life with the ostomy was like and I knew I could do that. Welcoming another major surgery and another major change just seemed really overwhelming.”

Jackie started the process in March 2010. She unfortunately had a few complications along the way which resulted in more surgeries and a longer sequence to the j-pouch, so her takedown occurred in mid-2012.

Jasmine: “I often worried something would go wrong that would prevent me from getting a j-pouch. Everything that could go wrong had gone wrong for me to even end up 22 and colon-less, and it was hard for me to imagine something could go “right.” I felt very distrustful after the variety of promises made to me by my medical team over the past year that never came to fruition and struggled with cynicism about what might happen. Coupled with all the negativity online about life with a j-pouch, I became very apprehensive about something either going wrong with my surgeries or my j-pouch failing.”

Jasmine’s j-pouch was created in December 2020 with a diverting loop ileostomy and was fully connected in February 2021.

Dani: I had read about ‘butt burn’ and that when you first get a j-pouch you are going to the bathroom frequently, so I was concerned about that. I had just gotten used to being able to go where I wanted and not worry about the bathroom, and I was concerned that I was going to be putting myself back into a position where I was more limited.”

What j-pouch recovery was like

Jackie: “The takedown was one of the easier surgeries to recover from for me because that was the only thing they were doing in that surgery. Sometimes surgeons combine steps that can make certain parts more difficult to recover from, but for me it was just hooking up the plumbing, which had already been healing internally for months. Despite the complications I had that resulted in more surgery, it gave my body more time to heal, which I think is part of why my j-pouch has been so successful. The hardest part was understanding that the j-pouch can take a year or so to settle, which means you may still have some accidents here or there in the beginning. It wasn’t an immediate magical fix, but over time I learned to understand my j-pouch and to predict its behaviors.”

Jasmine: “J-pouch recovery is an exercise in endurance and mental fortitude, but I didn’t find it as terrifying as it seemed from reading online. From the beginning, I felt like I had far more control than I did with ulcerative colitis. There was almost no urgency, and I could take a minute or two to finish what I was doing before going to the bathroom, rather than having to drop everything and run. Although you do go to the bathroom quite often at the start, having that control makes a huge difference. One of the harder parts of recovery is the acidic stool – waste in the small intestine has more stomach acid in it, which usually gets broken down by the colon, however, without a colon, that acid creates burning on the skin. My skin was constantly raw and sore the first few weeks no matter how much butt cream or fluffy toilet paper I used. Sometimes the burning pain was so bad it would wake me up at night, but now, almost two years out, I rarely have butt burn.”

Aimee: “This was the hardest surgery because it was so long and so much handling of my intestines, my bowel lost function, so I vomited for eight days after my surgery. My doctors considered TPN, but luckily peristalsis started again, and I could eat!

Elissa: “Honestly, recovering from surgeries itself wasn’t too bad, especially after years of IBD flares. Getting rid of my colon provided almost immediate relief. I just had to be patient and let my body heal.”

Dani: “The recovery was the easiest in terms of there weren’t new incision spots. I had to get used to seeing my stoma hole as it closed in naturally and I was still very sore. I also was going to the bathroom frequently and wasn’t sleeping through the night for the first few weeks, which was hard. I was frustrated that I felt like I always needed to be near a bathroom, but that feeling was temporary. “

Pros and Cons of life with a j-pouch

Jackie: “Honestly…it has been so good. I have a total rockstar j-pouch. I eat anything I want (popcorn? yes! all the nuts? yes! spicy food? Yes, please!), I can hold my bowels for hours upon hours. I rarely have any urgency and in general have peace of mind that I can live my life, go where I want, and UC no longer can control that. The cons exist, but for me, they’re small. I’ve had pouchitis a few times, which feels like UC again, but it’s treated with antibiotics and then you’re back on your feet! I have accidents at night maybe once a year. I still use the bathroom more often than a person without IBD, but it’s mostly because I choose to for peace of mind. My digestive tract in no way resembles a normal one, it’s different how everything works now, but it’s not a detriment in my life.”

Jasmine: “My j-pouch has given me a level of freedom I never thought I’d experience with IBD. I don’t currently take any medications, and I don’t worry about flaring or failing a medication the way I would with my colon. Although I know there’s always the possibility of needing medication in the future, I’ve been given more freedom and autonomy over my life than I ever thought possible. I eat what I want when I want. I sleep through the night. I sit through meetings and classes without thinking about the bathroom. I go out with friends, travel, and exercise. For me, the j-pouch has brought me closer to my pre-IBD or deep remission self than anything else, and although there are permanent tradeoffs to having such major surgeries, I don’t regret my decision in the slightest. There is an adjustment phase and a new normal, but that new normal has enabled me to integrate IBD my life, rather than having my life completely consumed by my illness.”

Aimee: “I have had fistulae since at the anastomosis, so they have been tricky to manage, but Humira has been wonderful to me, keeping them at bay and giving me energy to live a full life. I also need to have the scar tissue at the anastomosis stretched surgically every 6 months.”

Elissa: “J-pouch life has been amazing! I was in the bathroom 20+ times a day before my surgeries and felt like a shell of a human being. I’m now 42 and have had my j-pouch for 22 years. I can do pretty much anything a “normal” healthy person can do, just need to take occasional extra precautions like electrolyte replenishment or dealing with occasional pouchitis or Crohn’s flares. (My Crohn’s diagnosis came after my j-pouch surgery).”

Dani: “The first few weeks/months with a j-pouch were tough. Your body needs to figure out how to function with a new man-made organ. I was only comfortable laying down for the first few weeks after the surgery. I really hit a turning point when I was able to start taking Imodium and Metamucil. They were helpful for me in the first few months and now I don’t need them. Three months after my final surgery, I had moved out of my house and was starting a new full-time job. So, the initial discomfort and increase in bowel frequency were very temporary!!”

What j-pouchers wish they knew prior to their reversal

Jackie: “I always say its trading a large set of problems for a smaller, more manageable set of problems. UC was awful for me and ended up being life threatening. It was no way to live. My j-pouch has given me my life back, but it’s not a cure. It’s not perfect. I still have some small problems here and there, but it’s all manageable and in no way resembles life before surgery.”

Jasmine: “It’s hard to find information on j-pouches, and I think many of us turn to the internet to learn about what life with one might be like. I personally found the internet to contain a lot of negative information, making me more fearful going into the surgeries than I would have been had I just listened to my surgeon. I would recommend limiting time spent online and trying to connect with individuals who have j-pouches/ostomies through your doctor or the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation. These resources provide a more accurate peek into life with a j-pouch and can allow you to ask questions and connect with someone who’s been through the same thing. Most people who are healthy aren’t online complaining about their j-pouch, which skews the sample of information accessible to the rest of us. Whenever I started to feel overwhelmed by everything online, I reminded myself of something a nurse once said to me: the internet is a showcase of the best and the worse situations, more often than not, you’ll end up somewhere in-between.”

Aimee: “I was told this would be the end of treatment and medicine which wasn’t the case. As I had Crohn’s, not UC, I had many more hurdles ahead. Also, a new pouch is new so it’s behavior post op, is not your life. Your body adjusts to the pouch and output goes slower as the post-op weeks go by. The j-pouch is an alternative to an ostomy bag, but has to be adjusted to also. It’s different from having your colon. After a few months though, you will have longer periods between toilet runs and sleep through the night. I go 11pm to 6am with no pooping, which is so much better than those few months post-op when I thought oh dear, this is hard!”

Elissa: “When I had my surgeries, I was 20. No doctors discussed potential fertility issues. My daughter was born via IVF 9 years ago, though all additional efforts have failed. This is something I wish I had known about – I always wanted kids and would have frozen my eggs. Obviously, every person is different. Also, I still go to the bathroom 6-7 times a day. This is apparently normal (though again, everyone has different experiences).”

