When Campbell Dwyer was three years old, her health took a turn for the worse. She was diagnosed with Hirschsprung disease, a rare congenital disease that affects the colon and intestinal motility. She underwent three surgeries by the time she was four.
Her life began with two colostomies before she transitioned to a permanent ileostomy in her thirties. After her 10th surgery, she joined several online support groups geared for those with ostomies. To her surprise, she discovered there were many children who had ostomies.
After doing research, Campbell was shocked about the lack of literary support for children coping and coming to terms with ostomy life. She decided to change that by creating a book series called “My Silly Illy”.
“I want children to understand having an ostomy does not define them. It is simply a piece of them that contributes to their individuality. My hope is that this book will help teach inclusion and acceptance.”
Her thought-provoking, heartwarming, and humorous story aims to help children understand what is happening with their bodies and how to thrive with their new appendage.
The only constant in life is change
Throughout her lifetime of coping with Hirschsprung disease, overcoming numerous surgeries, and transitioning from a state of merely existing to living. Campbell says she welcomed each high and low as part of her transformation.
“Making the decision to write this book series has been my greatest personal success yet. I have confidence that my personal battles with an invisible disease and life with an ostomy will encourage and motivate those younger than me and promote strength to their families. I can finally see that nearly forty years ago, my future was being purposefully designed to make a difference in the world.”
Bringing My Silly Illy to life
Talented illustrator, Ana-Maria Cosma, took Campbell’s vision, thoughts, and scribbles, and brought them to life with the hope of creating a life-changing and eye-opening literary experience for many.
“My vision for this book is that the ostomy will be portrayed to each child as their personal superhero. The last page of the book has a faceless child, this is by design. The child can draw their face, or the loved one can cut out a picture and place it on the spot. There are also fun hairstyles that can be cut out. I want children to see themselves in each page of this book; to see themselves enjoying their favorite foods, traveling, and playing.”
Gearing up for a hospital tours
In the months ahead, Campbell plans to visit children’s hospitals around the United States, as well as bookstores. She’ll be hosting book readings, signings, and round table discussions with families and children coming to terms with ostomy life. Her goal is to champion pediatric ostomy patients and help their loved ones and parents understand what the child may not be able to communicate.
You can order “My Silly Illy” in the following places:
Being diagnosed with IBD as a pediatric patient looked different in the 1970’s. For 54-year-old Brett L., the start of his patient journey began when he was only nine. The year was 1976. He started experiencing fevers, bloody diarrhea, vomiting, and abdominal pain. As he puts it—the symptoms started a year-long quest to find an answer. A quest that involved frustratingly long waits at doctor offices, endless tests, and medical trials. He was ultimately diagnosed with acute ulcerative colitis at the age of 10. Now, in 2021, Brett has unique insight and perspective to share with our community.
Patient “Number 1”
As you can imagine, Brett spent many years on high dose steroid and sulfur pills. The side effects of the steroids (moon face, weight gain, bloating, mood swings, and ravenous hunger, etc.) added insult to injury. From 7th through 9th grade, Brett missed nearly 60 days of school each year due to severe flare ups and hospitalizations. By the time he was 13, Brett’s parents were desperate for a cure as his condition worsened. With no relief from traditional medicine, they sought out additional care from holistic doctors, nutritionists, even an angel healer at one point! Nothing helped to manage Brett’s IBD.
“In 1981, I was 14. I’d been battling debilitating and severe flare ups that made me so weak I had to crawl to the bathroom or walk doubled over in pain. Each hospitalization was taking its toll. Over the years, though I was growing, I had lost 30 pounds. It was at this point that my doctor proposed something that had never been performed on a pediatric IBD patient—a total colectomy and “pull through” operation that would leave me fully reconnected and waiting for the ileostomy closure…allowing me to eventually go the bathroom normally again after a recovery period of a year or so. It was risky surgery back then. But not having it was a risk too. I agreed, and we went ahead with the surgery.” said Brett.
Brett was deemed “patient number 1” for this pediatric procedure and his case study was published in medical journals. To this day he remembers waking up from surgery in the pediatric ICU at Westchester County Medical Center in Valhalla, NY. He recalls counting 18 tubes and lines connected to his body and thinking that he couldn’t believe he chose to do this to himself. The surgery lasted 14.5 hours and the incision ran from his pubic bone to his sternum—the entire length of his abdomen.
Living with an ileostomy as a teen
“I learned to manage the ileostomy with some upsetting and messy mishaps at the very beginning. And in class sometimes the stoma would make embarrassing sounds. I learned to feel it coming and cover it with my hand to quiet it. But without a colon, I was now a healthy 14-year-old. The doctors said that upon examining what was left of my colon, they estimated I had about two weeks left before a fatal perforation,” said Brett.
A year later his ileostomy was reversed, and he was able to go to the bathroom “normally”, again. While he’s grateful for this—it hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows. Brett says he initially had an abscess at the closure of the stoma. Ever since, he has gone to the bathroom more than normal people. In recent years Brett developed a challenging case of chronic pouchitis that at its worst caused pain and had him going 20-30 times a night.
The good news is that “after about 4 years of this, I finally seem to have treated and solved it myself, with psyllium husk powder at breakfast and lunch times, and 3 Lomotil pills with dinner. I’ve also reduced fluid intake during meals and become more careful about not overeating. I learned some of this in my online research about immediate post-op colectomy patients. The doctors had a hard time helping me with this, but I seem to have resolved it myself.”
From past to present
Today, Brett is a healthy 54-year-old man and his pouchitis has never been more under control. Through all the ups and downs with IBD, he’s lived a fulfilling life as a professional singer, and as an executive of multiple companies.
“In my career I’ve been an investigator, a head of marketing and sales, I’ve grown startup companies, and have traveled the world for business and pleasure. I’ve earned an advanced degree from an ivy league school, and I have an amazing 16-year-old daughter who is a gifted, performing singer-songwriter in her own right.”
Brett believes his ulcerative colitis has made him more appreciative of life and the little things.
“I have always been that person who lingers over sunsets, gazes at the moon, and stops and notices the teeny flowers poking through the cracks in the sidewalk, or street art, and the coincidental things one comes across as noteworthy or remarkable. I notice and really drink in the happy, good moments because I know what it’s like to not be able to be out and experience these things. I know I am fortunate to be here to tell my story.”