Dani: “I can eat salad for dinner with no problem!”

Advice for ostomates on the fence about going for a j-pouch

Jackie: “If you feel healthy and strong both physically and mentally, I would say, try it. I know it’s more complicated than giving a new restaurant a try, but I knew that I’d always have wondered. I knew on the bad days I would have idolized a life with a j-pouch, and I needed to know that it either would or wouldn’t work. I felt like the worst-case scenario was that my j-pouch would fail, and I’d return to an ostomy, which I already knew I could do, and I liked those odds.”

Jasmine: “I think it’s a personal decision dependent on the history and circumstances of each person’s illness. Going through the j-pouch surgeries means additional time spent in the hospital and recovering, which is worth it for some, but not others. Although I can share my experiences, everyone’s body is different, and you can’t always predict how someone else will respond. I think the best thing to do is find a colorectal surgeon skilled in these procedures and discuss whether they think you’re a viable candidate. Finding a skilled surgeon is the best way to hedge against future problems and increase chances of success. Beyond that, I would advise talking to as many people as possible with a j-pouch and permanent ostomy, to get questions answered and hear the pros and cons of each route. Having this information should help you feel more confident in your decision, and if you’re still undecided, you can always put off the decision until you’re ready.”

Aimee: “Tell them to get support, don’t expect instant results, give yourself time to adjust to yet another way of going to the toilet…reach out to the online community.”

Dani: “I think this is a very personal decision and there is validity to both sides. An important thing for me was to remember that people are more likely to write online if they have a bad outcome rather than a good outcome. Everyone’s instinct is to research things online and at some point, I felt like reading everything (both good and bad) was too overwhelming.”

Post-op expectations with a j-pouch

Like any surgery, recovery takes time and patience. The Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation shares the following on their website:

  • Some patients may experience an increased number of bowel movements, sometimes up to 12 times per day. This will typically decrease over time.
  • Some male patients may experience sexual dysfunction as a result of nerve damage.
  • Some female patients may develop scar tissue that surrounds their ovaries and fallopian tubes, which may lead to infertility.
  • Both men and women should discuss sexual function with their surgeon and ask when it is safe to resume sexual activity.
  • Ask your healthcare providers what supplies you may need at home, especially if you have a temporary ileostomy.
  • Your healthcare team will advise you on how to manage your temporary ostomy and how to keep it clean.

Final Thoughts

Jackie: “This is a weird one, but I had to use brain power the first time I had to poop after my takedown. It had been almost 2 years since I had used my butt, and I had to really think about how to use those muscles again. It was a little funny at the time.” 

Jasmine: “In terms of recovery, the most important thing to remember is j-pouch surgery completely alters one of the body’s major systems and adjusting takes significant time. Recovery doesn’t happen overnight, and it can feel frustrating. I tried to give my body some grace and the time it needed to heal, while reminding myself that life with a j-pouch during the first few week’s post-op isn’t indicative of what living with a j-pouch will be like long-term.”

Aimee: “It’s a journey. I have a few good months, a few bad months. Part of me knows that quality of life could be better with an ostomy, but I’m not ready to say goodbye to my pouch yet. I have been unlucky with the scar tissue, but those small procedures are like going to the dentist for me, I’m so used to them.”

Elissa: “Do it! Healing takes time, but you will feel like a new person. Life is too short to be in pain all the time. So many improvements have happened over the past 10-15 years and awareness is absolutely the key. “

Dr. Holubar wants to remind patients, “The J-pouch cannot save your life – it is a lifestyle operation like cosmetic surgery in some way. Overall quality of life is excellent with both a pouch and with a permanent end ileostomy. Finally, we should think of surgery as an excellent “medical” therapy in patients suffering from colitis despite modern medicines. One of my expressions is that a good ileostomy (or pouch) is better than a bad colon, rectum, or anus (and a good ileostomy is better than a bad pouch). The great news is you cannot make a wrong choice.”

The Disability Showdown: How those with IBD in the US can get the benefits they need

This article is sponsored by Atticus. All thoughts and opinions are my own.

Navigating federal disability like Social Security Disability Insurance or Supplemental Security Income with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) can be complicated and overwhelming. Those with chronic illness in the United States face roadblocks when it comes to being on the receiving end of benefits. Did you know 80% of people are denied the first time they apply for federal disability benefits and an astounding 90% are denied during the next stage of appeal?!

This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s we hear from Sarah Ashmore, an attorney at Atticus who has Crohn’s disease. The firm’s core mission is to “tear down barriers between people in crisis and the aid they need.” The social safety nets that exist are quite difficult to access. Atticus strives to help people in the IBD community and beyond get the assistance they deserve.

Juggling a flare and disability benefits 

Since being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2005, luckily, I’ve only needed to utilize short term disability through my former employer after my small bowel resection. In the moment, surgery recovery and dealing with Human Resources unexpectedly from my hospital bed was stressful. I went from speaking at an all-employee event to blacking out from abdominal pain in the bathroom and going to the hospital. When I left my work office in July 2015, little did I know I would not be healthy enough to return for more than two months. 

At the time, I was completely naïve to short term and long-term disability benefits and how to get the support I needed to fully recover from surgery and maintain my position at work, while receiving a portion of my salary. I was like a fish out of water, learning as I went. I received my benefits and didn’t have issues, but that’s often not the case. Luckily, I’ve never needed to explore this further, so I did not need to utilize Atticus’ services.

Sarah’s experience

Sarah was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2019 after dealing with symptoms for a year that left her feeling weak and powerless.

At the end of that year, my symptoms were so severe that I had to take short-term leave from my job and move in with my family to help take care of me: I was so sick that I couldn’t wash my dishes,” she said.

Sarah applied for short-term disability while awaiting her official diagnosis. Thankfully, once she received her IBD diagnosis and was put on medication, she was able to return to her old lifestyle and work.

“I think one of the biggest roadblocks is that applying for benefits requires organization, persistence, and patience and trying to access them on your own while dealing with the types of symptoms from an illness or injury that make it difficult for you to work can be extremely hard. I needed that support from my family and friends while I was applying for short-term disability and, for many people, applying for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is a harder and longer process.”

What makes someone eligible for disability? 

There are multiple options and they get confusing fast! You may wonder Which Benefits Do I Qualify For? Both short-term and long-term disability are often private insurance policies, while SSDI and SSI are provided by the government. 

Short-term disability, like what Sarah and I accessed, is generally private disability insurance that you purchased or was provided by your employer before you became disabled. It normally lasts 3-6 months and pays a percentage of your salary. There are also five states that offer short-term disability separately from private short-term disability. Long-term disability is very similar to private short-term disability, but it often pays a smaller percentage of your salary and, of course, lasts longer than private short-term disability. 

Social Security Disability Insurance and Social Security Income are both federal programs and, really, where Atticus can help. 

“Both Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Social Security Income (SSI) are federal programs designed for people with a diagnosed medical condition that will prevent them from working for at least 12 months. The technical eligibility (such as how much money you make or your age) is different for each program, as is what a beneficiary gets. The medical eligibility for both programs is the same: you must have a diagnosed medical condition that will keep you from working (although you can do some limited work) for at least a year,” explained Sarah.

The rules around eligibility are quite intricate and there are exceptions, if you are struggling to work due to your chronic condition or disability, make sure to talk to a lawyer about your specific situation to see if you’re eligible for coverage.

For SSDI a person should generally be making less than $1,350.00/month at a job, be younger than 66, and have worked about five of the last ten years. If you are awarded benefits, you get Medicare and up to $3,300.00/month depending on your work history. 

For SSI, a person should generally be receiving less than $841.00/month from any source of income and have less than $2,000.00 in assets (not counting things like your home) if you are single. The income and asset limits are a bit higher for married couples. If a person is granted SSI, they get Medicaid and up to $841.00/month depending on your sources of income. 

You can apply for both programs at the same time, and, in some cases, a beneficiary can be on both programs at the same time. 

“While there are general rules for eligibility, the evaluation is involved and there are exceptions to the rules, so please reach out to us at Atticus to determine your eligibility because we can offer individualized advice based on the specifics of your situation,” Sarah said.

Dealing with the disability denial and when to seek counsel

Getting an initial denial does not mean that you won’t get benefits or that you have a bad disability case. Don’t let this stop you from going through the process. If you get a denial, Sarah tells me you should request reconsideration within 60 days. This is when it’s optimal to get legal counsel involved. The lawyers at Atticus can walk you through the next steps in detail and get you connected with someone who can help you.

 “Ideally, legal counsel would not be necessary for getting disability benefits but, unfortunately, many people do need it. Although having a lawyer can be helpful at any stage of the process, if you are at the hearing stage, you are three times more likely to get benefits if you have an attorney or legal representative with you. Good lawyers will have the experience to understand what the Social Security Administration is looking for when determining whether to grant benefits: they should understand what documents you will need and what questions you will need to answer to help your application,” she said. 

Why Atticus is completely free to clients

All SSDI and SSI attorneys and legal representatives get paid on contingency, so they only get paid if they win their client’s case. If they don’t win, the attorneys (and Atticus) get nothing. The federal government actually sets how much an SSDI/SSI attorney can get paid so it is the same across the board: 25% of only the first check that someone gets from the Social Security Administration should they win their case, capped at $7,200.
 
“Atticus gets paid by the attorneys that we refer a case to the same way the attorneys get paid by the Social Security Administration. If the attorney or legal representative wins, we get 25% of whatever the attorney got from SSA. That is never passed on to the client (so the amount of money taken out of the client’s first check is always the same). Getting paid this way allows us to provide free advice and resources to folks we speak with whether or not they are eligible, want an attorney, or end up using our services,” Sarah explained.

Click here to connect directly with an attorney at Atticus.

Coming to grips with the emotional struggle of realizing you need help

The stress of life and career can make this entire ordeal feel endless. As we all know it can be humbling to have to express how sick you are to those who often don’t understand the severity and complexity of IBD. There’s no need to suffer. There’s no need to be a martyr. Recognize when you need to wave the white flag and realize needing disability, whether SSDI, SSI, or short term does not make you less than your co-workers or peers.

Much like myself, Sarah and I don’t consider our Crohn’s a “disability” per se, but we did know that we could not work or live the way we were when we needed support. 

“It’s a common theme we hear a lot from our clients. Especially if they don’t identify with the term ‘disability;’ or if someone feels like they are taking a government hand out after spending years working hard to make it on their own. SSDI is forced insurance designed for people who can’t work due to an injury or illness. Most workers have been paying into it every time they get FICA taxes taken out of their paycheck. It is designed to be there when you need it. If you would feel comfortable using private insurance, you should feel comfortable using SSDI. Asking for help can be hard but doing it can be so good for you in the long run,” she said.

Demystify the process of applying for disability benefits

Atticus’ goal is to get as many eligible people connected with federal disability benefits (SSDI and SSI) as they can. 

“We function as the equivalent of a patient navigator for anyone in the disability application process. We are like a primary care physician, but for legal issues: someone will often come to us and say something like “I have this medical condition or had this injury; I can’t work anymore, and I am not sure what to do next,” Sarah said. 

When someone calls Atticus for assistance, they will speak with an intake specialist who can help determine what benefits they are eligible for and recommend next steps.

If you want to continue the application process on your own, Atticus can provide resources and input on next steps for applying (for example, letting folks know they should get specialist care and then call back or apply).

“We give out our Guide to Applying for SSI to folks doing their initial SSI application. If they are not eligible, we can often point them in the right direction for other resources they may be looking for (for example, help with housing or signing up with Medicaid).”

If you are eligible and want legal help for the process, Atticus connects you with a legal representative or attorney who they think would be a good fit based on the specifics of their case, such as: location, case stage, medical condition, etc. 

“We only work with attorneys that we have hand-picked and vetted. Those attorneys and legal representatives don’t pay to join our network or sign up for a membership with us; we thoroughly vet every lawyer and representative we work with and form relationships with only those we trust and respect,” Sarah explained.

Testimonials from IBD warriors

Jeremiah: “I have been dealing with IBD for 13 months. Atticus was able to help me with my legal issues while I was too sick to fight for my own rights. I was able to receive the best representation while becoming healthy again. They fought for me and today I am receiving SSI and disability for my condition. These programs are dedicated to people like us, who are suffering. Now I do not have to fear the future or what I will do when I flare again. I’m able to focus on my health and live my life. I urge anyone to ask for help, it’s out there. Atticus is one phone call or e-mail away.”

Joni: “I was diagnosed with Crohn’s almost 2 years ago, but lived with IBD for years not knowing what it was. Treatment is not 100% as I still tend to get flare ups that usually put me in a hospital, missing work. With that and other health issues, I decided to apply for SSD, being denied twice, I reached out to Atticus to get legal help/representation. I emailed them and within an hour they reached out. By the end of the day, I had an attorney representing me. They’ve been a great and fast help! Very professional!”

Helpful resources

A Registered Dietitians’s Take: Diet vs Medicine for IBD

Managing and treating inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) with medication is often necessary for those who live with Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis. But for many, it’s a difficult decision that often comes with pushback and worry. This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s we hear from well-respected registered IBD dietitian and ulcerative colitis patient extraordinaire, Stacey Collins, about how she breeches this subject with patients and caregivers and how she utilizes her own patient journey to help empathize with those who are struggling to take the plunge.

Holding space and helping patients accept their reality

When it comes to needing medication, oftentimes conversations are harder on parents or caregivers, than the patients themselves. Stacey tries to encourage caregivers to find the support they need to accept the reality of their loved one needing medication to have a quality of life.

She says, “If someone wants to work with me on their nutrition “instead of medication,” I try to understand where the person is coming from. Usually, it’s from a place of fear, or uncertainty, and I really affirm that experience and hold space with them. Medications, side effects, accessibility, and adherence…it can all be so…heavy. There’s plenty of room to hold those two truths: meds are hard. And they’re often necessary.”

Stacey says when having these conversations she always begins with listening and holding space and then she puts her clinical hat on to ensure that it’s understood that these diseases are progressive and inflammatory, and that science shows that it’s best to get ahead of the inflammation, often with a medical provider, rather than chasing down the symptoms and the inflammation while quality of life suffers.

“I see my role as a registered dietitian as supportive of both treatment goals: helping patients have a quality of life, while assisting with the inflammation. But, I can’t provide medical nutrition therapy without the medicine component, and since diet isn’t ultimately the cause of these diseases, it works best as a complementary therapy with the support of a GI team; not as a cure.”

If patients aren’t trusting of their GI provider, Stacey tries to encourage them to seek out an IBD-specific GI doctor, if possible, while ensuring there’s also frequent follow-up with their local GI team, if they’re living somewhere rural. She says a lot of these conversations are born out of not feeling supported by GI providers, so she tries to help patients find GI’s who specialize in IBD, who are that are a better match.

“I’m upfront about not feeling comfortable about using nutrition in lieu of medication. That puts a lot of non-evidence-based pressure on my job as a dietitian, removes a lot of joy from the experience of eating, and further perpetuates the stigma associated with medicine. IBD is not a preventative metabolic disease, and patients should never feel blamed for eating their way into an autoimmune disease diagnosis. It’s simply not true, and it’s harmful messaging.”

How Stacey’s IBD journey inspired her to become a registered dietitian
 

At the time of her IBD diagnosis, Stacey was desperate for anything to stay alive. So, when it was either steroids, a biologic infusion, or having her colon removed, she was thankful the outcome wasn’t terminal.