Here are some helpful nuggets of knowledge Brett would like both those with IBD and their caregivers to know:
Don’t let fear of IBD stop you from living your life and having fun, or asking that person out, or going out with friends, when you are feeling well. As soon as I was feeling well enough to get back out there after a flare up, I lived life to the fullest and played like every other kid. You deserve to be there just as much as every other kid, teen, or adult does. When you are feeling well, try to make the most of that wellness, and not let the fear of what might happen stop you from living.
You are not “less than”, because you have an illness. In fact, you may even have an added level of maturity because of your illness that others do not, because of your need to contend with it, and interact more with adults and medical professionals and present your situation to them in a coherent and meaningful way. Look for the silver linings in everything. Notice the small pleasures, they help you get through the down times.
To parents—your child is a survivor. It takes a lot to keep them down. They will have ups and downs with their IBD. But 2021 is the best time ever to have to live with this diagnosis. Current treatments and even surgeries have changed the game and the patient experience, for the better and the future is even more promising. IBD can be traumatic. Children and adults can benefit from seeing a therapist to help cope with the lifelong nature and complications of the disease.
The COVID-19 pandemic has normalized talking about chronic illness in the workplace and shed light on not only what it means to be immunocompromised and how it impacts one’s quality of life, but also the benefits and possibilities that working from home provides for everyone involved.
Prior to the pandemic, asking to work from home or setting up accommodations with your boss looked different. It could feel a bit taboo. Maybe you worried how the rest of your team would perceive you as possibly getting special treatment. Maybe you didn’t want to appear as if you couldn’t keep up or do what was expected of everyone else. But one of the positives to come out of this crazy time is that the way we work and how we work has shifted.
I’ve been a freelancer/blogger and stay at home mom since I became a mom in March 2017. That being said I worked full-time in the TV news industry, at a PR agency, and in corporate America at a natural gas utility the first 12 years I had Crohn’s disease. I am well-versed in how to navigate those difficult conversations with your boss, how to balance your health and well-being with your career, and what it means to thrive professionally while making sure your health doesn’t take a hit.
An opportunity for change
If the past 13-plus months have shown us anything, it’s how adaptable and flexible work can be. Businesses and organizations have real-life intel now that can help guide what the future of working looks like, and how employees can best be supported, engaged, and accommodated.
The chronic illness community can use this time as a springboard into the future and communicate their needs and hopes moving forward. According to the CDC, nearly 60% of adults in the U.S. live with at least one chronic illness. Even though that’s a huge percentage, many leaders still don’t know how to properly support employees who fall into this category and those of us who live with a disease such as IBD often question our own abilities and what we’re able to bring to the table compared to our healthy co-workers and counterparts. Working from home through the pandemic has evened out that playing field.
Having the flexibility to work from your couch or run to your bathroom in the comfort of your home versus in the middle of a big work meeting with your peers makes a huge difference. Knowing that you can schedule meetings and availability around blood draws, appointments with specialists, scopes, infusions, etc. offers great flexibility in managing your illness and getting the job done without feeling guilty for taking care of yourself.
How to better understand and support employees
From a chronic illness perspective, we push ourselves in all aspects of life, even when we’re running on empty because we constantly fear being viewed as less than. There are many ways business leaders can better support employees who are taking on a disease like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis.
As people with IBD we worry about how we’re perceived by others because of the stigma that surrounds chronic illness. There’s guilt. There’s fear of being considered lazy. There’s the worry about coworkers judging you and thinking you’re a complainer or weak, when in fact they may not be aware of your whole back story.
So how can we improve the support of our managers?
–Initiate communication: Ask your boss about setting up a 15-minute monthly one-on-one touch base to discuss how you are feeling and if you need additional support. Talk about what the next month looks like as far as doctor’s appointments, labs, tests, etc. I personally always felt better supported and understood by sharing my health struggles with my coworkers—whether it was my co-anchor and meteorologist or the communications team at the company I worked at. When I was hospitalized (which happened on multiple occasions) or needed surgery, I would email the entire team and give them a heads up about what was going on, so they heard it from the “horse’s mouth” and not through office hearsay or gossip. By articulating your patient experience you give others a chance to be empathetic.
–Make the invisible—visible: It can be easy for us to downplay our pain or put on a smile when we’re flaring to protect ourselves, even on Zoom calls! The unpredictability of IBD makes work-life a challenge because you can start the workday feeling energized and ready to take on the world and after lunch feel like you can’t even stand up straight and need to lie down. The constant uncertainty of when symptoms are going to strike can be debilitating in and of itself. By being open and transparent in these moments of struggle you help paint a clearer picture of what you’re experiencing for those who don’t live our reality. In corporate America, I used to sit in the boardroom and start a meeting by casually saying “I just want to let you know my Crohn’s is acting up. I’m in a lot of pain. It’s hard for me to sit up straight so I’m going to slouch a bit and I even had to undo my pants!” I approached those moments with humor, but moreso to take off my “mask of wellness” and be transparent that there was much more going on in my mind and body than just the presentation I was giving or listening to. I feel being honest like this made my co-workers helped us build a stronger relationship and rapport.
-Come up with a hybrid schedule: As the world starts to open and companies discuss what the future will look like as far as working from home or in the office, consider what it may look like to work a couple days a week doing each and finding balance. Working from home hasn’t been a detriment to productivity, if anything this time has proved how flexible we can all be in the face of adversity. By creating a space of support and understanding, everyone can be successful. Talk about the options available, your comfort level with returning to work in the office (especially if you’re immunocompromised or haven’t had a chance to be vaccinated), and what the expectations are moving forward.
–Improve inclusiveness: When a business or organization makes employees feel embraced, regardless of their health struggles, it speaks volumes. Even those who are completely healthy should see this as a valued characteristic of their working environment—whether in person or virtual. Nobody knows when their life could take a turn for the worse or when an unforeseen health issue could pop up. For many in the chronic illness community, we went from being healthy to waking up with a disease that will be a part of us, always. It’s on leadership and Human Resources to ensure those with chronic illness are provided with the support they need.
–Stop celebrating overwork: Touting the employee who works around the clock and answers emails at 2 a.m. sends the wrong message. Instead, find ways to commend employees for different reasons. There isn’t one set of parameters that makes someone a great employee. Having work-life balance and recognizing the importance of having time to decompress, put health first, and spend quality time with family, matters and says a great deal about leadership style. The number of hours worked doesn’t equate to the quality of work or one’s competence. The onus is often on the boss or leader to speak up and set these expectations. Being able to manage your team’s energy will keep morale in check and make employees feel appreciated and more invested in doing their best, because they have the energy to do so and aren’t ready to tap out at any given moment.
Remote work is more than a job perk
COVID has forced the conversation and illuminated the challenges those of us with chronic illness are up against when trying to balance our health, providing for ourselves and our families, and being an invaluable employee. Thanks to the pandemic, employers are now looking to re-evaluate what sick leave and disability policies look like, especially as they relate to working from home. Those of us with a chronic illness may finally feel like we’re on an equal playing field when it comes to job opportunities and not having to worry as much about our bodies cooperating so that we’re able to do it all.
She’s a physician in Ethiopia looking to pave the way for those with IBD. She understands the need because she was diagnosed with Crohn’s in August 2016 at age 22 while she was a fourth-year medical student. After suffering from debilitating symptoms for eight months, she finally received a diagnosis. Dr. Fasika Shimeles Teferra says in her home country and in developing countries, she had always been taught that inflammatory bowel disease was non-existent. She felt isolated and alone as she embarked on her journey with chronic illness. There were no resources. No support. She had no clue where to turn when it came to being understood and knowing how to navigate nutrition.
In her school of medicine, an IBD diagnosis was morbid. She was told if she continued to learn about her illness, she’d die from the stress.
“Despite my medical background, I expected death to be imminent. The breaking point which later turned out to be a turning point for me, was when I was suffering from ovarian cyst torsion, explained Dr. Teferra. “Even though I was in remission at the time, every OBGYN who saw me in the ER refused to operate on me. One doctor refused to operate on me because I’m a “complicated patient with IBD”. He wanted to wait to see if pain meds will help solve it.”
Luckily, one doctor decided to operate on her, but unfortunately, she lost her left fallopian tube and ovary in the process. At age 23, she lost half her chance of being able to conceive a child. Her Crohn’s relapsed a few weeks later and depression set in. (Note: Luckily, she is due with her first child in June!)
“I went to my doctor and told him I was quitting med school (I was 5th year at the time and just starting my medical internship). But what he said changed me forever and made me feel less alone. He told me he was treating multiple IBD cases and that my disease was much more common in Ethiopia than most thought. He also told me Crohn’s was manageable with medication.”
Holding onto new hope
With a renewed sense of hope, Dr. Teferra started advocating for herself and looking for local support groups to connect with others who lived with IBD. The problem—she couldn’t find any! She joined a Facebook group based in the United States and recognized the need for support in Ethiopia.
“I reached out to a couple of gastroenterologists here in Addis and told them I wanted to start a support group in Amharic focusing on sharing experiences, supporting one another. My hope was to help others who were struggling with coping with their diagnosis. I thought sharing my story would make a difference in someone’s life.”
Launching Crohn’s and Colitis Ethiopia to make a difference
After speaking with multiple doctors, Dr. Teferra decided to start an organization that would not only focus on support groups, but also advocacy work for policy makers. The last published data on IBD in Ethiopia dates back to 1990s! She recognized this lapse in research led to major gaps in treatment for IBD patients. This inspired her to launch Crohn’s and Colitis Organization Ethiopia in January 2020. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, it put everything on hold as the world stood at a standstill.
Even though the organization exists, Dr. Teferra is struggling to garner participation in support groups, because sadly the stigma of IBD leaves many in Ethiopia to suffer in silence and shame. She says fellow IBD patients prefer to communicate directly with her, so she has taken it upon herself to meet them and their families to better explain their condition and how to live a full life with it.
“I try and explain to the patient and their family how they can best take care of themselves and how family members can offer compassionate and empathetic support along the way,” said Dr. Teferra. “Many people discontinue their medication the moment they experience a side effect. I’m also passionate about discussing family planning and breastfeeding. Because of my medical background, I am able to give reliable information about IBD and I am able to use my story to guide the narrative.”
Dr. Teferra also has a registered dietitian who serves as a board member for Crohn’s and Colitis Organization Ethiopia. The nutritionist can provide guidance about how to enjoy Ethiopian cuisine and manage diet in the context of cultural foods.
But Dr. Teferra is only one person and can’t address the growing need for support and care. Even though local gastroenterologists have her contact information, and she tries to meet with as many people as possible, as you can imagine, it gets to be a lot.
Bringing IBD to Prime Time in Ethiopia
During an interview about COVID-19 on national television in Ethiopia, Dr. Teferra took it upon herself to also speak about IBD.
“Since it was Primetime, I was able to reach multiple people at once and I was able to send out the message that those with IBD are not alone. I plan to use such platforms to continue to share facts about IBD and that it does exist in Addis. In the meantime, I am working hard to find a researcher who can work on this with us. We cannot challenge policy makers without evidence, and we cannot change the minds of the medical community without research.”
Dr. Teferra says gastroenterologists in Ethiopia can testify that IBD cases are increasing daily. There is lack of medicine, lack of education, and lack of understanding. Many patients struggle to afford medication and choose to discontinue it because of lack of availability.
Overall, Dr. Teferra main mission with Crohn’s and Colitis Organization Ethiopia is to improve the quality of life and health literacy of people living with IBD in Ethiopia and provide the patient community with a better understanding of their condition by empowering them to take charge of their own health.
Connect with Dr. Fasika Shimeles Teferra on Twitter: @DrFasika.
Prior to receiving a chronic illness diagnosis, it’s incredibly challenging and nearly impossible to fathom ‘forever sickness’. In Tessa Miller’s book, “What Doesn’t Kill You: A Life with Chronic Illness–Lessons from a Body in Revolt”, she masterfully articulates the highs and lows of life with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). From navigating the diagnosis, flare ups, the healthcare system, relationships, and the mental health component, she’s created an invaluable resource that I wish every single person with chronic illness could be handed the moment they find out their life story has taken an unforeseen turn.
As someone who was diagnosed with Crohn’s in 2005, two months after college graduation, I wish my former self had these powerful words at my fingertips. The overwhelming nature of IBD can be nearly suffocating at times. As I read this page-turner of a book, I felt seen and understood. I found myself nodding my head, because I could relate to so much of her story and so much of her sage advice. I felt like a college student highlighting what felt like the whole page, because it was ALL so important.