“I happily agreed to the meds without even thinking about it. Within a month, I felt like a “normal” college student again, and honestly the changes that I experienced within my body due to the disease itself (losing my long, thick hair in clumps from malnutrition; seeing my body change rapidly to look emaciated), were far more difficult than any side effects from the medication. I felt like it was very much a night-to-day scenario, and I was so grateful for the medications as a result.”

But once she started feeling a little bit better and opened up to some family members about her disease, she heard a lot of negative chatter about the aggressive nature of the IV meds that she had “chosen” and thought, “Hmm. Maybe I’ll try juicing and holistic wellness,” never mind the fact that she was 21 years old with no professional support in making that decision.

“I quickly ended up hospitalized and needing an emergency Remicade infusion (the good ole days when hospitals kept it stocked in their pharmacy). The attending GI doc gave me some tough love, and really took the time to explain to me how “this is lifelong” and “you can’t be late on an infusion, because your immune system will lose response to the medication” and that really clicked for me. It was a hard moment and a tough pill to swallow, but it was a lesson of “maybe my well-meaning family members don’t know what’s best for me, and I’m going to have to trust my body, this med, and this doctor.”

In the years after, she went on to lose response to medications, start new ones, and it was always a night-to-day scenario all over again.

“I think this black/white sort of dichotomy of my experience on and off medication helped me accept that this was my reality pretty easily compared to others’ experience perhaps where maybe they’re less sick and the meds (not to mention the insurance gymnastics required to obtain them regularly) might seem daunting and leave people thinking, “Do I really need this?”. I was able to truly see that meds (and a whole GI team advocating on my behalf repeatedly for access to them) absolutely are the reason I’m still here.”

The challenge of receiving infusions

Infusions were psychologically a little “icky” for Stacey at first. She went from being a young, fun college student on campus with peers one minute… to driving 5 miles away to an infusion center where she was the youngest by a longshot, usually next to someone twice her age receiving chemotherapy or dialysis, and then she would go back to campus and pretend like nothing had happened.

“My boyfriend at the time (now husband) and I had a favorite haunt: Homeslice Pizza in Austin, Texas. Before my diagnosis, we were there on a date, and I spent the whole time in the bathroom. This was one of those places where there’s only one toilet…so I’d immediately finish and get back into line for the bathroom.He was really kind and said, “It’s okay! We’ll take it to-go, and when you’re feeling better, we’ll come back and have a pizza day and celebrate!”

Stacey says they were both so grateful for the night-to-day improvement with medicine that they named infusion days “Pizza Days” and this gave her a reason to look forward to infusion days, instead of dreading them. Over the years, we started inviting our friends to “Stacey’s Pizza Day” everywhere we moved: from Austin to Houston to Oklahoma City, and her friends had so much fun celebrating her infusion schedule every 2, 4, 6, or 8 weeks.

Utilizing research to help back the need for medication

As a dietitian, medications are out of Stacey’s scope of practice. As a patient, she knows them to be helpful. She tries to connect patients to resources so they can make informed decisions for themselves with a GI team that they trust. Resources like the IBD Medication Guide on the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation’s website are really useful, as well as IBD And Me if patients and caregivers are having some cognitive dissonance about finding a biologic that feels right for them.

“Then I’ll ask them about what their takeaways were. Sometimes, talking out these conversations really helps patients find useful, effective ways to communicate to their GI doctor, so while I understand that it’s not my role as a dietitian to provide guidance on medication selection, I’m happy to help patients sift through what sort of questions or concerns they need to express to their GI doctor. So often as patients we brush off our concerns or our fears because we don’t want to be a bother, and I really encourage patients to have these hard conversations with their GI provider; A good doctor will want to know.”

Why taking medication is not the “easy way out”

It’s fine to struggle with medications; medications can be hard. It’s not fine to feel shamed out of using them under the dogma of gut-health and over-supplementing, and unfortunately there’s a lot of misinformation in the IBD space of people professing left and right how they’ve “healed their gut” naturally.

“I feel like I’m uniquely in the middle of loving the science of nutrition and needing modern medicine to still be here. For me, it’s been damaging and debilitating to also make society comfortable with my need for medicine for so many years until I learned to let that go. Now I speak up when I can if it’s worth my energy. There’s nothing easy about needing medicine for life to stay alive, and the people who say otherwise just haven’t seen that in their life, and that’s okay. It’s not okay for them to think their experience can be applied to all people with gut health issues though. Would also love to have clarification on “gut health.” IBS? SIBO? Constipation? Nervous stomach? Gas? IBD? These are different things that can’t have the same, convenient solution.”

How we can rely on nutrition as a valuable tool in managing our IBD

Stacey sees nutrition as the shiniest, easiest available tool in a toolbox full of other tools: mental health, sleep, pain management/PT/movement, medicine, and surgery.

“Sometimes when I work with IBD patients, nutrition is not even the most important tool- it just depends on what’s going on in each person’s life. Maybe surgery is the most important tool, or it’s mental health. Different life moments with IBD will require different tools, and while my obvious favorite tool is nutrition, the other tools mean a lot, too.”

Nutrition is a tool that is compatible with all the other tools, and nutrition interventions might take some fine-tuning, mindset shifts, and some tailoring to each person’s lifestyle. But the beauty is that it can be picked up as needed, and that’s nutrition’s superpower: it’s a tool, and it’s also a bridge for connection, safety, comfort, and a quality of life within the context of IBD.

“I teach my patients individualized nutrition for IBD as the remissive/relapsing beast that it is, not just for what it looks like during the time that I work with them.”

Stacey’s advice for patients

  • Expect non-linear. Try not to compare. Feel the feelings, let the energy and the emotion move through you whatever way it needs to, brace for impact, and know you’re still here. Make room in your day to celebrate a good one!
  • Recognizing there can be two dualities that are true. You can hate needing medicine and be grateful that they kept you alive. You can feel deep sorrow for losing your health before you were old enough to acknowledge its presence and embrace this new, unprecedented, post-op reality, even though it’s different than what you expected.
  • Embrace your emotions. You can cryabout the reality of having needed an ostomy and be thrilled to eat a chocolate croissant in a moving car without pain BECAUSE the ostomy granted you a pain-free eating experience. You can be fearful about choosing a j-pouch and celebrate that it’s possible and wild to live with one.
  • Resenting the diagnosis is normal. You can resent your IBD diagnosis and be grateful for who you are with it (and thankful for all the people you’ve met because of your diagnosis!).
  • Lean on support groups and the IBD family. The support groups through the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation have been helpful for a lot of Stacey’s friends, and for her personally. She’s a huge fan of Spin4 and Team Challenge. Finding a safe, welcoming community who gets your reality (wherever that may be!) can be powerful and uniquely helpful.

You Bring the Spoons, They Bring the Science: How ImYoo is Working to Change the Narrative of IBD 

This article was sponsored by ImYoo. All thoughts and opinions shared are my own.

Precision medicine is a common term we hear when it comes to treating IBD now and into the future. But have you heard about citizen science as it relates to IBD? Citizen science gives everyone a chance to play an active role in research. Whether that’s coming up with research ideas or taking part in the experiments themselves, citizen science makes it possible for you to have a direct impact. A company spun out of Caltech is taking citizen science to a whole new level. ImYoo is debugging the human immune system by using at-home blood collection kits and single RNA sequencing to discover insights about autoimmune diseases.

Tatyana Dobreva and her co-founder, David Brown, worked at NASA prior to switching gears from space to focus on biotech.

“The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the process and highlighted for us what was missing. Since the pandemic, people are paying more attention to their immune systems. Immunology is still as much a mystery as outer space, so that was the next frontier we wanted to get involved in. We feel that the best way to take on that challenge is by building a database across time, for every individual – that is what can make personalized medicine possible and that is why we’re so focused on making this research accessible.”

Since IBD presents uniquely in each person and changes over time, it’s a rollercoaster journey of highs to lows, flares to remission. With all the twists, turns, and complexities that ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s create for each of us in the patient community, following a roadmap can seem impossible.