Tessa and I are both journalists. We both have Crohn’s. We both randomly grew up in Illinois. I connected with her over social media after reading her New York Times article, “Five Things I Wish I had Known Before My Chronic Illness.” The article had an impact on me, so when I heard she landed a deal with a publisher, I anxiously awaited for this book to drop.
In the beginning of “What Doesn’t Kill You,” Tessa writes, “I became a professional patient, and a good one. I learned that bodies can be inexplicably resilient and curiously fragile. I would never get better, and that would change everything: the way I think about my body, my health, my relationships, my work, and my life. When things get rough, people like to say, “this too shall pass.” But what happens when “this” never goes away?”
Finding the Right Care Team
When you live with a disease like Crohn’s, it’s imperative you trust your gastroenterologist and care team and are confident in how they help you manage your illness. I always tell fellow patients to take a moment and think about who they will feel comfortable with at their bedside in a hospital room when they’re flaring or facing surgery. If it’s not your current doctor, it’s time to look elsewhere. Tessa breaks down the “qualifications” for getting a care team in place. From finding a doctor who explains why they’re doing what they’re doing and why to a doctor who looks at you as a human, not an opportunity.
“Good doctors see their loved ones in their patients; they make choices for their patients that they would make for their own family. Asking a doctor, “Why did you choose this line of medicine?” will reveal a lot about what drives them and how they view their patients.”
The Grieving Process of Chronic Illness
Receiving a chronic illness diagnosis forces us each to go through the grieving process. For many of us, we were naïve and felt invincible before our health wasn’t a given. We’re so used to feeling as though we’re in control of our destiny, that when we lose that control, we spiral, understandably. Tessa interviewed Paul Chafetz, PhD, a clinical psychologist based in Dallas. Dr. Chafetz is quoted in the book saying, “We go through life with an illusion of safety, guaranteed health, even immortality. Acquiring a chronic illness pierces that illusion, and this is a loss. Grieving this loss is an integral part of adjusting to the illness.”
Take a moment to stop and think how you coped those first few weeks and months after finding out you had a chronic illness. While acceptance takes time and comes in different stages, Tessa explains how flexibility and willingness to adapt to your new “normal” is even more important.
“Rather than searching for big, sweeping acceptance, then feeling like a failure when it doesn’t come, chronically ill folks can enact small, empowering steps, such as taking required medications, learning everything we can about how our diseases work, seeing doctors regularly and being prepared for appointments with a list of questions, advocating for our needs and wants, figuring out which foods makes us feel good, and going to therapy and/or connecting with a support group.”
In my own patient advocacy and experience living with Crohn’s I can attest to the fact that we all spend a lot of time wishing for our past and worry about what our futures will hold, rather than focusing on the right now. The majority of IBD patients are diagnosed prior to age 35. This leads most of us to experience the big milestones of adulthood (career, finding love, living on our own, family planning, etc.) with a disease in tow and wondering how that disease is going to complicate life or hold us back from accomplishing all we aspire to.
Bringing on the Biologics
Tessa calls herself an “infliximab veteran,” she spends a great deal of time talking with new patients and caretakers, mostly moms of young IBDers, about their fears. Most questions I receive through my blog and social media also revolve around biologics and the worries people have about side effects and whether the drug will fail them or be a success. I feel confident deeming myself an “adalimumab veteran”, as I’ve been giving myself Humira injections since 2008.
As patients we are faced with difficult decisions all the time and must look at the risk versus the benefit. Having health literacy and understanding your actual risk from a biologic is something that should be communicated with you from your physician. Tessa’s doctor explained to her that six in 10,000 people who take anti-TNF agents (Humira and Remicade) get lymphoma. But as patients, all we see on the internet and in the side effect notes are “lymphoma.” Force yourself to dig digger and remind yourself of your alternative—to not feel better.
The Truth Serum of Chronic Illness
One of the superpowers of chronic illness is that we get to see which family members and friends come to the forefront and which fade to the background. Not everyone is cut out to be a caregiver, but you’ll quickly see who has empathy and who genuinely cares. In my own personal experience, it’s helped me get out of relationships with guys who were no where to be seen while I lied in a hospital bed and allowed me to distance myself from friends who couldn’t find the time in their day to check in when they knew I was flaring.
Tessa says that chronic illness forced her to peel back the layers and the isolation wall she put up, too. Chronic illness has shown her that people do more than just hurt each other— “they nurture, they listen, they enrich one another’s lives.” Her IBD also empowered her to be brave enough to put an end to unhealthy relationships that weren’t benefiting her well-being, both with friends and love interests. Her Crohn’s has showed her that not every friendship is meant to support you in the same way.
This is a great piece of advice. As you live with a chronic illness, you’ll come to know which friends you can share your deep dark secrets and worries with, and which you give the high-level cliff notes version of your experience to. Your chronic illness will help you set those boundaries in a graceful way.
Her love story with her husband embodies what those of us with chronic illness deserve, a partner who sees us as more than our disease, but understands the severity and complexity at the same time.
Juggling a Career and Crohn’s
One of the biggest challenges of life with IBD is knowing how and when to disclose your health situation with your employer. You may wonder how the news will be received, if it will jeopardize your chance for promotion, if your coworkers will resent you…the list goes on and on. As someone who worked in the TV industry as a producer, news anchor and reporter for nearly a decade, and as a PR professional and corporate communications specialist, I’ve been lucky that all my bosses have been incredibly understanding of my struggles with Crohn’s, but never used them against me in any way. I’ve always waited until after I have received the job offer and then told my boss in a meeting the first week of work. This alleviated some of the stress on my shoulders and ensured my coworkers wouldn’t be blindsided when I had a flare that landed me in the hospital. By communicating openly, it also to set an expectation that I may not always feel up to par and that I may need more bathroom breaks or to work from home or come in late after doctor appointments.
Tessa so eloquently writes, “You want your boss to understand that while your disease affects your life, you’re still capable of doing your job. Deliver the necessary facts about your illness without bombarding your boss with information—keep it direct and simple. Be clear about how you manage the illness and that although you do your best to keep it under control, it can flare up. Tell your boss what you’ll do if and when that happens.”
Realizing the Power of Pain
One of my favorite analogies that Tessa shares in the book is that each of us carries an invisible bucket, some are heavier than others, and the weight of that said bucket is constantly in fluctuation. She says that as she started connecting with those in our community, she came to realize that her personal pain was no better or worse than anyone else’s. So often we weigh our struggles against those of others, and that’s not helpful to beneficial for anyone.
“Think about it: If a friend came to you in pain, would you tell them that other people have it worse and that their pain isn’t valid? If you did, you’d be a lousy friend—so why do you speak to yourself in such a way?”
Rather than thinking that ‘someone always has it worse’ ask for support when you need it. Don’t downplay your struggles out of guilt thinking you aren’t deserving of help. Give support when you can but don’t forget about the person you see looking back in the mirror, be loving, kind, and patient to them, too.
Leaving the Rest to Imagination
Some of my other favorite excerpts from the book are Tessa’s “Seven Secrets”. The secrets (both big and small) she keeps from loved ones and friends about her experience with IBD. The secrets are relatable. We don’t want to come off as a burden. We don’t want to scare those who mean something to us. We want to hold on tightly to the notion that our illness doesn’t define us, so we often don’t disclose the true reality of what encompasses our illness.
Another section I know you’ll love is “Thirty-Eight Experiences of Joy” where Tessa shares quotes from 38 different people with chronic illness and how they’ve discovered joy despite their illness. I’m honored to be featured in that section of the book.
She understands the power of community and how finding your tribe within your disease space and outside of it is an important aspect of disease management and life fulfillment.
“Connecting with other chronically ill people teaches you how to carry each other’s weight—when to lift when you have strength, and when to share the burden when you have no energy left,” writes Tessa. “I’ve found the chronic illness and disability community to be one of endless empathy and generosity.”
The Gratitude That Comes with Chronic Illness
I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the book and a perspective that I wholeheartedly share:
“At the beginning of my illness, I was so inwardly focused on what I’d lost that I couldn’t see the gifts illness had given me. Mom, a determined optimist, taught me to always look for the silver lining. Mine is this: Yeah, my body won’t allow for any bullshit—no jobs I hate, no relationships I’m not fulfilled by, no hours crying over wrinkles. Illness made me braver, kinder, and more empathetic, and that gives me way more radical power than the faux control I was clutching to for so long. In the most unexpected way, illness freed me. It compelled me to begin therapy, which kick-started the process of tending my wounds old and new. It made me focus on the present more than the anxiety of the future. And it made me be in my body in a way I never experienced before. Suddenly, I had to mindfully care for my body and brain as best I could and understand that beyond that, it’s out of my hands.”
Since the start of the pandemic, healthcare workers have carried the heaviest burden. Especially those who are immunocompromised while working in harm’s way. This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s you’ll hear from three healthcare workers with IBD who are immunocompromised and have received their first vaccine. It’s my hope that by hearing from these warriors firsthand that you’ll gain a sense of comfort, understanding, and perspective while also understanding the importance of debunking medical misinformation. Our IBD community is delicate and requires more expertise than simply listening to a family member or friend who “read something on the internet” or someone who has a cousin with Crohn’s (or now COVID).
Wearing several hats—IBD Mom and Relief Charge RN in COVID Unit
When Shermel Edwards-Maddox of Houston was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2007 at age 24, little did she know that she’d one day lead the charge in a medical unit in the thick of a pandemic, while having two kids and a husband at home, while being on a biologic.
“It has been both physically, mentally, and emotionally draining. I imagine that every healthcare worker has been afraid however being immunocompromised has added an extra layer of fear. The emotional and mental exhaustion comes from the constant worry of “what if today is the day I catch COVID”? Every time I step onto the nursing unit, I’m aware that I could contract the virus. It’s very reminiscent of IBD and the worry of whether a flare is starting.”
Like many other healthcare workers (and the general population for that matter!), she says the roll out of the vaccine provided her with a sense of relief, but also an understanding about the importance of educating the public about the importance of getting vaccinated. As a nurse, she has a solid understanding of how clinical trials work and knows that more than 70,000 people received the vaccine between the Pfizer and Moderna trials. She was especially excited to receive the vaccine after it was found to be 95% effective. Shermel feels blessed to receive “0.3ml of hope” in a syringe and says many in her shoes feel like they just received their “second wind” after months of being beyond exhausted.
“It was quite emotional. I shed several tears in the days leading up to the vaccine. Those tears were in amazement of how grateful I am to be getting a vaccine that could spare me from this horrible virus that takes the lives of so many. When it came time for getting the vaccine, I felt pure excitement!”
Shermel’s only side effect she experienced was a sore arm, which is expected with any type of vaccine.
The COVID vaccine allows Shermel to not only protect herself but her husband, children, patients, and the community. It makes her feel hopeful to know her daughter will get to see her kindergarten teacher’s face without a mask and that her son will be able to attend his school graduation, free of social distancing.
From an Ostomy Reversal in March to working as a clinical researcher
Caroline Perry also happens to live in Houston and after battling Crohn’s since the age of eight in 2000, she had an elective ostomy reversal surgery March 4th just as the pandemic was unfolding in the States. She takes Entyvio AND Stelara and says that even though she’s on two biologics, her physician had explained to her that both drugs have a relatively good safety profile. While she wasn’t overly nervous about contracting the virus more than the next person, she has been nervous about how her body would react to it.
As a clinical researcher, her boss, happens to be her gastroenterologist. Having her care team readily available and working alongside people she knows and trusts on both a personal and professional level has helped her cope through the pandemic immensely.
Prior to receiving the vaccine in December (2020), Caroline admits she had some initial concerns and brought them up to her doctor, which is what she recommends everyone does.
“Many people are getting all their information from the internet or by word of mouth and are neglecting to listen to our experts—some even mistrusting them. My doctor gave me lots of evidence on why she believes the vaccine is safe and debunked a lot of my fears, which I found out were fairly common questions or misconceptions regarding the vaccine. I got the information I needed to make an informed decision, and once I had all the information, I was no longer worried about getting the vaccine! I am much more concerned about getting COVID than any potential side effect of its vaccine.”
Caroline says she was so excited to receive the vaccine, not only for herself, but for all the healthcare workers that were in the room with her.