“Precision medicine tries to apply scientific tools to take out some of this guesswork. A lot of those tools look at the genetic material you inherited from your parents. We’re adding another tool to that kit by looking at the expression of those genes. For IBD, we want to figure out which genes and cells are acting up during a flare,” said Tatyana.

By answering these key questions, clinicians have told Tatyana that it will help gastroenterologists make more informed decisions when it comes to treating and managing IBD and patients can feel more empowered every step of the way. While making the decision to start a biologic can be overwhelming for patients, precision medicine is a way to have powerful data to support the choice to move forward with that treatment plan.

Tracking the immune system over time 

ImYoo’s focus is tracking a person’s immune system over time. Researchers do this by looking at RNA expression. Tatyana shared a fantastic analogy with me. She said that DNA is like the menu you get at a restaurant, RNA is your order, and proteins are your final meal.

“There are a lot of companies that look at your blueprint, or in this case your menu – all the possibilities. Our team at ImYoo looks at your cells’ orders over time. That way we can capture how the different immune cells in your blood are changing,” said Tatyana. 

IBD flareups are of specific interest to both clinicians and patients. Even after living with Crohn’s disease for more than 17 years, the unpredictability of the disease is still one of my main struggles. The looming thoughts of a flare are always with you.

“There is not much literature on what happens in the immune system during a flare, and we think there are a lot of powerful biomarkers that could be discovered if IBD patients could track themselves during flares and when they feel “normal.” Our IBD study will ask IBD warriors to sample themselves both during and outside of flares,” said Tatyana.

ImYoo built a solid foundation for studying autoimmunity because researchers were able to build a database of “normal” immune systems.

“Being the first to do this for single-cell data means we can provide a helpful reference to enable more single-cell studies for the future. By having a large database of “healthy” immune systems, we can provide more context as to what having a flare means with respect to dysfunctional immune systems.”

How IBD Patients Can Participate

ImYoo’s IBD study was inspired by conversations researchers had across Reddit and in a Facebook group. Patients in the community offered invaluable insights about what to research.

Emily Harari works as a liaison between the scientific team at ImYoo and the patient community. She says if a person demonstrates interest in participating in the study, a screening process will take place to determine eligibility. 

If you qualify, you are enrolled under an ethics-approved study protocol and sent a kit that includes a virtually painless capillary blood self-collection device called TAP II. The device allows you to participate in immune studies in the comfort of your home and send capillary blood samples directly to the ImYoo lab. The TAP II is placed on the upper arm and sticks with the help of a gentle adhesive, it barely penetrates the inner layer of your skin and feels like a suction cup.

“For the IBD study, we ask you to collect a few samples when you’re feeling well and a few samples when you’re flaring. The TAP II device is virtually painless and takes just a couple minutes to use. You’ll mail us the tube of your sample with the packaging we provide. After several weeks we’ll report updates from the lab and several weeks after that we’ll release our study’s findings to the community. Since the community is crowdsourcing the study for us, the least we can do is share what we discover. For example, we may find a new gene or an immune cell marker that helps your doctor better treat your flares,” said Emily.

The Power of Crowdsourcing 

The best part about a crowdsourced study is that anyone can make a difference. By visiting the ImYoo crowdsourcing page and selecting “Participate in this Study!” you are making a powerful impact. The more people with IBD who join, the more attention we can attract for crowdfunding. 

“If you’re eligible for the IBD study, we’ll reach out after we’ve hit our crowdfunding goal. To help us reach our goal, you can express an interest to participate or pitch in a donation to one of our Champions’ campaigns. There’s a network effect we’re going for, one person tapping into their community can open so many doors.”

If you’ve ever been told your labs or scopes look normal or there’s nothing more to do when you’re suffering through IBD, it’s simply not true. Everyone is on their own health journey and deserves a chance to take control of it. 

“That’s why ImYoo is excited to put innovative science in peoples’ hands. This research isn’t possible without the IBD community, which is why we invite IBD Warriors to pitch in however they can – skip a coffee and donate $5, express interest to participate, or simply share to your network,” said Emily.

“Our goal is to empower the IBD community with more powerful tools. One of the biggest questions we hear from IBD folks is, “Am I in remission yet?” You might be feeling fine and think you’re good, meanwhile your immune system could be attacking your colon,” explained Tatyana. “We hope to help people track their immune systems when they are most vulnerable.”

By enabling the IBD community to crowdsource our own studies, the power is in our hands. ImYoo wants to explain their research findings every step of the way and keep people engaged, because it really is a partnership. From this IBD study, the ImYoo team wants to prove that the IBD community can make their own research happen. By studying flares, the hope is that sequencing the state of individual immune cells will uncover predictors and targets for more accessible precision medicine.

Connect with ImYoo, Follow and Participate in the Research

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What four educators have learned about life in the classroom with IBD

Life with IBD impacts our careers in many ways. Our disease can often dictate what path our future takes. As students, teachers, and families gear up for another school year, I thought it would be interesting to hear from educators who have IBD about what it’s like to lead a classroom while living with an unpredictable chronic illness. This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s hear the inspiring stories and perspectives of four unsung heroes who don’t allow their IBD to rob them of their career aspirations.

Sarah Rife has been a teacher for seven years, she’s also an IBD mom and an ostomate. She’s currently teaching eighth grade math in the Chicagoland area, but previously taught high school Geometry and Algebra.

“I have taught through many highs and lows Crohn’s wise. For the first 5 years, there wasn’t a single year that I didn’t use every single sick day I had (and then some unpaid days). I believe four out of five of those first years, I had at least one hospitalization where I missed consecutive days, as well. In this time, I was on four different medications and tried a clinical trial.”

While this was going on Sarah says she rarely ate at school and if she did, she stuck to 3-4 “safe foods” to help get through the day.

“I constantly taught with an escape plan in the back of my mind. You can’t just leave a room full of 28-32 kids sitting unsupervised, so I constantly had to think about things like ‘Who will I have cover my class?’ ‘What if I am gone more than 5-10 minutes?’ ‘What can they work on that they will know how to do if I have to step out in the middle of teaching them something new?”

Sarah is open about her IBD with students and their families and says having IBD has made her a more compassionate educator since she understands when students need to miss school.

“When I was younger, I was the student missing multiple days of school. I remember the things that some of my favorite teachers did that helped me to not stress when I felt like I had mountains of missing work. Whenever I have a student gone for health reasons, physical or mental, my standard answer when they come back is “Worry about everything else first, and then I’ll talk to you about what we can do to bring you up to speed in math class. Don’t stress, I will work with you on it.”

One year while being evaluated by her principal during a drop-in visit. He walked into her room, sat down, and started typing. He was aware of her Crohn’s, but Sarah panicked when she knew she needed to make a mad dash to the bathroom while he was in her classroom observing her.

“I ended up going over to him and asking “I really need to step out and use the bathroom. Do you want me to grab someone like I usually do, or do you just want to watch them since you are here” He agreed to watch them, and I ran out to go to the bathroom. Whenever I had to step out, I was also conscious of what time it was. This time, there were about 30 minutes of class left. In my head, I needed to get back ASAP because THE PRINCIPAL was in there and he was supposed to be observing me. When I heard the bell ring and I was still on the toilet, I panicked – I’m talking instant tears. I was able to finish and tried to hurry back to my room. My path crossed his on the way back and I started to say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know I would be that long.”

Sarah says her mind was racing with crazy thoughts about her abilities as a teacher and what she was capable of. The principal could see she had been crying and more tears were starting to fall, and he interrupted her and said, “Sarah, I am not worried about it. This is your third year here and we know this happens. I am worried about what I see when you are able to be in the classroom and what I saw meets and exceeds our expectations. Please don’t worry about it.” – This reassured her so much more than even he will ever know, but the story replays in her head every time an administrator pops in her room for an unannounced observation – even 4 years later.