“Sitting in that chair, it hit me. I was really experiencing a significant piece of history and I will never forget the feeling of palpable relief in that room. As healthcare workers, we have heard nothing but bad news for so long, and the vaccine is a beacon and glimmer of hope, at the end of a very long tunnel.”
Due to the pandemic, Caroline and her fiancé canceled their wedding for the time being, but finally feel like they can breathe a sigh of relief. Her fiancé won’t be eligible to receive the vaccine until the last round is available, so until then, she says they will continue to practice COVID precautions and keep up to date with the latest data surrounding the vaccine.
After receiving the vaccine, Caroline still received her Entyvio that afternoon! Her only side effect, like Shermel, a sore arm. As of now, she’s working on COVID research in addition to her usual IBD research. Caroline says this past week was her first time working in the COVID ICU for a new clinical trial, and she felt a lot safer thanks to having the first vaccine.
Juggling Women’s Health while being a mom of 3
Janice Eisleben, a Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner in St. Louis, was diagnosed with Crohn’s in October 2017 while pregnant with her third child. She was initially on Humira, but started Stelara a year ago. Janice happens to work at the OB office I go to, so I know her personally and have experienced her amazing care through my own pregnancies. We connected immediately once we both discovered years ago that we were IBD moms on biologics.
She recalls how scary the onset of the pandemic was, between the limited information and the looming unknown. As a patient with IBD, on a biologic, she wasn’t sure what that ultimately meant for her well-being. When she found out the vaccine was going to start being available to healthcare workers, Janice says she was elated.
“I feel like the vaccine finally offers some level of comfort to healthcare workers who have literally been giving everything they have to take care of patients. And this is not limited to nurses and doctors! The hospital cannot run without the respiratory therapists, housekeepers, and maintenance staff—these people are truly the unsung heroes of this pandemic.”
Janice said she did not have concerns or worries about the vaccine because she had been following the clinical trials from the early stages. She says the energy she felt just standing in line to receive her vaccine was something she’ll always remember and that everyone there was beyond ready to take this next step.
“It was incredibly emotional. I honestly teared up when I received the email inviting me to schedule my appointment. I was so excited that the night before I had trouble sleeping—kind of like a kiddo who can’t sleep the night before Santa comes. This vaccine means so much for us. It means that maybe sooner than later I will feel more comfortable with my kids going back to school and participating in activities. It means that we have less worry about me bringing this virus home from work to our household, and less worry about me getting a severe case of this virus.”
She says she can completely understand why someone would be skeptical of the vaccine, but she encourages everyone to avoid the “Google trap” and to please contact your physicians/care providers to discuss it further. For anyone with IBD, Janice advises you to specifically contact your gastroenterologist. If there is anyone those of us with Crohn’s and ulcerative colitis should trust, it should be our GI!
Janice’s only side effect was also a sore arm, though she does anticipate more symptoms (low grade fever, aches, fatigue) after the second dose, because this was well documented in the trials.
Helpful Resources to Educate Yourself About IBD + COVID Vaccine
She’s an ICU nurse who’s been braving COVID since the start of the pandemic and she has quite the story to tell. Abigail Norville, of St. Louis, is not only on the frontlines as a healthcare worker, but she also has Crohn’s disease and is immunocompromised from her medication. In mid-November, Abigail tested positive for COVID. This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s, she shares her unique journey through the pandemic and what she wants others to know.
Abigail’s IBD diagnosis story
Diagnosed with Crohn’s at age 16 in 2013, she remembers falling asleep in class everyday and experiencing abdominal pain that would keep her up at night. Teachers started giving her detentions for sleeping in class. After a few detentions, she started excusing herself from class so she could go into the bathroom, set a 10-minute alarm on her phone, and lay her head against the stall wall so she could rest and not get in trouble. Along with that, she dropped 32 pounds in one month.
At the start of her patient journey, Abigail was treated with steroids such as prednisone and budesonide, without a maintenance therapy in place. Before starting biologics, she was also put on Apriso, Lialda, Asacol, and Pentasa. When these medications didn’t cut it, she started Remicade treatments.
“The infliximab infusions greatly improved the disease presence in my intestines, but I was unfortunately experiencing new chronic joint pain, extreme fatigue, and skin rashes. At the time I assumed these were side effects from treatments. I told myself to “pick my poison” and I could keep my intestines or experience these unpleasant symptoms, so I of course continued with the infliximab infusions,” said Abigail.
Unfortunately, after a few years, a rheumatologist diagnosed her with drug induced lupus (infliximab induced lupus), and she was immediately taken off Remicade.
She started Entyvio in early 2020 while working in a COVID ICU and had to hold off the infusions due to the nature of the loading doses. Fast forward to today (Dec. 2020), and she has now finished her loading doses, in conjunction with prednisone and sulfasalazine daily.
Since diagnosis, Abigail has endured three surgeries and countless scopes.
Working in the ICU during COVID while taking on Crohn’s
Abigail currently works in a medical/pulmonary ICU and treats patients with multiple life-threatening comorbidities. Unfortunately for her, this is her first job. She’s a brand-new ICU nurse. While she could have thrown all her years of education and desire to be a nurse out the window to avoid the pandemic, she feels being a nurse is more than a job, it’s an obligation. Her GI told her she was his first patient to request a note to “continue to work” rather than asking for a note to stay home.
“When the pandemic started, many of us thought this would last a few months and we could return to the previous way of life by the end of the year. I remember having a conference call on a Sunday night with my manager stating we were the official COVID unit. I didn’t realize the depth of this pandemic until every nurse and physician stood in a circle one day and agreed that there was no emergency in a pandemic, and we were to always protect ourselves with PPE. Everybody around me was scared but… what were we to do? This was our job. We have bills to pay,” said Abigail.
Abigail recalls how her anxiety regarding her own immunocompromised conditions worsened as she witnessed her patients struggle with COVID and learned of nurses moving into hotels and dorm rooms to protect their families.
“My physician advised me to find a new job, but this was my first nursing job, and I did not want to burn a bridge early in my career. When we intubated my first COVID patient for her to be placed on a ventilator, she made me agree to call her daughter and repeatedly told me she was scared. When this patient did not make it and we continued to see death from COVID, I was worrying myself sick over my own health. The nurses around me were also scared, were quarantining from their families, and I felt out of place saying I needed to work elsewhere when they were also risking their lives.”
Ultimately, Abigail’s GI said she could hold off on receiving her loading doses of Entyvio, but that she would need to start steroids, again. She worked in the COVID unit, taking high dose steroids. Despite this, she was losing weight from the physical labor of working the COVID floor and the worry she felt about how her Crohn’s would act up if she ate while at work.
“I was working and not eating to ensure I did not have to leave a COVID room abruptly to be sick in the bathroom, when most patients were extremely unstable. Time did not permit you to think of your own health when your patient was dying. There were times I found myself in a COVID room for hours and would come out of the room sweating through my scrubs, wanting to pass out, and reminding myself I really needed to eat some food. My Crohn’s symptoms were worsening and my inability to care for myself was impacting the severity of these symptoms. I told myself I had to find a new job that allowed me to start my Entyvio treatments, even if I did not want to. If I do not care for myself, I cannot care for my patients.”
Abigail ended up switching jobs in June and started working at a different St. Louis hospital. Unfortunately, dodging the bullet of treating COVID patients was short-lived in the ICU and she inevitably was back to square one. At this point, she made the decision to start her Entyvio loading doses. She personally felt that no matter what unit she was working on, she was at risk working as a nurse.
Testing positive for COVID
Abigail tested positive for COVID in November. She wasn’t too surprised. Her symptoms pointed right to it. She was scared her chronic conditions would impact how severe her case would be and says she was anxious throughout her quarantine. She landed in the ER once, but luckily was ok and made a full recovery.
“The pain and suffering are real, whether you experience it or not. Watching people die with no loved ones present is happening every day. It’s on us to realize our lives are not the center of the universe. Just because you are not experiencing the effects of the virus, doesn’t mean it is not serious. I don’t know how to explain for people they should care for other people.”
How IBD shaped her career path
Abigail says she’s unsure if she would have ever become a nurse if she did not have IBD.
“My time as a patient has allowed me to understand what it is like to be the patient in a hospital bed, giving me a deep sense of empathy. While I have never found myself in the condition most of my critically ill patients are in, I remind myself that it could be me or a loved one in this hospital bed every day.”
Abigail told herself after her Crohn’s diagnosis that she may have Crohn’s disease, but it does not have her.
“There have been moments where I felt the disease definitely owned me, but ultimately reminding myself that this disease does not define who I am creates a sense of motivation to become who I want despite my health obstacles.”
As of now, Abigail has not received the COVID vaccine as a frontline ICU nurse in St. Louis. She’s anxious to get her first dose as the pandemic battle rages on.
For many of us, when we’re initially diagnosed with IBD or when we flare, we experience weight fluctuations. The number on the scale may plummet during times when eating anything hurts or seems to make symptoms worse. The number on the scale may skyrocket when we’re on prednisone and not only retaining fluid, but also wanting to eat everything in sight.
Andrew Jagim, PhD, CSCS*D, CISSN was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis in 2014 after being infected with an intestinal parasite (Giardia). He managed to remain in remission for a few years until things went downhill quickly at the end of 2016. He dropped 50 pounds over the course of 3-4 months, was going to the bathroom 15-plus times a day, was running constant fevers, severely fatigued, anemic, and had little appetite. In the spring of 2017, after two weeks on TPN and several days in the hospital, he decided that a sub-total colectomy was his best option at the time. Since then, Andrew’s battle has been a rollercoaster of ups and downs, resulting in 12 colorectal surgeries.
Sports and fitness have always been a huge part of Andrew’s life—so much so, that he made a career out of it. He has a doctorate in exercise physiology, is a certified strength & conditioning specialist and a certified sports nutritionist, so he has an extensive background when it comes to understanding the important roles of exercise and nutrition for health and performance.
“Throughout my life, a large part of my identity has always been tied to my physical appearance. I’ve always been known as someone who is athletic, big, and strong with a high state of fitness. I struggled immensely during my flares and surgery recoveries when I couldn’t work out, when I looked sick or couldn’t stop losing weight. It was like I was losing a sense of who I was and who I identified with. When I looked it the mirror, it pained me to see my hard-earned muscle just “falling off” when I was too sick or weak to workout. However, I have always been determined to rebuild my body and regain what I lost.”
This week on Lights, Camera, Crohn’s—a look at the impact disease flares and surgeries can have on body composition, and how you can try and counteract the changes through diet and exercise.
A cornerstone of the disease itself is a high state of inflammation – most of which is centralized to the gut; however, this can also have systemic effects thereby resulting in widespread joint pain, fatigue and even a state of anabolic resistance within muscle tissue. Essentially, this makes it challenging to maintain or increase muscle mass during a period of high disease activity. This can be coupled with a reduction in appetite which can exacerbate body weight loss and muscle loss.
Surgeries can range from minimally invasive procedures to treat a fistula to much larger and complex operations such as removal of sections of the bowel and placement of a stoma for an ostomy. Depending on the magnitude of the surgery, patients often must modify diet and physical activity based on the recommendations of the surgeon.
These modifications will likely lead to decrements in body weight, muscle, strength, and endurance in the short-term; especially individuals who may have been highly active prior to the surgery. However, in patients who may be extremely ill at the time of surgery, the procedure may help them regain lost weight and strength as their body may finally be able to heal and recover from the inflammatory cascade brought on by IBD.
The Case Study Andrew Conducted
A year and a half after Andrew’s colectomy, he decided to schedule the second step for the J-pouch procedure. However, prior to, he decided to take advantage of this unique opportunity and conduct a case study on himself to document the changes in body composition and performance throughout the recovery process. He was curious how a surgery like that would impact someone with his fitness state as most of the literature focused on smaller or more sedentary individuals. Leading up to surgery, he had been able to resume his regular fitness routine and got his weight close to where it had been for most of his adult life.
“As seen in the figure below from my published case study, there were significant declines in body weight (-10.5%), lean body mass (-9.9%) and endurance (-40.3%) 4-weeks post-surgery. At 16 weeks postoperatively, most parameters were near their baseline levels (within 1–7%), with the exception of my peak endurance, which was still 20.4% below baseline. Thankfully, I was able to leverage my educational background and expertise in exercise physiology and nutrition to use targeted exercise and nutritional strategies to retrain my body and build my physique back up,” explained Andrew.