When Sarah taught high school, she was nowhere near remission, forcing her to be extremely transparent with her students.

“I told them that I had a disease called Crohn’s and that in a nutshell, my immune system was attacking itself, specifically my intestines. They knew that me having to step out of class and disappear to the bathroom was a possibility and witnessed it multiple times a week, sometimes in the same class period. They were also aware that often these bathroom breaks would result in pain, nausea, and exhaustion.”

Whenever Sarah would have an episode, she says the students went above and beyond to be empathetic and understanding.

“I had students volunteer to work out examples on the board so I could sit down, and they were extremely good at switching gears and changing the plan if I needed to do something with less walking around, standing, or talking – for example work on a worksheet instead of doing notes or bringing questions to me at my desk over me walking around offering help. I really do think high school students are more resilient and compassionate than people give them credit for.”

Since her ostomy surgery, Sarah’s life in the classroom has changed for the better.

“I feel like a completely different teacher. My energy isn’t nearly as much of an issue, I can teach without constantly having an escape plan or worrying how long I’ll be stuck in the bathroom, I can eat lunch at school like a normal person, without worry or only packing the same 3 things, and for the first time in my teaching career, I had paid sick days left at the end of the year. I had a chance to worry about the content I was teaching first and my health second, which I had never been able to do in the past.”

Sadly, this past week, Sara’s ostomy leaked while she was in the middle of teaching 30 thirteen-year-old students. Luckily, she works less than one mile from home so she yanked her shirt down as far as it could go and told the admin she’d be back in 15 minutes.

Sara Margolin of New York has been a professor of psychology for 15 years, with a focus on neuropsychology, cognition, and aging. She says her experience with ulcerative colitis and two other autoimmune conditions has made her more understanding toward her students.
Sara says, “Robin Roberts said it best, “everybody has something.” And she’s right. I’m not the only person with a chronic illness. Many of my students struggle or someone they love struggles. Understanding that they deserve the compassion that I wish to have has only made me a better professor.”

Sara has had to leave the classroom on multiple occasions to urgently use the bathroom.

“I will either quickly show a film if I have one at hand or pretend to get a call from my children’s school and “need to leave to take it.” But in my smaller classes, where the discussion leads us there — in the discussion of medical trials, medications for chronic illness, or psychological issues stemming from chronic illness, I’ve discussed my condition. And there have been a handful of students over the years who have been diagnosed while in my class, and I share with them that I understand what they are going through. We bond over that.”

Now that classes are back to in person this fall, she has some concerns knowing she is not fully in remission and not able to teach remotely anymore.

“When I was teaching at home, I had a time or two where I turned my camera off and taught from the bathroom…. EEK! … and knowing that I may be in the position to need to do that but not be able to is nerve wracking. But I know that my colleagues will fill in for me if I do need them to.”

Madison Laspisa of New York has taught fourth grade for four years. She was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in June 2020, during her first year of having her own classroom. Not only were schools shutting down when her severe symptoms began, but she was dealing with school closures and remote teaching, on top of being diagnosed with a chronic illness.

“My life was flipped completely upside-down to say the least. I was truly devastated at everything that was happening around me and to me. My first year in my own classroom should have been the most memorable part of my career (in a good way), but I sadly cannot say that. My life changed before I had a minute to truly process what was happening. However, since we were forced to stay home because of the Covid-19 pandemic I had the availability to see doctors and get procedures done as needed. Had it been a normal school year I would have had to take a leave of absence during my very first year of teaching.”

Since then, Madison says her IBD has impacted her experience as an educator in more ways than she’d like to admit.

“Aside from needing to take days off to receive my infusion, there have been days where I needed to take a last-minute half day because I desperately needed to see my doctor. At times, this can leave the main office scrambling to find a substitute for my class with an already existing shortage. Not to mention the schedule change my students have to now adjust to with their teacher leaving mid-day.”

Madison says the toughest challenge for her is the amount of time she needs to take off to receive her medication and meet with her care team. She does her best to schedule doctor appointments after school hours, but sometimes it’s not realistic. Right now, she receives her biologic every four weeks, which was changed from every eight weeks.

This required change in my treatment plan will now require me to miss time in my classroom with my students twice as often. It’s not as simple as “taking a day off” as it is very time consuming to create thorough substitute plans on the days, I am absent. It makes me feel like I’m a “bad teacher” because I have to take time away from my students and classroom. I feel guilty when I’m making substitute plans because I know I am going to be absent the next day and my students have no idea.”

Madison says the weight of the unpredictability of her Crohn’s makes her anxious. She worries about waking up one morning and not being physically able to go into work and do her job.

 “I love what I do with a passion and anything that can hinder my ability to do my job to the fullest breaks me. Having the summer months off allows me to slow down and take a break from my rigorous work schedule. In a sense, it provides me with some relief because I know being home, I don’t have to worry about missing work because of my IBD.”

Madison hopes that if someone reading this article aspires to work in education, that they don’t allow their IBD to deter them from taking the leap.

Teaching and being with my students is my escape from my reality with IBD sometimes. IBD has robbed me of so much and I refuse to let it rob me of my dream job. Do not let IBD dictate what you can and cannot do. Being a teacher and having IBD are both full-time jobs and can be extremely overwhelming at times but loving what you do makes all the difference.”

Krista Deveau has been a teacher in Canada for seven years, she recently became a mom and is an ostomate. She currently teaches kindergarten but has also taught third grade and worked as an intervention specialist helping students with literacy and numeracy. She started her teaching career three months after having a bowel resection surgery. She ended up landing back in the hospital three months later, weighing under 100 pounds, in one of the worst flares of her life.

My GI team told me that I had to work part time if I was able to or else my chances of being back in a hospital bed were quite high. Working part time has really given me a work- life balance where I can take care of my health and myself and also focus on my career.”

Prior to receiving her ostomy, Krista tells me it was difficult to teach, as she was having accidents almost daily and was vomiting in a garbage can outside of her classroom. During her first year of teaching, she had a meeting with an administrator after school and happened to have an accident. Krista had forgotten to bring a change of clothes.

“I was so embarrassed that I stayed behind my desk all afternoon so students couldn’t smell me. I cleaned up at recess as best as I could. After school I went to meet with admin and told them I had to leave because I had had an accident and didn’t have a change of clothes. I had already told them about my situation and how I was experiencing incontinence, so it wasn’t a big deal, but I was humiliated.”

Krista says teaching is a stressful and demanding job—and that it’s important to be honest with your admin team so there are no surprises along the way.

“Make sure to take care of yourself. Don’t stay late every day. Work smarter, not harder. Collaborate and share plans with other teachers so you aren’t reinventing the wheel. Lean on your coworkers. Find one good coworker friend that will have your back. Don’t work on weekends. Don’t take on too much of the extras, it’s okay to say no. Try to have a healthy work life balance. And find a school/school board that’s a good fit for you and where you feel supported.”

Helpful Tips for Educators with IBD

  • Be flexible and rework plans, not just in terms of being absent, but also what you can do instead if your energy level is too low to actively teach on your feet or if you need to talk for an hour straight multiple times a day.
    • For example: Create PowerPoint slides where every single step of a math problem animates itself with the click of a button so you can be sitting instead of standing up, exerting energy.
  • Teaching is a pleasant distraction. Teaching enables you to get your mind off your IBD and do what you love. Regardless of what you do professionally, your IBD is going to be a part of you, why let it take more from you than it already has? Enjoy the thing you can enjoy.
  • Make the appropriate accommodations for yourself. Once you are hired or work in a school district, provide school administrators with medical documentation as to why you are unable to work on a certain date. At the start of the school year, it can be helpful to turn in a letter stating your treatment plan along with a request to use the bathroom when needed stating your medical condition. Typically, teachers use the bathroom on their scheduled breaks, but this accommodation allows that in the event you need emergency use of a bathroom, someone will need to cover your class at any given time. This type of documentation for my district must be renewed every school year.
    • For example, if a typical teacher instructs five classes with an hour to plan and a 25-minute lunch, split with a 25-minute study hall, inquire about keeping your schedule consistent year after year and teaching two classes, then having a plan period, teaching two more classes, and then a ‘duty-free lunch’—meaning you get the entire 56 minutes for lunch, instead of having a study hall to give you a buffer for a bathroom trip along with minimal interruption to other classes.
    • Request a classroom close to a bathroom and department office so that there are people nearby in case you need someone to cover your class on a moment’s notice.
  • Try not to fear the worst. Being hospitalized is beyond your control and whether you have a chronic illness like IBD or not, life happens, and co-workers will need help from time to time. Rather than stress about who gave up what time to help you, focus on how to pay it forward and help other teachers when you feel well and when someone else is in need.
  • Teaching takes a village. Everyone is more than willing to help you out if you let them. Besides, it all becomes so much easier when you don’t feel like you must hide such a huge part of who you are. The sooner you realize people are willing to help you and you don’t have to try and keep it hidden, the easier teaching with IBD becomes.

Turning Over a New Leaf: The Lifestyle Changes This Single IBD Mom Made to Manage her Crohn’s

**Disclaimer: This article is in no way meant to offer medical advice or guidance. Medication to treat and manage IBD is NOT a failure. Please understand this is one person’s experience and journey. Prior to going off medication, consult with your gastroenterologist and care team.**

She was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 1991 at 19 years old. As a veteran patient and IBD mom of two teenagers, Kelli Young says the COVID-19 pandemic, along with turning 50, inspired her to dig deeper into her health journey and look beyond the “cookie cutter” approach to treating IBD. After multiple surgeries and decades of biologics and other medications, she was determined to try a different approach.

Much like many of us in the IBD community, we often choose to hide our disease from others. Kelli says 15 years of that strategy often left her feeling misunderstood. Once she started sharing and opening herself up to support, her world changed for the better. Anytime someone is sympathetic and says, “you poor thing,” Kelli reminds them that Crohn’s disease molded her in the person she is today and that everyone has problems, hers just happens to be IBD.

“Having lived more than half my life as an IBD patient, I knew I didn’t want to live the second half of my life the way I did the first half.”

Taking a closer look into food sensitivities

It’s no surprise the importance of diet has become a larger part of treating IBD in recent years, but there’s still a lot of gray area.

“Diet is often the one thing that the medical profession overlooks or provides the same generic diet to everyone, assuming everyone is the same. Diet is the #1 factor that affects your health in every way imaginable. Your energy, sleep, weight, sex drive, bowel movements, heart rate, and mood, just to name a few.”

Prior to changing her diet, Kelli connected with her longtime friend of more than 20 years, Dr. Sean Branham, a chiropractor who specializes in functional medicine. Dr. Branham ordered the Oxford Food Sensitivity Test. The test measures inflammation in the body on a cellular level. Food sensitivities are unique to each person, so it’s impossible to determine what your sensitivities are without getting tested. Reactions can also be delayed or be dose dependent.

Kelli says, “The Oxford Food Sensitivity Test looks at all types of white blood cells (Neutrophils, Lymphocytes, Monocytes and Eosinophils) and measures release of all pro-inflammatory chemicals like Cytokines, Histamines, Prostaglandins and Leukotrienes. Certain groups of foods are pro-inflammatory to humans because we may not contain all the enzymes to thoroughly break them down (like dairy). Other foods are pro-inflammatory because of their processing, like many different forms of sugar. Some are inflammatory due to genetic modification like gluten. Some healthy foods can create inflammation once digestive damage has been done and these partially digested foods leak across the digestive barrier and trigger an immune response.”

Customizing diet with Food Sensitivity results

Kelli’s tests results showed mushrooms, cashews, trout, mangos, green peas, coconut, among other foods, triggered an immune reaction. Once Kelli had her Food Sensitivity results in hand, her and Dr. Branham started to customize her diet.

“We first started by removing the bigger classes of pro-inflammatory foods like; dairy, sugar, gluten and soy and then assessed specific foods that were causing a problem for me individually.”

Along with removing these food groups from her diet, Kelli did a whole-body digestive cleanse that involved a specific diet with supplements, a shake, and a cream to rid the body the body of toxins, decrease inflammation, and cleanse the liver and digestive tract.

“Testing revealed that there were more than just digestive issues going on. I also had a blood sugar regulation problem, Estrogen dominance, nutrient deficiencies, a need for: digestive enzymes, immune support, and microbiome support. Once I completed the cleanse, we customized a supplement regimen specific to me based on my test results. We started with what Dr. Branham considered the most important things first and then as we corrected those issues, we moved on and tackled the next issue and so on.”

Celebrating a “new way of life”

As a single mom of a 19-year-old and a 16-year-old who have supported her through her IBD journey every step of the way, Kelli calls these lifestyle changes her “new way of life”.

When my son was between the ages of 8-12 years old, he was showing IBD symptoms, but he didn’t have IBD, he was experiencing empathic pains. He watched me, a single mother, battle with the daily struggles. I tried to hide it, but he saw right through me. Today he is 16, growing, thriving, and enjoying his healthy mother. My daughter, 19, the age at which I was diagnosed, is thriving as well. I am now able to truly be present in both of their lives.”

When Kelli and her husband divorced, her children were only 8 and 5 years old. As an IBD mom it made an already challenging time that much more complicated. She never dreamed she’d be at this place in her life health-wise.

“Back then I wondered how I was going to give myself my own shots, how I was going to care for two small children 50% of the time when I was always sick. Being a single mother with IBD forced me to take a good hard look at my life, not only for me, but for the sake of my children. My motto used to be “expect the unexpected” and “no expectations.” Today, I no longer worry about the future bad days or wonder if I’m going to be around to be a grandmother someday. Yes, it’s difficult at times to follow such a structured lifestyle, but it’s even more difficult living a life being chronically ill.”

Going off all meds

Kelli has been off all IBD medication since May 2021. She says her GI of 30 years is reluctantly supporting her decision to go this route on her patient journey. Kelli had a colonoscopy in June 2022, and after the scope in recovery he said, “Well Kelli, your new way of life is working. I’ve never seen your scope results look this good.”

While this lifestyle may seem “extreme” to some or difficult to follow, Kelli says she was sick and tired of being sick and tired.

“The definition of “remission” varies depending on who you ask. I am celebrating three years of a “disease free” diagnosis. The Crohn’s will ALWAYS be very much part of my life, but now, the only time I have a “bad day” is when I cheat on my new way of life, eating something I shouldn’t be eating, not getting enough sleep, not exercising, and not managing my stress.”   

A Special Report: Changes to Lights, Camera, Crohn’s

It’s been 6,207 days since my life changed forever. On July 23rd, 2005, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at age 21. Since that time, I’ve evolved and changed in ways I may not have if it weren’t for my IBD. After living in silence with my condition while working in television news for a decade, I decided to use my love for storytelling and speaking to be the voice I needed to hear upon diagnosis as I navigated the many crossroads of young adulthood (finding love, a fulfilling career, and having a family).

July 23rd also marks the day I launched my blog, Lights, Camera, Crohn’s. Since 2016, I have shared fresh content, every single Monday (sometimes even twice a week!). 336 articles on my site alone. More than a quarter-million visitors and more than 387,000 views.

It’s been a labor of love and a mission project that continues to fill my cup and implore me to constantly want to learn more and shed light on topics that are often not talked about. Every day of every week since my blog began, I’m constantly thinking about story ideas, topics of interest, people to interview, ways to word content, images that are needed…the list goes on.

This photo was taken at a wedding July 23, 2016, right after I pressed “Publish” on the first Lights, Camera, Crohn’s article. I found out I was pregnant two days later.