The balancing act of trial and error
As many IBD patients know, there are a lot of nuances, misconceptions, and unknowns regarding how diet impacts disease. For Andrew, it has been a lot trial and error to find foods that worked for him and helped him achieve his goals.
“Early in the recovery stage, just getting my appetite back and trying to eat more while not interfering with any post-operative dietary recommendations was always my goal. For me, this meant trying to eat about 2,500 – 2,750 calories and 150-170 grams of protein per day. In my opinion, these are the two most important dietary goals when it comes to regaining any weight (especially muscle mass) following surgery or during a flare. It will also help support the tissue and incision recovery following surgery”
Regarding exercise, strength training, is the most effective form of exercise to regain lean body mass following surgery. However, most colorectal surgeons (for good reasons) impose a lifting restriction of no more than ~10-15 lbs. for about 6 weeks following surgery to allow the incisions to heal and avoid the risk of hernia.
“For my larger surgeries, this was easy to abide by as I was in so much pain and was so fatigued that it was a struggle to just get dressed and ready for the day, so there was no temptation to get back in the weight room any time soon. But for the smaller surgeries, as I got closer to the 6-week mark, I was anxious to get back to my old routine. I took a very conservative approach and used a lot of alternative training techniques (i.e. blood flow restriction training, isometrics, resistance bands, etc.) to elicit an adequate training stimulus while not having to lift heavy weights and to avoid injury,” said Andrew.
Andrew’s main piece of advice about life with IBD? “Be prepared for a rollercoaster of changes to both your body composition and physical abilities throughout battles with IBD – especially during a flare or following surgery. Unfortunately this also will likely take a toll on your mental health as well, or at least it certainly did for me. However, just know that you can always get it back in time and more often than not, come back even stronger. Be patient and give your body rest when needed but otherwise keep grinding.”
Everyone has their own battles they are fighting
“I think my experience with IBD has taught me that everyone has their own battles they are fighting – even if they don’t show it. Additionally, it is also a reminder that not all disabilities are visible as a lot of people are probably unaware that I live with a permanent ostomy. I have chosen to keep a lot of my health struggles private and I think a lot of people will be surprised when they hear what I’ve endured over the past five years as I have still managed to have a successful career and not miss much work – despite all the surgeries and time spent feeling very ill.”
Andrew’s IBD journey also shifted his research focus a bit and challenged him to apply my knowledge of how to increase performance, strength and muscle mass in athletes towards a more clinical application.
“A lot of the strategies that work well with athletes can be modified and used in clinical settings as several of the benefits (i.e. increased muscle, strength, endurance, energy, etc.) may also help improve quality of life in patients will a chronic illness, those who are critically ill, or those recovering from surgery. It’s just a matter of making the appropriate modifications and fitting them to the current need,” said Andrew.
Ted Fleming of Calgarygave up alcohol more than a decade ago to keep his IBD symptoms and disease activity under control. He was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2005, at age 25. Ted says he not only missed the taste of beer, but discovering new beers. Even more than that, he found he missed the social connection that comes with sharing a drink with a colleague after a hard day’s work, cracking a beer with the guys after hockey, and joining in to celebrate special occasions.
A friend suggested he try non-alcoholic beer. Ted says the problem is most tasted awful and there was almost nothing on the market in terms of variety. It was at that point Ted decided to launch Partake Brewing. His hope—to bring all things that make craft beer great to non-alcoholic beer drinkers including taste, variety, authenticity, creativity, and passion. Now 42, Ted, is a shining example of someone whose career path evolved because of and was inspired by his IBD.
I was intrigued by his patient journey and how he got to where he is today. Here’s his Lights, Camera, Crohn’s interview:
NH:How has your patient journey with Crohn’s disease the last 15-plus years helped you create a successful business?
TF: “The discipline around my own personal health has helped me as a business owner to set priorities and largely keep to those priorities. There are many distractions and potential paths to go down as an early stage business so planning and having the discipline to stick to the plan over the long-haul are critically important.”
NH:How do you manage your IBD (medication/lifestyle wise)?
TF: “Regular exercise, medication (Humira), dietary changes (limited red meat, no uncooked veggies, no alcohol), get enough sleep, and be social.”
NH:What advice do you have for those who are worried about finding a career path they’re passionate about while juggling their IBD?
TF: “I am fortunate to have had some long periods of remission, but early on I struggled and that impacted my journey to find a career that was rewarding in ways important to me. Being willing to try new things is a good way to test interests, but with IBD, we don’t always feel up to it… so knowing when to say no and being ok with that is a necessary skill that takes practice.”
NH: How do you navigate the stress associated with running a business and managing your Crohn’s?
TF: “Managing stress has been an important part of my journey and I find that when I do start to have trouble with my Crohn’s, stress is usually one of the triggers. We each manage stress differently so finding what works best for you is important and integrating regular stress relief and stress avoidance into your daily routine can pay huge dividends. Besides avoiding alcohol, I have adopted better sleeping habits, exercise regularly, plan to socialize directly with people, and largely refrain from using social media.”
NH: What type of feedback have you received from customers? Any IBD folks reach out and thank you for creating this?
TF: “We are so lucky to have some of the best fans in the world, our consumers are incredibly passionate about our beer and our mission. We get emails regularly from consumers from all walks of life who are grateful to have the opportunity to enjoy a great beer no matter what their reason for partaking. The IBD community has really rallied around us and I am incredibly grateful and humbled by their outpouring of support. It was this feedback, particularly in the early stages of the business, that helped us push through the inevitable challenges of running a startup and to this day gives us a powerful purpose.”
NH: What sets your non-alcoholic beer apart from the rest?
TF: “Partake Brewing’s beer is crafted with international award-winning recipes, is incredibly delicious, and is only 10-30 calories per can. Our beer is also brewed with four simple ingredients but is packed full of flavor. When I started Partake Brewing, I wanted to not only brew a great beer but I also wanted to bring a variety of great beers to the non-alcoholic market so anyone can Partake on their own terms.”
NH:How/where can people get their hands on Partake?
TF: “You can find Partake Brewing on shelves across Canada and the USA, but you can also have it delivered straight to your door from DrinkPartake.com. In Canada, you can find us at major retailers such as Safeway/Sobeys, Loblaws, Atlantic Superstore, Great Canadian Superstore, and the LCBO as well as many others. In the US, we are sold at Total Wine & More and select Whole Foods.”