The weekend I started my blog in 2016, I was one month into married life and found out days later I was pregnant with my first child. Since then, I am now a stay-at-home mom of three children (ages 5, 3, and 1). Life has gotten way more hectic and busier with each year that passes, but I’ve held tightly onto fulfilling my promise to the patient community, and to myself, to deliver new content each and every week. I’ve been organized through the years—often having an article written days before my Monday deadline, but this past year, with another baby added to the mix, it’s been more of a stress on me. I’ve spent many Sunday nights finishing my articles. At times it’s felt like a lot to juggle. I haven’t wanted to let anybody down, including myself. And I haven’t wanted my content to start lacking in any way.

Don’t worry, Lights, Camera, Crohn’s is not going anywhere

My blog has grown into more than I ever thought possible. It’s so rewarding to know my words have helped comfort and guide so many in the IBD community. I need to cut myself some slack and give you a heads up that moving forward there may not always be an article on Mondays. It pains me to say that, but at this point in my life, in this season of IBD motherhood, I need to start taking time to rest and relax. Since having my third baby last summer, I get my kids down for the night and START to work around 830 pm. It’s just constant. I truly rarely get a break. I’ve been in remission since August 2015, and I don’t want the stress to get the best of me.

You may not be aware—but my blog is only one aspect of my advocacy work. I also spend a great deal of time working with digital healthcare companies, patient-centered non-profit organizations, sitting on advisory boards and patient engagement teams, communicating with patients in need online and over the phone, and do freelancing work on the side, all without childcare.

I laugh as I write this because I already have three articles lined up for August…so there will be months where there IS an article every Monday. Just not always. My commitment and desire to serve as a patient leader is not waning in any way—I just want to be honest with you, my loyal readers, that this mama needs to lighten the load and take a little self-imposed stress off my shoulders.

I started contemplating this a few months ago, and almost changed my mind this week about sharing, but it’s time. We had an AMAZING 6-year streak of constant new content. I’m excited to see what this coming year brings in the way of patient stories, research, and perspectives. Having extra time to work on articles will really allow me to do more special reports and expand my “IBD Motherhood Unplugged” and “Patient Experience” series.

Thank you for giving me so much to talk and write about, always. There are endless topics that need to be brought to the forefront and I love providing a platform for others to share their journeys and experiences with the community. As always, please reach out if you have a story idea you want me to cover. Lights, Camera, Crohn’s has truly evolved from being a blog about my IBD experience to an award-winning and well-respected site that has highlighted hundreds of different patient stories and physician perspectives—and I love that. There’s no greater compliment then when I hear a gastroenterologist uses my blog to educate their patients.

Excited to see what 2022-2023 brings! Thanks for the love, support, and understanding and for making the first six years of Lights, Camera, Crohn’s what it was.

-Natalie

Recognizing the touchpoints of independence along your IBD patient journey

Take yourself back to the very first time you needed medical attention for your IBD (but didn’t know it yet). Close your eyes for a moment. Who was that person? Do you know them anymore? How have you changed and transformed since that life changing day?

I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease July 23, 2005, at age 21. I was blindsided by a chronic illness after growing up as a literal picture of health. A three-sport, in shape athlete, who had never even had an ear infection or been to an emergency room. As a recent college graduate, my world flipped upside down as I struggled to find my way in the real world.

Now, 17 years later, I can tell you firsthand what I, you, and so many others have endured on our patient journeys and how each experience (even the mundane) serves as monumental touchpoints for gaining independence and confidence in making you a more empowered and direct patient. 

Let me paint the picture clearly for you

The first time you bravely laid in an emergency room bed and every time there after—not knowing the tests, pokes and probs, and physical scrutiny you were about to go through. 

How it feels to be wheeled by a stranger through stark hallways to CT scans, MREs, and scopes, wondering what the results will be on the other side and the repercussions for more medications, a longer hospital stay, or surgery.

The difference a couple months makes–pre-diagnosis in May 2005 and 2 months after 60 mg of prednisone a day and 22 pills a day.

What it’s like when you say goodbye to loved ones and they roll you into the OR and you’re shaking like a leaf, all alone and feeling frail and broken, alone with your thoughts and prayers.

The number of moments you’ve watched nurses and even rapid response nurses fumble with IV’s try after IV try and when it’s been more than five, you find your voice from that point forward and start only giving medical professionals two tries before it’s on to the next.

How it feels at the butt crack of dawn when the world is sleeping and the hospital is bustling, waking you abruptly to get more vitals and more labs and you lay alone, haggard, frustrated, and delirious. 

The moment when your GI has a heart to heart with you about starting a biologic and having to determine for yourself what route is your preference—infusion or self-injection. Would you rather sit for hours hooked up to an IV drip or sit on your couch with your kids looking on as you inflict pain on yourself. 

The times you’ve sat up in the middle of the night wide awake thanks to the prednisone kicking in while the rest of your world is asleep wondering if you’ll ever regain some semblance of control of life.

What it’s like trying to eat meals inconspicuously with your family while they not so subtly watch each bite and every trip to the bathroom with sadness and worry in their eyes.

How it felt driving to a first date or a job interview and feeling like your IBD is a dark secret looming over the conversation and not knowing when to take down your walls and share. 

Listening to your friends make comments about health and energy without considering what your experience with a chronic, debilitating illness may be like since you look well on the outside. 

What it feels like to look at your reflection in the hospital bathroom. Battered arms, sunken in eyes, a shell of who you used to be. But as soon as you walk out of the door, putting a soft smile on to protect your visitors from worry. 

What it’s like to sit on an airplane or be on a road trip with others and silently worrying about whether you’ll be able to make it and what your game plan will be. 

When you’re up in the middle of the night doing the second half of colonoscopy prep and wondering ‘why me’ in your 20s and 30s, feeling isolated in the physical, mental, and emotional anguish the process puts you through year after year. 

What you’ve internalized each time someone dumbs down your IBD, offers up ridiculous remedies or goes into a discourse about their aunt’s brother’s cousin who “healed” their Crohn’s this way. 

When you’ve waved the white flag and alerted family and friends that you needed help or to be seen in the hospital after doing as much fighting as you could against your own body.

The first time you bravely looked down at your incision and saw your body forever changed and came to see your scars as battle wounds. 

Waking up each day not knowing what the next 10 minutes will feel like for you and getting after it anyway. 

Not knowing if you’ll find your person, but meeting people and having the courage to share about your health issues, even if there are heartbreaks and disappointments along the way.

Deciding to have a baby and discussing family planning, despite all the what ifs and becoming a parent because that’s what you hoped for prior to your IBD. 

Landing that dream job with your IBD in your back pocket, not letting the detours stop you from finding the path you were meant to go on. 

Celebrate the independence you’ve discovered

The list goes on and on! No matter how old you are when diagnosed with IBD, in that moment we are robbed of our naivety and thoughts of invincibility, and we’re forced to go on a lifelong war and conquest. Our bodies no longer feel like ours. Our dreams feel in disarray. Our people may change and not be who you thought they were. Our hearts may break, but like a phoenix this disease can build you up just as much as it breaks you down. 

The reprieve of remission, while not perfect or without symptoms has enabled me to breathe and regain my grounding. In 2015, after three back-to-back bowel obstructions and 18 inches of my small intestine, Meckel’s diverticulum, and appendix removed, there was only one way to go and that was up. 

Give yourself grace. Celebrate the independence you’ve discovered that you may not be able to have realized until you’re years out like it took me. And when you’re in the hospital, in for a routine clinic visit or for labs, taking your meds and balancing every daily decision against how it will make your IBD feel, you’ll come to realize what you take on and all you accomplish every day just to survive and thrive, makes you something special. While you may feel dependent on others—and the support of caretakers and a support system can’t be understated, neither can the endless strength that lies within you.